Friday, August 6, 2010

Opinions on the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding

In a recent JTA article Jacob Berkman collected comments from the anointed experts on intermarriage in response to the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

To what extent are their comments useful to those of us doing the work?
Do they reflect our experience?

Let's review.

Steven Cohen, Hebrew Union College sociologist
We should “celebrate the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society that this marriage represents," Steven Cohen told JTA via e-mail from Jerusalem. At the same time, he noted, the fact that so few children of interfaith unions, particularly those between Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, are raised solely as Jews raises the conundrum of our age: “How do we Jewishly engage and educate the intermarried, while at the same time maintaining our time-honored commitment to inmarriage?” Cohen asked. “In short, we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents."

Stats show that he is correct about Jewish fathers being less likely to raise their children Jewish. This signals me that we need to reexamine what we do for these families and step up to the challenge.

Cohen will no doubt be beaten up by the liberal end of outreach talking-heads for this opinion. But he raises two important issues for us to consider:
1. How do we engage the intermarried while simultaneously supporting inmarriage? I suggest that we think of these marriages as two of our own children – which indeed they represent. I love my children equally. They each need different things. We can multitask. Please share the programs you offer for different populations.
2. Can we celebrate this marriage but not this type of marriage? I can’t really lump all interfaith marriages together. I have to look at each individual couple. I can celebrate couples who are open, honest, thoughtful; who are discussing their choices and making decisions, being flexible and caring. I can’t support ANY marriage that involves avoidance, denial, and even lying – whether it is interfaith or not.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies“Jewish men and women are senators and congressmen, and are in key positions in the White House,” observed Leonard Saxe. “This is a golden age for Jews in America, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the daughter of a former president and the daughter of the secretary of state marries a Jewish man she has known much of her life.”

This is indeed the golden age for Jews in America. I pray that we keep our strength and use it to support and sustain less fortunate Jews around the world.

Paul Golin, the associate director of the Jewish Outreach Institute
“She has married in. Some will say he married out, but if he was marrying out, there wouldn’t have been anything Jewish. The fact that they went to the effort to have a chupah and have a rabbi and that he wore a tallis says a lot about their future direction. Otherwise, why bother?”

This is a one of those well intended statements that simply doesn’t fit with reality and I suspect comes from a kneejerk response to a painful experience of hearing the in-out debate.

“Why bother?” to have Jewish symbols but nothing more? For parents. For grandparents. Because it is expected. Because he is a Jew and that’s his idea of what a wedding looks like. Because Jewish symbols are fun, beautiful and meaningful. But not a single one of those reasons tells us what the future will hold. I have heard brides and grooms tell me all the above reasons. They have even said, “this is probably the last Jewish thing I’ll do, but I am a Jew.”

Whether a couple is inside or outside Judaism will be revealed when they raise their children. They may each stay within their own religious tradition, but where will they direct their children?

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Wernick said intermarriage is certainly “not ideal,” but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and “help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.”

I am guessing that the “not ideal” part means that not all interfaith marriages will chose a Jewish home and perpetuate the Jewish people. He is correct.

I don’t want to leave the Conservative movement with this brief and relatively useless quote. I have no idea what comments of Wernick’s were left on the editor’s floor, so to speak. However, the rabbi Berman should have interviewed was Rabbi Charles Simon who created the Keruv Initiative out of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. If you want to see feet on the ground getting things done – you need to call these guys!

Rabbi Shmuley Hecht is Orthodox and the rabbinical adviser at Yale University’s Eliezer Jewish Society
Intermarriage can work only if the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion and genuinely changes religions. Otherwise, he said, the marriage is doomed to fail because down the road any self-aware Jew, “however defined, will feel the call of their people and have the fullness of their being disrupted by intermarriage.”

I’m sure he believes this, but he is completely incorrect. I have seen interfaith couples where the Jew is Orthodox and they have happy marriages and successfully raise Jewish children. I’m not saying it is easy; I’m just saying it is possible.

Ed Case, the executive director of
Accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.

I think Ed is right in regard to American Christian community; seeing Chelsea marry a Jew will make Americans more accepting of Jews. But will the wedding make the Jewish community more accepting? I suspect that for those that seek greater acceptance of interfaith couples it will be seen as advantageous, but for those against intermarriage it will be a sign of danger.

I believe Paul Golin is correct on this:
Paul Golin said, noting that as an intermarried person himself, he is turned off by much of the debate over intermarriage as a problem, “The folks who are fearful that my kind of Judaism is going to destroy Judaism are still going to be fearful. The folks who are fully embracing of interfaith families are going to be embracing. I don’t see a whole lot of movement.”

I found the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s comments, to be among the most depressing:
“The price of our reaffirmation in American society is a high rate of intermarriage,” he said. “We can’t be embraced and not expect that our young people won’t be marrying with their young people. Unless we are prepared to withdraw into a ghetto, there is no solution.”
“I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism. I don’t know if they have had that conversation.”

Ouch! However, he does say the magic word: CONVERSATION. One of the Alliance experts has a great catch phrase: It’s the conversation, stupid. By that she means, we spend a lot of time on what we’ll do, what programs we’ll create, what we think synagogues, day schools, rabbis, etc. ought to do, but at the end of the day it is simply and most importantly about having a caring and honest conversation with the interfaith couple themselves.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Orthodox and president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
Said that when marriages break down it usually has little to do with religion. All religions should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work.

Although Rabbi Hirschfield is not the last quoted expert in this article I have saved him for last because he speaks the core truth.

Marriages rarely break down because of religion. Being from different religious/cultural traditions of any kind portends a greater likelihood of divorce. Despite our proclamations of loving diversity, the fact is that we humans are less flexible that we tell ourselves and increasing the differences between spouses increases the chance of divorce.

From here forward!
THANK YOU RABBI HIRSCHFIELD! We should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work! From your mouth to God’s ears and then to the rest of us!

When we focus our efforts on the well being of the couple, the couple can stop fearing us. They can see us as partners in their journey. We can speak the hard truths and they can listen and actually hear us. Frankly, any mature, well adjusted couple can decide what compromises they want to make, what values they hold close, what sacrifices they will need to make in order to protect their marriage. Once trust is established we can talk honestly about the challenges that may crop up and the couple can ask for our help and expertise in deciding what to do. It is sheer folly to think that we make those decisions for them.

I have had couples contact me to tell me that, upon reflection, they have decided their religions are too important to each of them and they broke up. What a blessing to realize this before a wedding. They usually write me after they have found a sweetheart from their own religion just to say thanks, I’m so happy you met with us. My life is turning out right for me.

As one of my local rabbis says, “We are each in a conversation with God and I don’t know what yours is about.” Our job is to help couples sort out their future together. Their job is to decide what that future looks like.

What about children? When I tell a couple that it is harder to raise a child between religions, a couple that trusts me can listen and consider. Just as parents must decide about dental care, immunization, and schools, they must decide about their child’s religious life.

Trust, honesty, openness, affection, we can’t go wrong when we build these bonds with our couples.