Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”
He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
Cross-posted. This was originally posted on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog.
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
Cross-posted from InterfaithFamily.com’s blog.
While I was away from the office earlier last week, the UJA-Federation of New York released a big, giant, whopping study of Downstate NY’s community. (Downstate being, of course, the opposite of Upstate NY. That is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.) More than 250 pages long, there’s a lot to think about – and I’m still thinking. But there are some highlights that readers of InterfaithFamily.com might especially want to know about. I’m going to do a
brief fisking, for ease of navigation.
From 1991 to 2002, the number of Jews in the eight-county New York area held steady, while from 2002 to 2011 it grew dramatically. The contrasting changes in the number of non-Jews in Jewish households — consisting mostly of spouses and children in intermarried homes — are even more striking. In the earlier period (1991–2002), the number of non-Jewish people in Jewish households almost doubled; since 2002, though, it has declined slightly, falling to 231,000. With respect to the slightly declining numbers of non-Jews in Jewish households, the Jewish population in the New York area sharply contrasts with most Jewish communities in the United States and, indeed, the entire Jewish world outside of Israel. In every other large Jewish diaspora community, rising intermarriage has brought increasing numbers of non-Jews — spouses, partners, and children — into Jewish households.
Are outreach initiatives working in NY while falling short in other communities? Are Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues and JCCs, more welcoming and inclusive of partners and other family members who aren’t Jewish in NY than elsewhere? Or is this solely a statistical game, with the number of non-Jews in Jewish households smaller in NY than elsewhere due to the large number of Orthodox (who have lower rates of including non-Jews in their Jewish households)? Indeed, the study attributes it in part to the high birthrate of Orthodox families, but also to the “dramatic increase in the number of people who consider themselves ‘partially Jewish,’ many the children of intermarriage.”
Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as “none.” This configuration is particularly common among the intermarried, children of the intermarried, and less engaged Jews, as well as Russian-speaking Jews. However, Jewish identity without religion is by no means isolated to these Jews; it is also expressed by those influenced by certain Zionist and Yiddishist movements in the United States and Europe. Still others lay claim to Jewish identity even though they maintain religious identities tied to something other than Judaism.
After reading the first two sentences here, I started to wonder about those Jews who have identified as cultural Jews for generations, but was reassured that intermarriage wasn’t being (solely) blamed as I continued reading the last two sentences.
Growing up in Canada, our Jewish population studies are slightly different. According to the Canadian census, one is considered Jewish if one identifies as Jewish by ethnicity, by religion, or both. Additionally, one is counted as Jewish if identifying as Jewish by ethnicity and with a religion that does not require conversion (such as Buddhism, but not, say, Catholicism). Using definitions such as these, perhaps there wouldn’t be a negative connotation to being Jewish but listing religion as “none.”
Read more »
By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.
|Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.|
It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.
Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.
She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.
|Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.|
When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.
“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”
Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”
Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.
Cross-posted form the InterfaithFamily.com Blog.
If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to excerpt it here:
Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.
The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.
But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.
She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)
With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”
But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”
And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event], I highly recommend it.
*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.