Page 2 November-December 2010
The last National Jewish Population Survey presentedfive classes of Jewish identity, the last of which is the "Half-Jewish Jew." Given that approximately half of Jews who marry,
marry non Jews, it’s a category whose existence needs to be
reckoned with.This is so especially because the numberof children under age eleven born of interfaith par-ents exceeds the number of children born of twoJewish parents. Given that demographic trend, the
―half Jewish Jew‖ is destined to be a fixture.
If you have any doubts, the next time youare in the greeting card shop, check the many op-tions for two faith families, e.g. the Christmas/Hanukkah cards.Another is the amount of humor reflecting the ambiguities and ambivalence often felt by chil-dren of interfaith couples. Like the comments of half-Jewish/half-Irish Catholic Bill Maher who joked, "I used togo into confession and I would bring a lawyer with me." In theconfessional I would begin by saying: 'Bless me father for Ihave sinned;' and then add, 'I think you know Mr. Cohen overhere.'" Or the comment that "Jews and Catholics always makethe holidays come at the same time-Christmas and Hanukkah,Passover and Easter, and Yom Kippur and the World Series."
But, in fact, it’s really not a laughing matter. While
some find acceptance in both faiths, others are rejected by
one or the other. Sometimes, they conclude they are ―neither.‖
On occasion, they seek out affinity groups. One such group is
called ―Parves: Adult Children of Interfaith Marriages,‖ the Yid-
dish term Parve referring to food that is neither milk nor meat,and as such, without Kosher status.The existence of such a group reveals the alienationsome feel. Those who feel rejected might otherwise have ac-tively identified as Jewish. Consider the experience of formerDefense Secretary and Senator William Cohen, the son of aJewish baker and a non-Jewish homemaker. Young William
went to Hebrew school where he was the ―class whiz.‖ At the
age of twelve the local rabbi told William that since his motherwas a Christian, he would not be allowed to celebrate becom-ing bar mitzvah, unless he was willing to undergo conversion.Cohen was so hurt, that he removed the mezuzah hehad worn around his neck for years, flung it into a river, andannounced that he no longer considered himself a Jew, a vowhe has kept. When Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of theUnion of American Hebrew Congregations in the early eighties,
proposed the principle of ―patra liniality‖, that the children of
Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers raised as Jews be con-sidered Jewish, he received a postcard from then SenatorCohen: "If you had been around 30 years ago, I might still be aJew."How do we avoid such outcomes? The reform move-
ment’s stance on patraliniality is an important step but unless
it is accompanied by an effort to reach out to those who
stand at our community’s periphery, it won’t mean much.
Bemoaning the rate of interfaith marriage is pointless. Gen-tly suggesting conversion is a better approach, but not al-ways desired or appropriate. Instead, we should seek to em-brace such families, welcome them to the com-munity, and give them the tools and the experi-ences through which they can fashion a mean-ingful Jewish family life. Which, of course, is our
congregation’s mission for all its members.
For interfaith families, or families wherethe one partner has chosen Judaism later in life,we endeavor to be as inclusive as possible. Inpractice, this means a dual approach: on onehand treating them like any other family in thecongregation, and on the other, offering themtools and support when facing issues unique totheir situation. It means welcoming both sides of the familyat life cycle events, and including relatives to the extent theyfeel comfortable.The issue of interfaith families is nothing new. Evenin biblical times, Jews met and fell in love with non-Jews.Take Moses, for example, who married Tzipporah, thedaughter of a Midianite priest. Even then, the non-Jews whodwelled among us
referred to biblically as
, orresident aliens
were the support and help that made Jew-ish existence possible.Have things really changed? Consider: How often isthe non-Jewish partner the one who maintains the rhythmsof the Jewish homes? Whether lighting candles for Shabbator a holiday, wrapping Chanukah packages, preparing
for a seder, planning the details of a baby naming orbat mitzvah or driving in the carpool
it is often the non-
Jewish partner in the proverbial driver’s seat.
That so many choose to contribute to Jewish conti-nuity is astounding and a blessing we ought not take forgranted. Even more, the
in our midst some-times do so at great personal sacrifice. It is clear that the
in our congregation and Reform congregationseverywhere have benefited immeasurably by their presenceand participation. Every Jewish family, every Jewish child, isprecious. To those
who have made this possi-
ble, we owe the highest debt of gratitude. Let’s not take thisblessing for granted. Let’s make sure the
in ourmidst feel as welcome as they should.As we think through how to best involve and includesuch families, we invite your suggestions and help. Feel freeto contact me, Cantor Robins or Outreach Committee chair,Rob Golub.Rabbi David B. Cohen
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