The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
This “Focus” symposium, “Outreach: The Next Generation,” examines aspects of interfaith marriage and child-raising through the experiences of six individuals: Lucas McMahon and his non-Jewish father, Tim; Rachel Flynn and her non-Jewish father, John, who later became a Jew; Joelle Berman and her non-Jewish mother, Beverly. The “Focus” also includes seminal statements by two presidents of the Union for Reform Judaism who have played key roles in the thirty-year history of the Outreach revolution.
This Guide provides summaries and discussion topics for each personal reflection and concludes with two “Big Ideas” to consider.
About fifty years ago, increasing numbers of Jews began to marry non-Jews. These couples were, by and large, ignored by synagogues; and many of their children were raised in either no religion or the religion of the (usually) Christian mother. In 1978, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) then-President, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, responded to what was termed “the continuity crisis” by urging Reform synagogues to “do everything possible to draw the non-Jewish spouse of mixed marriage into Jewish life….perhaps [then] they themselves will initiate the process of conversion. At the very least, we will dramatically increase the probability that the children of such marriages will be reared as Jews….We must remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts. ” Extending the platform in 2005, URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie used the words “heroes of Jewish life” to describe those non-Jewish spouses who are involved in synagogue activities, offer active support to the Jewish involvements of spouses, learns about Jewish customs, attends synagogue worship from time to time, and commit to raising children as Jewish.”
When Lucas was born, his Jewish mother and Catholic father were prepared to ignore the question of “what religion shall we raise the children?” “It seemed easier to avoid the question altogether,” 17-year-old Lucas now relates, “until my mother’s grandfather advised: ‘You cannot raise your child without religion in his life. You must give him an identity to cherish. You must make him part of a community that he will feel connected to.” Deciding on Judaism, the couple sought out a congregation, and after many cool receptions, they found a Reform synagogue in Marblehead, Massachusetts that welcomed them warmly. Lucas and his brother have both celebrated Jewish life-cycle events at the congregation; Lucas’ mother became a bat mitzvah before he did because she didn’t want him to feel alone as he prepared for his bar mitzvah; and his Catholic family was a proud witness to these joyful occasions.
Here, Tim, Lucas’ non-Jewish father, shares his perspective on raising Lucas as a Jew. While he ruled out conversion for himself, he and his wife Mindy decided to raise Lucas and his brother in one religion and selected Judaism because they realized that “I would be more comfortable having my children be Jewish than Mindy would be having hers be Catholic.” They taught their children their belief “that a person should grow up with a real commitment to a single faith. We needed to pick one for them, and we chose Judaism. They respected this honest explanation.” He and Mindy’s biggest challenge, he says, was “getting past decisions based on not hurting or trying to please family…. Children suffer in families that avoid commitment.” Today he attends both church and synagogue and says, “I would challenge anybody who says that [my children] are not Jewish in every way.”
Rachel was four when she acquired a new father, an ex-Jesuit who had abandoned most of his Catholic practices. Twenty years later, he converted to Judaism. Her mother, a practicing Jew, assured Judaism’s hold on Rachel; though in her father’s search for a new spiritual and theological direction, he became so enamored of Jewish teachings, he deepened Rachel’s knowledge of Judaism as well.
Now 25, Rachel also reflects on what being Jewish means to her today. She goes to synagogue services on special occasions, and she dates mostly Jewish men. She explains to non-Jewish suitors that “the most fundamental things about who I am come from the experiences I had growing up in the Jewish community….I can’t possibly make a life with someone to whom these things are foreign. But I often wonder how much of my ‘policy’ is just what I think I should be doing, and I am haunted by the question: What if my mom had dated only Jewish men?” She wonders if what’s more important is what her dad taught her: “Whether or not someone can understand and appreciate the importance of Judaism in my life.”
Rachel’s father John learned from his study of the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich that both belief and doubt undergird faith, which “is to the life of the soul as breathing is to the life of the body….As we learn more, we may come to believe some things we used to doubt and doubt some things we used to believe. Otherwise we’re not really experiencing the world.” John came to believe that “believing is like inhaling—taking sustenance into ourselves. Doubting is like exhaling—letting go of the material that’s no longer useful…The person whose faith is alive ‘breathes’—absorbing and expelling, believing and doubting. “Years later he met Barbara, a Jewish woman; they married and joined a Reform congregation. “Judaism,” he says, “at least the Reform Judaism I came to know, allowed me to ‘breathe’ spiritually.” Moreover, Judaism “requires spiritual breathing—a life of faith that includes belief sometimes, doubts sometimes, and learning always.”
Joelle’s comfortable upbringing as a Jew of an interfaith marriage with a Sicilian, Catholic mother and a Jewish father was challenged in later years by Jews who questioned her Jewish authenticity, giving her the message that “patrilineal children like me needed to suck it up and convert....” Her Jewish experiences at home, in temple and at a Reform summer camp enabled her to realize, years later, that “I know exactly who I am: An American Jew of Sicilian heritage,” and buttressed her against would-be detractors. She advises the North American Jewish community to 1) “accept the reality of interfaith families”; 2) “welcome interfaith families”; and 3) “count in adult children of intermarriage. Give us a stake in the incredibly rich and resilient tradition that is also our Jewish future.”
This is Joelle’s mother’s story. At first, she “felt strongly that if [Jay and I] were ever blessed with children I would want to raise them in a religious way, though not necessarily in an organized religion.” She came to see, though, that “one of the traits I so admired in [Jay] was his complete, unwavering belief in his religion—a comfort level with his faith I wished for myself.” She never considered converting to Judaism: “I am very comfortable with who I am and do not feel the need to redefine myself.” But for her children: after reading, questioning, and seeking the professional counsel of a rabbi, she “fully embraced…the idea of raising my children as Jews.” Family and friends were very supportive of the choice, “and in retrospect,” she says, “it seems effortless, what with strong familial support and Jay’s and my strong commitment to each other. …We have reveled in our differences with both sides of the family….I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”
“Big Ideas” to Consider
Walter Jacob, Ed. (1). American Reform Responsa. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis. 1983.
Walter Jacob, Ed. (2). Contemporary American Reform Responsa. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis. 1987.
Bernard Bamberger. Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. New York: Ktav. 1968.
Note: Biblical translations in the Guide are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1999.