Federation’s first ‘Engaging Interfaith Families Forum’ reinforces the truism that women drive a family’s Jewish life.
In my household, I’m the Jewish Life Coordinator: I decide which Jewish holidays we’re going to celebrate as a family, whether to keep our daughters in the temple religious school or try an alternative program — and I handle all the logistics, like getting the girls to Hebrew school, filling out the registration forms, paying the bills and supervising Hebrew-reading practice.
Other than kvetching about the cost of temple dues and Jewish summer camp, my husband Joe generally doesn’t get in my way, so long as the demands placed on him are minimal: attending a handful of worship services and temple events, picking up wine for Friday-night dinner and helping to host the occasional Shabbat or holiday meal.
Readers familiar with “In the Mix,” the column and blog I wrote for this newspaper for many years, will not be surprised to hear of this division of labor, given that Joe is, after all, not even Jewish.
The thing is, I don’t think our lives would be all that different if I were the lapsed Catholic and he the Jew: assuming we’d agreed to raise the kids Jewish (which many non-Orthodox American Jewish men define as “not raising the kids in a religion other than Judaism”), I’d still, by virtue of my gender, most likely be the family’s Jew-In-Chief.
I’ve long noticed this dynamic in many intermarried (as well as in-married) heterosexual families. While there are, of course, exceptions, in general it seems to be the woman who drives the family’s Jewish life. I was reminded of this while at the recent “Engaging Interfaith Families Forum,” the first such gathering sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York.
The daylong forum, held last month at the federation’s headquarters, attracted 200 participants, not all of them your usual welcoming-the-intermarried suspects — a noticeable number came in yarmulkes, hats and other garments identifying them as Orthodox or traditional.
The busy day addressed a wide range of issues, including the nuances of language (Is it off-putting to refer to gentiles as “non-Jews?” Is “outreach” a patronizing term?); demographic and historical trends; whether rabbis who don’t officiate at intermarriages can still be welcoming; the needs of extended family members, particularly parents whose offspring intermarry; and the relative merits of offering interfaith-specific programming versus explicitly welcoming interfaith families into general programs.
Erika Seamon, an American studies professor at Georgetown University and author of the book “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity” (Palgrave Macmillan), pointed out how changes outside the Jewish community have influenced the growing acceptance of intermarriage.
American Christians of all stripes have become more open not only to Jews, but to people of other faiths, she said, noting that fewer Christians see their faith as “the only path to eternal salvation.”
In addition, she noted, the number of Americans identifying with no religion at all has increased 4 percent in just the past five years, and there is a lot of movement between religions: “half of Americans don’t belong to the religion in which they were raised.”
Once taboo for all Americans, not just Jews, intermarriage is increasingly celebrated, she noted, pointing to the large numbers of celebrity intermarriages.
One absence at the conference, at least from all the sessions I attended (there were several concurrent “breakout” sessions, including a clergy-only one): the old questions of “outreach or in-reach?” “Does welcoming interfaith families encourage intermarriage?” and “What is the best way to prevent intermarriage?”
Instead, the starting assumption was not “Should we engage interfaith families?” but “How should we engage those interfaith families who are potentially interested in Jewish life?”
Overwhelmingly, speakers and participants emphasized the importance of fostering personal relationships with intermarried Jews and their families.
Communicating via Skype from San Francisco, Beth Cousens, a Jewish educational consultant, emphasized that in engaging the intermarried, “you need to start not with the institution, but with the person’s needs.”
“The key is to lower boundaries and connect to content,” she added, describing a series of classes several synagogues have offered in people’s living rooms, in which the curriculum was structured around participants’ questions and interests.
Of all the issues that came up at this conference, however, for me gender was the most striking.
Women made up a clear majority of the speakers and facilitators, which is noteworthy considering that your typical Jewish conference/program features far more XY chromosomes than XX ones.
On a panel at which members of interfaith families shared their experiences, only one speaker was male — and he, a non-practicing Christian whose Jewish wife suggested he volunteer on UJA-Federation’s Autism Task Force (which he now chairs), said that intermarriage has defined his family’s identity far less than the experience of parenting an autistic child.
The other panelists were a Columbia student who is the daughter of an Israeli-American mom and Southern Baptist dad, and three Christian-born women who are married to Jewish men: one converted to Judaism after several years of marriage, while the other two, though unconverted, are not practicing any religion but Judaism.
One of them, Denise Nadboy, joked that she was raised with “commercial religion.”
“We had a Christmas tree and a big dinner on holidays, but we never went to church,” she explained, adding that as a child she yearned for something, tagging along with friends when they visited church and synagogue.
Now active at the Sid Jacobson JCC on Long Island, where her children attend nursery school and she volunteers in the day camp, Nadboy said, “When I married, I felt the need to embrace something I never had.”
Her Jewish husband has cooperated, but hardly been the driving force in the family’s Jewish involvement.
“I encourage my husband to be more Jewish, I spark him in a sense,” she explained.
Amy Lipin, in contrast, grew up very Catholic, attending 12 years of Catholic school before enrolling at Boston College.
Lipin turned to Judaism not because her husband was religious or out of any dissatisfaction with her upbringing, but because her husband “wanted to make sure we did not raise the children Catholic.”
“I chose to raise the children Jewish as opposed to raising them nothing,” she said, adding that after becoming involved at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, on the Upper West Side, she ultimately converted.
In years of writing about intermarriage, I've heard variations on that refrain repeatedly from women who, though not born Jewish, end up taking the lead in their family's Jewish life. Even movie star Drew Barrymore -- a gentile married to a Jew -- recently announced she'll be raising her newborn Jewish and is considering converting.
Barbara McGlamery, a onetime Southern Baptist who became alienated from the church after her brother came out as gay, was the one panelist at the forum who broke the gender pattern a little. While she is supportive of the family’s Jewish involvement — the children attend Hannah Senesh Community Day School, and the family belongs to Congregation Ahavas Israel, a liberal Orthodox shul in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — her Conservative-raised husband, more religious now than when they first got together, has been the one to push Judaism, she said.
As Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman noted in the following (and all-female, save for the moderator) panel, “The Evolving American Religious Landscape and Intermarriage: An Expert Roundtable,” members of “interfaith families are individuals, not a homogenous group, and there’s a lot of diversity.”
Within that diversity, however, Fishman pointed to “the importance of gender patterns,” particularly the “ambivalence of Jewish men” and their “mistrust of organized religion.”
“Religion and spirituality are seen as the woman’s job,” she said, adding, “Intermarried men are less forceful in advocating for Judaism than are intermarried women.”
The forum was the product of the Commission on the Jewish People’s Engaging Interfaith Families Committee, which grew out of an ad-hoc “Welcoming Interfaith Families” task force.
David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People, said the committee had decided to host the conference to promote “serious, high-level discussion” and “make very clear to the public the commitment of UJA-Federation to addressing, responding and working with the community around this issue.”
The Engaging Interfaith Families committee, which is currently fielding grant proposals ($10,000 and under) for outreach/engagement projects, has contracted with the Jewish Outreach Institute to train Jewish communal leaders interested in working more effectively with interfaith families, and is partnering with both Grapevine, a new app that helps individuals find appropriate Jewish institutions and events, and Kveller, a parenting website, to serve more interfaith families.
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