Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.
Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.
Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:
Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.
The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.
Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.
Jewish population data is periodically in the news, and discussions of it always seem to generate more heat than light. The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 and more recently, the Pew Research Center Portrait of Jewish Americans set off a great deal of hand-wringing about the future of Judaism in America, because to some analysts they seemed to suggest that the intermarriage rate is high and climbing, and that the sky is falling in general.
Rabbis care about this stuff because our job (we see it as more than a job, it is our sacred task) is to see to it that Judaism is passed, intact, to the next generation and the generations that will come after.Certainly we don’t all agree on what “intact” means, but we care very deeply about the future.
Today I had the pleasure of sitting in a room with many of my favorite colleagues while Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles offered us some insights on Pew and NJPS. He is a demographer and sociologist, which means that he understands how the surveys were done, the limitations of the data and methodology, and the implications of the studies. Better yet, while he worked on NJPS and consulted on the Pew Study, he is neither fundraising nor selling anything. One reason I mistrust the “analyses” I read in much of the Jewish press is that often the analysts are also dependent on a certain level of anxiety to keep the grant money and donations flowing to their organizations.
If you are interested in reading some of what he had to say, I live-tweeted the presentation. Go to Twitter and search for hashtag #IntermarriageData to find it. [Any errors in the tweets are solely my responsibility.]
I learned some interesting things.
First of all, I learned that NJPS and Pew count “Jewish marriages” in the present at the time of the survey. That means that marriages that began in 1950 are lumped in with marriages that began in 2012. The studies do not account for marriages that have since ended in divorce or death. They do not distinguish between marriages between people of exclusively Jewish ancestry and marriages between people with non-Jewish ancestors. The bottom line is that both NJPS and Pew actually minimize the increase in the rate of intermarriage. It’s more complicated than that, though: using Dr. Phillips’ data, it seems that among people in Jewish families with no history of intermarriage there is no increase in the intermarriage rate. Among people in Jewish families with a history of intermarriage, the rate of intermarriage is increasing quite quickly.
Dr. Phillips also pointed out that while one can see that as bad news, actually there has been an important change that skews things somewhat. In the past, Jews who married “out” often ceased identifying as Jews at all. Nowadays, intermarried Jews usually continue identifying as Jewish.
He identified four types of Jewish interfaith couples:
Jewish (21% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish but not strongly affiliated elsewhere. 44% of them raise children as Jews.
Dual (45% of IF couples)- One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish and strongly engaged with their faith tradition. 16% raise children as Jews.
Secular (15% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish secular, the other Christian (or other) secular, neither engaged with faith tradition. 2% raise children as Jews.
Christian (19% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish but unengaged, the other spouse is Christian and engaged with Christianity. 5% raise children as Jews.
He concluded by pointing out that neither NJPS nor Pew researchers spoke with the non-Jewish partners in these couples.
At that point, Dawn Kepler of Building Jewish Bridges continued the presentation. She and Dr. Phillips have been doing a study interviewing adult children of intermarriage, and are ready to present some preliminary information from their study. My notes from that part of the presentation are scrambled, so I’m not going to try to present that material here. It’s very exciting stuff, and if you are a professional interested in hearing about it, get in touch with Ms. Kepler or with Dr. Phillips: they rock.
What does all this mean to me? My professional interest has long been the Jew at the margin of the community. My personal experience has been that with a little support and education, they don’t have to stay at the margin and indeed, some choose to engage with Jewish community and/or synagogue life.
Dr. Phillips offers a framework for thinking about the various needs of IF families. It helps me, as a Jewish professional, to listen more effectively to individuals and couples I serve. He said today that it is a fact that the majority of Jewish kids growing up now and in the future will be of mixed ancestry. Right now a lot of the Jewish establishment still speaks of interfaith families as if they are on the periphery. If Judaism is to thrive, interfaith families won’t be on the periphery: they’ll be a big part of Judaism going forward.
For me, as a professional, one take-away is that I need to quit thinking of Outreach work as “on the margins” – it isn’t. What we have called “Outreach” is right at the heart of the future of Judaism.
You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.
When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.” In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.
Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.
As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs. If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.
There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.
The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.
Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”
I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!) I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it. I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.
I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”
My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.
I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.
I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.
When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.
Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are. But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”
And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?
How would the world be different if we treated every human being that way?