Fantasy and the Jewish Future

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat shopping till we drop. The reality, again, is messier: sure, there are Reform Jews who do those things, but there are also Reform Jews who keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and study Gemara regularly. There are also Reform Jews who interpret kashrut differently, and who have rules for Shabbat but not the traditional rules. There are Reform Jews who care deeply about Israel and about the Jewish future and who work to preserve both.

In other words, it is dangerous to gauge any Jew’s level of observance or love of Am Yisrael merely by asking, “Are you Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?” It is destructive and divisive to indulge in fantasy about our fellow Jews. Such fantasies get in the way of having genuine relationships with them.

So what, then, is the real difference between Orthodox and Reform? The difference has to do with our respective understandings of halakhah, “the way,” also known as “Jewish Law.” For Orthodoxy, halakhah is given by God and is immutable. For Reform, halakhah is the product of human beings, with inspiration by God, and human beings can reinterpret it if we choose, after study and consideration.

In practice, the vast majority of Jews do things the way their parents did them, whatever their affiliation. If their parents went to synagogue, they go to synagogue. If their parents didn’t, they probably won’t. The same goes for home observance.

None of this is set in stone. Those who want, can learn. Those who are willing can do things differently than their parents. Indeed, I know many intermarried Reform Jews who keep observant homes and raise Jewish children who have every expectation of raising Jewish children themselves someday. I know many converts to Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) who are pillars of their congregations. I know Jews who did not get a Jewish education, who knew nothing when they knocked on the door of the community, who now are active, participating members. It is possible, but only with nurturing and encouraging support from the Jews already in those congregations.

My dream for the Jewish future is that someday instead of indulging in fantasies about other Jews, we’ll get to know them one-on-one. And that someday, instead of wailing about the Jewish future, we’ll see it in every human being who walks in the door of the synagogue.

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

#BlogExodus: Join Us for Dinner

Kol dichfin yeitei v’yechul.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” – The Haggadah

As Robert D. Putnam pointed out way back in 1995 in Bowling Alone, Americans have ceased to be joiners. We do things alone from home, or we do them with our friends. We don’t join clubs and we pride ourselves on being private, perhaps because there is indeed so little real privacy in our lives.

Passover is a curious holiday. In some ways, it is the most private of Jewish observances. We keep it primarily at home. Its central observance, the Passover seder, is a retelling of our foundation narrative, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Also, because the seder involves seating and food and other limited resources, even when it is a community event, it’s by invitation or reservation only.

And yet the Haggadah, the script for the Passover seder, pushes us towards a greater sense of community: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” At one point in the seder we open the front door “for Elijah,” an act that at some points in Jewish history has been literally dangerous, since there were roaming antisemites in the street looking for Jews. Even in our darkest hours, the Haggadah has pushed us to open doors, to invite strangers in, to expand our circle while at the same time maintaining the boundaries of identity.

And that, too, is true to the story. The Torah tells us in Exodus 12 that “v’gam erev rav alah itam” – “and also a mixed multitude went up with them” out of Egypt. Significantly, the text doesn’t specify who they were. They were the “all” who are welcome to come and eat, to share the danger and the promise of exodus, to taste the sweetness of charoset and the bitterness of the herbs.  Our horseradish will bring tears to their eyes just as it does to ours. And with any luck our tears will mingle, joined together so that next year, in Jerusalem, they will be our old friends.


#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions. The topic for the 10th of Nisan is “Join.”

Conversion Manifesto

A New Jew receives the Torah
A New Jew receives the Torah

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
  4. If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
  5. If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
  6. Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
  7. If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
  8. If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
  9. If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
  10. 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.


Measuring Intermarriage

Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.
Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

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.



Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!


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.”

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A Bad Memory, and a Question

100% Jewish
100% Jewish

A memory came back to me today.

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?