Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

The Israeli Ad Campaign and Some Essential Truths

(Cross-posted at Makom.)

The imbroglio over these videos should not obscure some essential truths.

One is that massive numbers of American Jewish people and families are indeed being lost to the Jewish People, both through cultural challenges and to the downstream impact of intermarriage, as it seems that less than 10% of the grandchildren of marriages between Jews and non-Jews identify as Jews.

Second, the Israeli Jewish public is convinced that high levels of assimilation characterize American Jewry.

Third, that perception is a matter of national pride among Israelis, one rooted very deeply in the classic Zionist ideology that undergird the Yishuv and then the State in its early days.

There’s a flip side. American Jews are convinced that Israelis exhibit tendencies that are anti-democratic, super ethnocentric, excessively nationalistic, and borderline theocratic (some Israelis would agree). For their part, Israeli Jews take offense when American Jews give voice to their critique of Israeli society.

In short, (many) Israeli Jews think American Jewry is excessively universalist and cosmopolitan. And (some) American Jews think that Israeli Jewish society is excessively particularist and parochial.

A good and honest dialogue around these issues would be helpful and healthy. We Jews, despite our cultural penchant for discourse and disputation, haven’t quite figured out how to conduct that dialogue.

What does masculinity have to do with religiosity and inmarriage?

The liberal Jewish community is grappling with the question of attracting and retaining men and boys, both as participants in religious life and as spouses for Jewish women (who are less likely to marry out and tend to marry out older, if they do at all).

This blog covered one response a couple of months ago: Moving Tradition's Campaign for Jewish Boys. One core aspect of their Brotherhood program is engaging Jewish boys in thinking about, amidst American ideals of masculinity, antisemitic stereotypes of the feminized Jewish man, and a patriarchal text and study-based religious tradition, what it means, to them, to be a Jewish man.

But what is really the relationship between internalized conceptions of masculinity and men's patterns of out-marriage and religious participation?

On Homespun Wisdom, Jamila asks: What do Jewish Women, Chinese Men, and Black Women have in Common? Referring to Sylvia Barack Fishman's 2008 work Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, she writes:

An article I read about the feminization of the Jewish church makes the Jewish religious community sound eerily similar to the black church community: more women than men; women lamenting the loss of men to the community, imploring them to ‘come home and have babies’; men who are disdainful of ’their’ women and have become avoidant of religion in general.

This is fascinating to me. My (not all that expert) impression is that the history and politics of masculinity in the African American community are very different, even radically different from that of the Jewish community -  and yet the outcome, at least with regards to out-marriage and religious participation, is quite similar.

One possibility is that despite their apparent differences, there are some important fundamental similarities between African-American and Jewish masculinity. Another is that conceptions of masculinity are perhaps more tangential to the issue of men's religious and romantic orientations than one might have thought.

Jamila's hypothesis about the common denominator among Jewish women, Chinese men, and Black women is:

"Who dates out, the men or the women, has a lot to do with who the culture puts more pressure on–the boys or the girls–to carry that culture in the future."

While my impression is that traditionally, the Jewish community has done its best to put plenty of pressure on everybody not to marry out, thinking more closely about how that pressure is gendered might be helpful. Jamila makes a connection between that pressure and the fact that Judaism has been a matrilineal religion - but it seems to me that factor could go in both direction. In a way, Jewish women are more free to marry out because they don't need to reproduce with a Jewish man to have Jewish children.

On the other hand, women have done and continue to do (despite wonderful progress) most childrearing work. Liberal Judaism has let go of many of the traditional modes of more or less mandatory men's involvement in the religious life and religious education in which boys participate: heder, shul, yeshiva etc (modes which incidently also at least periodically relieve women of some of the burden of childcare for boys).  It makes sense that the gap in Jewish continuity work created by the loss of those traditional forms of childcare/education would have naturally shifted over into women's general basket of childrearing responsibilities. Especially since Jews too are immersed in a broader culture that has all too often placed near complete accountability for children's welfare, morality, and behavior on mothers.

I think that increasing the childrearing expectations placed on Jewish men (and increasing their ability to fulfill them by instituting and advocating for more family friendly workplace conditions: flextime, paternity leave, etc) could only help in encouraging men to value and transmit their own heritage to their children.

Intermarriage and Complexities of Antisemitism


Jewish Ideas Daily recently highlighted a fascinating gem from the Atlantic Magazine in 1939: I Married a Jew, an anonymous personal reflection by a German-American woman married to a Jewish American man.

The article is an amazing read, deserving of much more detailed discussion than I have time to devote in this post, but I will say in briefest summary that the mix of sympathy for Jews as individuals and revulsion for various expressions of Jewishness which this author displays is incredible. She loves her husband and his family (unless they're all together as a family), and she will even countenance a little (not too much) Jewish pride, especially as relates to Biblical figures such as Moses, Solomon and (naturally) Jesus, but she is also very put off by Jewish cultural distinctions, favoring complete assimilation, and speaking of the world's "Jewish problem" as a product of oppression on one hand, and of Jewish (stereotypical) villainies, which she takes to be very real and very problematic, on the other.

What strikes me as so important about this article is not its being out of date, but rather its relevance to the present. If one removed the dismissive comments about Hitler being unfortunate yet not particularly unique or worrisome, and made only a little subtle revision to the terms, emphases and frames of reference, then this woman's viewpoint could just as easily have been written yesterday as in 1939. (Indeed, a few reader comments below the article reveal that some people apparently thought it was written in the present. Not that internet comments prove anything.) Modern American culture does not embrace all of the anti-Jewish views which are affiliated with traditional Christian anti-Judaism, but modern American culture certainly does share with this author a distaste for Jewish "clannishness" and particularism -- witness the ubiquity of intermarriage among Jewish characters on TV and in movies. Hollywood's usual portrayals of intermarriage assume that intermarriage is not only acceptable, but actually desirable. This perspective differs in many ways from our 1939 author, who blames the Jews for their own persecution during European history. But it shares with her the fundamental assumption that Jewish assimilation is the answer to Jewish problems. This reflexive sense that Jews are okay as long as they aren't too Jewish is very much alive in 2011.

Intermarriage as a catalyst for the exposure of uncomfortable disagreements is another element that makes this 1939 article strangely up-to-date. These marital dynamics are echoed in this recent blog post by Allison Benedikt, another deeply personal reflection centering on an intermarriage, this one from the perspective of the Jewish partner. In the post, which has prompted many strong reactions, especially from Jeffrey Goldberg, Benedkit describes her unquestioningly Zionist childhood and her transformation, as an adult, into a passionate anti-Zionist, influenced significantly by the strong anti-Israel views of her non-Jewish husband. I hasten to add that I'm not making an equation or a conflation with this juxtaposition of the two articles. By comparing them, I don't mean to equate Benedikt's husband to the 1939 author of I Married a Jew, or to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But I do mean to note that in both cases, an intermarriage has the effect of forcing the couple to take a stand on an extremely divisive issue of peoplehood. Writing in response to Benedikt's piece, Julie Wiener notes that Intermarried Does Not Equal Anti-Zionist. She's right, of course, but it would be folly not to admit that a marriage across the religio-ethnic divide is more likely than an in-marriage to force a conversation on these, and other, difficult topics.

Not that conversation is a bad thing. One difference between today and 1939, perhaps, is that conversations about these feelings do not tend to occur as openly. Nobody wants to be branded a bigot, and these days Americans of all persuasions tend to throw around such labels quite freely. We seem to think of antisemitism, like other forms of intergroup hatred, as a binary, all-or-nothing phenomenon. To listen to contemporary American discourse, a person is either "an antisemite" (a noun and an identity), or else a "normal" person, who is presumably completely free of anti-Jewish bias. (The same underlying assumption could be cited with regard to homophobia, sexism, racism, etc.) Reality, of course, is much more complicated, as this 1939 article reveals. Love and hate can be present in the same person. Faulty assumptions, negative emotional reactions, and prejudices can (and usually do) coexist in the same brains with genuine love and respect for the "other" group in question. Admitting as much might allow everyone to be more honest with one another, without anyone being afraid of being labeled a bigot, and without anyone else being afraid to point out when an idea is bigoted. The trick is to be able to criticize ideas (even quite strongly) without demonizing the people who hold them (except in the most extreme and obvious cases of open hatred). That would leave space for quite a few difficult -- and necessary -- conversations.

Publications on Difference at Passover

Four Cups

Across Barriers


Publications on the mixed, modern Seder


The First Cup: Mixed Marriages

Passover, a Lesson in Inclusiveness

Adam Bronfman, Kerry M. Olitzky, 2009


The Second Cup: Jews and Christians

Is Every Seder Kosher for Passover?

A. James Rudin, 1999


The Third Cup: Jews and Palestinians

Sharing Pesach with a Palestinian

Lawrence Baron, 1988


The Fourth Cup: Jews and Jews

Keeping Peace at the Seder Table

Sally Shafton, 1984


Explore many more publications about Passover at bjpa.org

Steven M. Cohen: U.S. Reform Jews Accept Patrilineal Descent

A letter to the editor from BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen recently appeared on the JTA:

To the Editor:

Sue Fishkoff correctly reports that Reform leadership around the world has refrained from adopting patrilineal descent. However, Reform people (at least in the U.S.) have widely done so. As early as 1988, reporting on results from an AJC-sponsored survey of American Jews, I reported on the results to this question:

Traditionally, membership in the Jewish faith was transmitted through the mother. Now, Reform rabbis say that someone who identifies as a Jew, but whose mother was a non-Jew and whose father was Jewish, is to be considered Jewish. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis would require such a person to convert. Do you accept the Reform rabbis' definition of a Jew?


About three in five (60 percent) said yes, less than half as many (29 percent) rejected the Reform definition, and the remaining 12 percent were uncertain. Thus, by a two-to-one margin, the sample favored patrilineality.

The entire report can be read at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

Steven M. Cohen
New York, NY


The Jewish Community is NOT Sufficiently Welcoming to Intermarried Families: A Response

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen's thesis that the obstacle to the participation of intermarried families in Jewish organizational life is not a lack of welcome but rather a lack of perceived competence.

Now, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamilies.com, have responded to Professor Cohen's claim, in an editorial on EJewishPhilanthropy: There is Still Work to Be Done on Welcoming Intermarried Families.

They assert that the question (and responses) on which Professor Cohen based his conclusion do not support his conclusion, and also take issue of his characterization of how the 'outreach community' has defined and understood the concept of welcoming.

Paul Golin, who commented here on this blog, has also written more extensively on this issue at Jewcy: Continued Confusion about Intermarriage. There, he gets into the question of what Jewish identity means and can mean, if we can sufficiently decouple it from birth status - the beginning of a deep conversation about Jewish tradition and values.

On a certain level, these questions demand us to think about some of the questions raised by my co-blogger here, Seth Chalmer, in his series on pluralism as well as his critique of Adam Bronfman: What does it mean to be Jewish - what is fundamental, what is periphery, and where are the boundaries.

Responses to this question, whether draped in the clothing of halacha or academia, can stem from a deep emotional place - and that, I think, is good. We *should* be emotional about these issues and if we can be openly emotional, maybe we can have a conversation that brings us closer together instead of farther apart.

Jewish identity, something different from national identity, different from religious identity (at least as understood by the culturally dominant Western religions), different from ethnic or racial identity, doesn't easily let itself be pinned down. It reminds of me of the question of what constitutes family. Thinking about the current manifestations of that question - political and cultural controversy over gay marriage, civil unions, open adoption, closed adoption, second-parent adoption, paternity rights, inheritance rights, divorce, and so on, I am actually somewhat comforted that maybe after all we're not doing that badly.

Thesis: The Jewish Community is Sufficiently Welcoming Towards Intermarried Families

In a recent study reported in the Forward, BJPA director Prof. Steven M. Cohen claims that it's not a lack of welcome but a (real and perceived) lack of competence that's keeping intermarried families out of Jewish institutions.

Cohen’s conclusion was that most interfaith couples feel like they have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. The real problem, he said, is that they feel like they don’t know what to do with that invitation.

“It’s not that they feel unwelcome, but that there is a competence barrier,” Cohen said. “They feel that their kids will be expected to do things they don’t know how to do, and they themselves don’t want to be part of a community where they don’t know the choreography.”

“I don’t have the evidence to make a strong claim for competency being the issue,” Cohen said. “But I certainly can say that it’s not a matter of being more welcoming. So I don’t want to push the competence thing too far. But I am willing to say that stigmatization and the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”

(The finding arose in the context of a study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp about how to attract children of intermarriages to Midwestern Jewish camps).

Interestingly, in a 2007 editorial in the Jerusalem Post, Paul Golin, of the Jewish Outreach Institute, accused Prof. Cohen of 'splitting the Jewish community' by focusing entirely on promoting inmarriage and essentially, according to Golin, writing off intermarried families as a lost cause and speaking of intermarriage only in terms of something to be avoided. Golin writes:

“...we should be devising ways to ensure that the already intermarried and children of intermarriage have access to [existing Jewish] programming. Cohen provides no strategies for that goal. Page after page of explanation about how weakly intermarried Jews are connected to Judaism imply that it is not relevant to consider them in our programming.

Cohen's suggestion that lack of competence (and not lack of welcome) is the barrier to intermarried families' participation in Jewish institutions can be read as an answer to that charge: it identifies a specific problem area (perceived competence) and suggests the possibility of a solution (beyond simply promoting in-marriage).

But not everybody accepts his new findings: “I work with interfaith families every day, and the stories that I hear are not the stories of comfort that he is trying to suggest,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Golin's colleague and executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

One poignant example of a not very comforting story comes up in Tablet Magazine's report on burial and intermarried families. Traditionally, there has been no space for non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries. Recently, the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly took a progressive position to permit intermarried families to be buried within a Jewish cemetery, but in a strictly divided off section. Brooklyn's Reform Congregation Beth Elohim's Rabbi's response was:

“It’s like they are saying that they are segregated in life and not welcome in perpetuity."

That sentiment was echoed by a congregant:

“Personally, being in a mixed marriage, my wife and I never thought about what would happen when we passed away,” said Pisano. “I always thought there would be space for me and my wife, never thinking I couldn’t be buried there.” He added, “I’m like a shoemaker with no shoes.”

(Beth Elohim is currently attempting to purchase a burial ground specifically meant to accommodate a shared burial space for both intermarried and  in-married familes).

Another example is found in various Jewish responses to Chelsea Clinton's upcoming marriage to a Jewish man: “As a rabbi, I would be delighted to see Chelsea convert," Rabbi David Wolpe, a Conservative Jew who leads Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, recently told The Daily Beast. "That would be my dream scenario." Although phrased positively, this is another expression of intermarried families as sub-optimal, if not actually undesirable.

According to Cohen's research, however, incidents like these do not actually add up to an unwelcoming environment for intermarried families – or at least an unwelcoming environment that actually affects their participation in Jeiwsh communities. Perhaps that explains why, in a recent USA Today article, Prof. Cohen did not mince words in describing intermarriage as “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.”


When I hear 'outreach,' I think of 1. Chabad 2. Intermarriage Sometimes the other way around.

The issue of intermarriage and the concept 'outreach' often travel together. The majority of BJPA articles directly concerned with outreach published since 1990 explicitly focus on intermarried couples and their families.

That hasn't always been the case!

The earliest article BJPA has with 'outreach' in the title is from 1970, when we were concerned about outreach to adolescents, then schools, then the elderly, then recent Jewish immigrant groups, then the marginally affiliated, until 1990, when intermarriage/interfaith issues seem to have established a pretty firm claim on the term.

One blatant exception is the 1999 article Alienated Jews: What about Outreach to Jewish Lesbians? On the other hand, recent articles that don't focus entirely on intermarriage focus on outreach to families with young children.

What happened? It can't be that we've finished the work with adolescents, the elderly, immigrant, and marginalized Jews, but considering the question prompts reflection on the full spectrum of insider/outsider boundaries (both religious and cultural) in American Judaism, and raises a potential criticism on a newer term, 'inreach,' a concept problematized by Hayim Herring and Kerry Olitzky in their article, Outreach vs. Inreach: An Unnecessary Dichotomy.