On Thursday I will return to being a student, albeit virtually, at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Over the summer I read a post about a brand new MA and Certificate program at Hebrew College on the topic of Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and was immediately interested in learning more. While the rabbinate does not require continuing education credits, it is a must if you want to keep up with most recent data, trends and innovative programming across the Jewish world.
The director of this new program is Dr. Keren McGinity, who is an expert in the field of interfaith engagement having written two excellent books “Still Jewish” and “Marrying Out“. After reading Dr. McGinity’s work and speaking with her on the phone I was struck by the fact that while we all have a gut feeling on intermarriage the empirical data is still out. In a recent interview she spoke eloquently about how intermarriage affects families differently depending on which spouse is Jewish, whether it be the husband or the wife. Put aside for the moment the question of matrilineal descent. Dr. McGinity’s argument, which I have witnessed first hand, is that if a Jewish man calls me, says that he is marrying a non-Jewish women, and asks if I will officiate at the wedding. When I (per the RA standard) say no, odds are the husband will become upset and say “forget about it”. On the other hand, if the soon to be Jewish wife calls and asks if I can do the wedding and I decline, her reaction is quite different, asking if I know of someone who can perform the service, not walking away, but looking for other options. This may seem like a subtle difference but it was not until Dr. McGinity began her research that anyone had looked into how gender played a role in interfaith families.
It is because of this data on gender that Beth El will be running a program entitled “raising Jewish children”, a class geared specifically for dads. We will gather at different participants homes each week to discuss a topic and chat with the commonality of raising Jewish children, whether they themselves are Jewish or not. There will be plenty more to come, but data on such topics as intermarriage and conversion allows Beth El to make effective and impactful decisions about programing, instead of simply throwing ideas up against the wall to see what sticks.
Needless to say I am a bit nervous about going back to school, while at the same time so thankful to Hebrew College for developing a certificate program that delves into the current landscape of American Jewry. To not understand the history of intermarriage and conversion in the United States is to not understand the Jews that make up our congregations in 2016.
Below is an excerpt of an interview with Dr. McGinity, you can read the whole post at http://blog.hebrewcollege.edu/interfaith-families-jewish-engagement/
Q. How did you develop the curriculum? What is the focus of the core courses?
I developed the curriculum in collaboration with Michael Shire, Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School, to strike a balance between theory and practice. Courses focus on how intermarriage and conversion have changed over Jewish history; what rabbinic texts can teach us and how branches of Judaism have responded; the ways in which case studies of intermarried Jews and their loved ones can be used to debunk popular culture and stereotypes; and employing best practices of outreach organizations. I also created the Ani Ma’Amin or ten principles of the IFJE program that inform all of the courses. One of these includes that “Interfaith” is understood to have multiple meanings and interpretations. For example, some families include Jews and people of other faiths; some families are comprised of Jews and extended families of other faiths; and some include Jews and people without any religious faith. Another is that all IFJE faculty members encourage pluralistic, inclusive, and egalitarian Jewish practices.
Q. There’s a course being offered called “Rabbinic Texts on Intermarriage and Conversion.” What do Jewish texts have to teach us about intermarriage?
Jewish texts have a wealth of wisdom to teach us about intermarriage as well as a sea of controversy over how best to address this social reality and interact with interfaith families. From the Bible to modern sermons and responsa, rabbinic discourse about intermarriage highlight the ways in which Jewish leaders have interpreted, “You shall not intermarry with them” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4) and “Welcome the stranger,” which appears repeatedly. Jewish educators need to be familiar with the tensions between Halacha and how different branches of Judaism respond differently to the issue of intermarriage and Jewish status or identity. This course is equally important for future rabbis as it is for early childhood educators and all other outreach minded professionals.