Thursday, July 17, 2008

Outreach (kiruv) programs & intermarried couples - the reality

The following excerpt appeared on

A Jewish Soul: Orthodox Outreach and Interfaith Families
By Barbara Pash (Associate Editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times)
With his unfashionable spectacles, black beard and plain black yarmulke, Rabbi Zev looks every inch the Talmudic scholar. But as the rabbi of the Chabad at Johns Hopkins University, he's encountered some situations never envisioned in the Shulchan Aruch.

One of his students is the president of a traditionally Jewish fraternity. He regularly attends Chabad events, often brings his fraternity brothers with him and mentions his grandfather-the-rabbi. But because his mother is not Jewish, Chabad and other Orthodox organizations do not consider him Jewish.

Another student, a freshman with an Irish-sounding name, is Jewish to Chabad, even though she was raised Catholic. Once she entered college, she acted on her Jewish grandmother's admonition to explore her Jewish roots, and is doing just that at the Chabad house. [...]

With an intermarriage rate hovering at 50 percent nationally, Orthodox outreach organizations like Chabad and Aish HaTorah are having to grapple with their approach to intermarried couples and their children. How do you "spread Judaism in the widest possible manner"--Chabad's stated mission--if hundreds of thousands of members of your potential audience have a non-Jewish parent? How do you "provide opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage" (Aish's mission), if nearly half of these Jews are married to non-Jews?

"In reaching out to Jews, you encounter a large number whose spouses are not Jewish or whose children are not halachically Jews. You have to deal with it. It's part of everything you do," says Rabbi Yitchok Lowenbraun, national director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, a Baltimore-headquartered international organization of Orthodox outreach groups including Chabad, Etz Chaim and Aish HaTorah.

Within the parameters of halacha, Jewish religious law, Rabbi Lowenbraun prefers the individual approach. So, it appears, do others in the Orthodox outreach field.

"There isn't a set formula," says the rabbi, who spent 18 years as Atlantic Seaboard regional director for NCSY, an Orthodox youth group. "Do we turn away interfaith couples? The answer is an emphatic 'no.' We deal with them as a couple."

The Orthodox position on interfaith marriage is that it is unacceptable, a violation of halacha. But by that same law, if the mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish regardless of upbringing; if the mother is not Jewish, the child is not Jewish. [...]

Rabbi Gopin's attitude is that he does not question the motives of interfaith students who attend Chabad activities. Their parentage often comes out in conversation and he knows that things can get sticky. Halachic status is a delicate topic, filled with the potential for hurt feelings and resentment. He has not, for example, raised the subject with the fraternity president.

"If I were doing marriages, it would be more of a pressing issue," he says. "But in terms of the Shabbos table, of taking classes…" his voice trails off.

Nonetheless, the rabbi does represent an outreach organization whose efforts are aimed at Jews. That's where he focuses his time and attention, not on non-Jews.

"I don't say, 'You're not welcome here,' but I can't pursue that relationship," says Rabbi Gopin, although, he adds, he is willing to help anyone interested in learning about Judaism.

Rabbi Gopin is by no means alone in this approach. Rabbi Eli Backman, who runs the Bais Menachem Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Maryland College Park, says basically the same thing.

Rabbi Backman says the question of Jewish identity comes up in many different situations. "We target our programs to Jews," he gives an example, but students of all backgrounds come to Chabad events, and some are searching for their identity.

"They remember attending a Passover seder at the grandparents. They may have heard something" about the family history, Rabbi Backman continues.

"We have conversations" that, depending on their circumstances, touch on conversion, he says. "As a traditional organization, we won't compromise on halachic values."

Rabbi Backman teaches a class on Jewish spirituality and kabalah, and the question of Jewish identity comes up frequently. The rabbi says he tries to be "sensitive and open" in his responses.

"You have to deal with emotions and feelings and not throw text at people. You don't say, 'This is what it says in the book and have a nice day.' This is a person's identity," he says.

To Rabbi Mayer Pasternak, executive director of Aish HaTorah, an international Orthodox outreach organization, it's a matter of definition.

"To Reform and Conservative, the focus of outreach is to non-Jews, specifically the interfaith. Our focus is to Jews. There might be overlap but the definitions are totally different," says Rabbi Pasternak, who runs the 25 Aish HaTorah branches from his base in Baltimore. [...]

Aish HaTorah runs a variety of educational programs, online and community based. It does not have separate programs for non-Jewish spouses or children of interfaith marriages. At its programs, "non-Jewish spouses are not told to leave but they are not necessarily encouraged to come," he says, unless their presence somehow benefits the Jewish spouse.

As for children of interfaith marriages, "if people think they are Jewish but are not [halachically], let them participate but at a certain point, they are told they need to convert. If they are not interested in doing that, they are encouraged not to continue participating," he says.

Like the others, Rabbi Pasternak has met children of interfaith families who are halachically Jewish but not raised as such. "Catholics, Protestants, we've had them in our programs," says the rabbi. His attitude is, "I am not going to chase after people who were raised Christian."

Rabbi Shlomo Porter is director of Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Living and Learning, an independent multi-faceted organization that operates outreach programs in two centers in Baltimore, for Shabbatons, religious services, educational programs, a college network and initiatives in local senior centers.

A 28-year veteran of outreach, Rabbi Porter, an Orthodox rabbi, says that over the years, the attitude of the Orthodox towards intermarriage has changed, a recognition of the reality of the American Jewish community.

"It's no longer, this Jewish person who married out of the faith is rejected," says the rabbi. "Most Orthodox organizations have two policies. One, the public or group policy, is against intermarriage. But the second is an individualized policy, or how to deal with individual couples" who respond to outreach efforts.

Etz Chaim does not have separate programs for the intermarried. Rabbi Porter has seen situations where the Jewish spouse is eager to learn about Judaism, and the non-Jewish spouse is not. He has also seen the opposite, where the non-Jewish spouse wants to learn and the Jewish spouse is being dragged along.

"It can cause conflict," he says. "Sometimes, it does end in divorce. And sometimes, it ends with both becoming observant."

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is Maryland regional director of Chabad Lubavitch. He oversees 18 Chabad centers around the state. Like Rabbi Porter, this long-time veteran of outreach programs has noticed a change in attitude among the Orthodox.

"I came to the Maryland in 1974 and we openly challenged intermarriage. We weren't afraid to condemn it. We were not concerned about alienating people," he says.

"Now, we run into intermarriage all the time. Today, we may be offending people."

Still, it's no secret that Chabad is an Orthodox organization. When people come to an event, Rabbi Kaplan maintains, they know what they're getting into. Indeed, that may be the reason interfaith couples and/or children of interfaith marriages choose a Chabad program. [...]



    As someone with a lifetime's devotion to both the art and study of Kiruv Rechokim (also known as Jewish Outreach) and the Baal Teshuva Movement (also known as the Baal Teshuva Revolution) it is very evident that the practice and institution of Kiruv/Outreach has now changed forever.

    All the real-life drama and confrontation over conversions in the Orthodox world attest to this because until now the main struggle was between the Orthodox and the Reform & Conservative movements.

    But once the Reform movement openly accepted patrilineal descent 30 years ago (around 1978) it created a de facto schism with Halacha because until then they had a nominal official acceptance of, and paid lip-service to, albeit hypocritical, a public posture that to be Jewish meant to be born of a Jewish mother and to require "some sort of" conversion. But THAT was no longer required once they ruled for themselves that having just a Jewish father was enough to qualify one to be "Jewish"!

    While the Conservatives have not done this yet, they are headed in the smae direction, they have done all the same preliminary steps that Reform did before they got around to legitimating patrilineal descent, and the biggest signpost along the road to the meltdown is the Conservatives willingness to (a) accept female students into the previously all-male JTS (which a century earlier was actually a very modern Orthodox institition in many ways) and (b) to ordain the women students as rabbis. This radical cave in to feminism resulted in a schism within the Conservative movement and it led to the breakaway Union of Traditional Judaism (UTJ) led by former JTS professor Weiss-Halivni (now at Bar Ilan).

    Therefore the Reform and Conservatives have self-destructed and done themselves in so that the Orthodox need not battle them, and thus the real wars are among the Orthodox themselves, manifested more than anywhere else in each faction's attititude to geirus/conversion and its sister-ship kiruv/outreach, because as we see in today's world of the 21st century, there is turmoil in both how to mekarev (to do outreach) and how to megayer (to do conversions) and they are inter-related in many ways and on may levels, most of all in the real world of real lives as we see from all the problems and issues facing Orthodox outreach rabbis and outreach workers.

    When exactly to pinpoint the change of eras from a time when Kiruv meant reaching out to Jews ONLY is not an exact scince,

    But it has been coming to a head recently because up until about twenty years ago it could be asumed that most Jews in America were the products of both a Halachically correct mother AND father. This formula changed forever once Reform in America snactioned, accpted and practices the validity of patrilineal descent as enough of a criterion for being "Halachically" Jewish.

    There has also been a rise in the movement of "Jews by choice" of gentiles who decide to "be Jewish" without conversions, and the arrival of the mixed marriages of Jews from the former USSR, the Falashas in Israel and the controversy they have stirred in the Orthodox world as well as never ending claims by so-called Conversos, Anusim, (they are still "conversos" and "anusim" after 550 years?) and all sorts of "10 Lost Tribe/s" claimants to being "Jewish" not to mention Hollywood's fascination with pseudo-Kabbala-Judaism. Soon the whole world will qualify to be "Jewish" if all the arguments are accepted which will then lead to the dangerous logical fallacy that "if everyone is Jewish then noone is Jewish" -- not even truly Halachic Jews -- and that will be, and it is already, a huge challenge to the existence of Jews according to Halacha (and in this I understand and agree with Dr. Eidensohn's [the owner of this blog] deeply-held concerns.)

    Outreach organizations that are connected to the Orthodox, Haredi and Hasidic world will not be able to dodge the bullets forever. But that they resist facing the music is not a surprise.

    Kiruv people think that it's odd indeed that the "the kiruv/baal teshuva revolution" is being challenged, something like the French Revolutionaries who were challenged by those who sort to impose more order and stability and respect for the rule of law in Framce (just a rough example).

    There is a lot at stake for them. Especially big money, jobs, livelihoods, and the very art itself because like all human-based professions there is great pleasure and, yes, undeniably, much power, that is often wielded by the Kiruv workers as they lure and recruit and welcome secular Jews and their less-than-Halachically Jewish-families and loved ones into their spheres of influence.

    To be continued...

  2. Hi, I'm the editor at who commissioned this article. This story came about because of a comment on our blog, which said in part:

    "Today, there are literally tens of thousands of people who did not grow up Orthodox who have chosen to become traditional observant Jews as adults. And today, even many intermarried Jews have been swayed by these trends. Today, if you walk into virtually any Chabad house, Aish HaTorah, etc., you will find intermarried Jews or children of intermarried. Today, there are even people who are intermarried who have chosen to become Orthodox...."

    I thought this was a great point. Since both Orthodox kiruv and interfaith marriage are having a big impact on the Jewish community now, what about the people who are affected by both? I asked this experienced and professional reporter to interview Orthodox kiruv rabbis in her area, and they responded honestly and with compassion.

    I'm still interested in publishing more about the experiences of children of interfaith marriage who were raised Orthodox or who have become ba'alei tshuvah.

    Our site is here to encourage people in interfaith families to make Jewish choices. We don't define what that is. A lot of the people on our site are Jewish by patrilineal descent (the Reform movement decision on this was 1983, by the way, and you can read it here--everything is on the web!) We are interested in all the approaches people take toward making sure that children of interfaith marriage can have access to their Jewish heritage.


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