Amar’e Stoudemire Thinks He’s Jewish… So Is He?

The wedding of the century, starring Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky last Saturday evening, has raised several significant issues for the American Jewish community. Should interfaith weddings with all the Jewish components (chuppah, ketubah, glass smashing, rabbi, and even the unnecessary tallit on the groom) be embraced or rejected? What message is sent when a rabbi co-officiates with a Christian minister? Should rabbis of any denomination perform weddings on Shabbat?

But the question I have yet to hear has to do with Chelsea Clinton. After seeing the groom in a tallit and yarmulke, no one was questioning if he might leave his Judaism behind in this new marriage as Andrew Schiff (great-grandson of the philanthropist Jacob Schiff) did when he married Al and Tipper Gore’s daughter Karenna in 1997. Before the wedding there was some talk on the Web about whether Chelsea might choose to convert to Judaism (which didn’t happen), but never a of Marc Mezvinsky converting to Christianity. So, the question is: What if Chelsea now proclaims herself a Jewish woman without any formal conversion?

There are people out there (the number is probably growing) who were not born into the Jewish faith and have not formally converted, but do consider themselves Jewish. Now, I know that halakhically (according to Jewish law), these individuals are not Jewish, but they can attend just about any synagogue in the world without their status as a “member of the tribe” being questioned. And even if it is questioned, a thorough background check is unlikely. I don’t actually know if Chelsea will proclaim herself a Jew, but it would certainly make for interesting conversation.

And that brings us back to NBA basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire. The newly signed member of the New York Knicks is still traveling through Israel in search of his Jewish roots. So, is he or isn’t he?

As I reported last week, Amar’e was tweeting that he is enjoying Israel and learning Hebrew. When reports surfaced that he was trying to find out if he was actually Jewish, his agent Happy Walters clarified:

He’s not Jewish, it’s all getting blown a little bit out of proportion. His mother says there’s some Jewish blood on her side, but Amar’e is just a total student of history and had been planning a trip to Israel for awhile. Is it possible [that he’s Jewish]? Maybe. We’re going to do some research, but I don’t know where that will go.

But that didn’t end the buzz. Articles in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal both reported on his travels from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Eilat and then to Tel Aviv. Early Monday morning, Amar’e had a private shooting session with his personal coach at Nokia Arena with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s chairman of the board Shimon Mizrahi and team manager Gur Shelef observing his skills. Later that day, he met with former player Tal Brody and Mizrahi who invited him to return to Israel to play for Maccabi after his NBA career ends.

Joshua Mitnick writes in the WSJ article: “Sitting poolside at the five-star InterContinental David hotel Monday amid an oppressive Middle Eastern heat wave, the NBA power forward’s head was covered with a knitted white yarmulke, and his words were punctuated with Hebrew. The Jewish skullcap — most often associated with Orthodox Jews when worn outside a synagogue — is “to pay homage to God, Eloheem,” he said. “It’s like praying all day and showing your respect to the creator.”

After reading that I recalled a conversation I had with Amar’e back in 2003 (his rookie year with the Phoenix Suns) when I met him and teammate Joe Johnson at a moped rental location in Miami Beach. My dad and I wound up riding mopeds around South Beach with Stoudemire, Johnson and their friend. Amar’e asked what I did and I replied that I was a student training to become a rabbi. He told me that he’s studied the Torah and that he knew a few Hebrew words. He didn’t mention that he thought he was Jewish, but he showed me a Star of David tattoo that he had on his hand.

Perhaps the most insightful view into Stoudemire’s motivation for coming to Israel and whether he considers himself Jewish is the face-to-face interview conducted by an Israel Sports 5 reporter following Amare’s workout. Wearing a kippah, Stoudemire talks openly about his spirituality and how he’ll observe Jewish customs in the future including celebrating Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur, and keeping Passover.

The key point is that Stoudemire explains that Judaism to him is more about belief than actually being Jewish. He talks about his upbringing, love of Scripture study, and his visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

So, if Amar’e Stoudemire considers himself Jewish, will he be embraced by a segment of the Jewish community that doesn’t care much of the technicality that he’s not actually Jewish? Does it matter?

Here’s the full video of Amar’e Stoudemire’s interview in Tel Aviv after working out his hotel gym:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Guest List

Now that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky have gotten married in Whitebeck, NY, some details of the wedding have been reported. The New York Times reports that the interfaith ceremony was co-officiated by Rabbi James Ponet and Reverend William Shillady. Jim Ponet, a Reform rabbi, is Yale University’s Jewish chaplain. His official title is director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, which is the campus Hillel there.

The NYT also says that the “family said the ceremony would celebrate and honor elements of both traditions. It would include friends and family reading the [Sheva Brachot] Seven Blessings, which are typically recited at traditional Jewish weddings following the vows and exchange of rings.”

Genevieve de Manio

According to this photo the groom wore a kippah (yarmulke) and tallit (prayer shawl). The tallit is not required at Jewish weddings, though some grooms choose to wear one and some grooms choose to wear the white kittel (robe).

Supposedly a ketubah (wedding document) was also witnessed and signed before the ceremony.

Since a guest list hasn’t been released, I decided to come up with a quick list of people I am certain were not there.

THE NON-GUEST LIST FOR CHELSEA CLINTON’S WEDDING:

  1. Kenneth Starr
  2. Monica Lewinsky
  3. Newt Gingrich
  4. Rush Limbaugh
  5. Sarah Palin
  6. Bill O’Reilly
  7. Ann Coulter
  8. Dick Cheney
  9. Linda Tripp
  10. Paula Jones
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Co-Officiated by Rabbi & Methodist Minister

I have it on good authority that Chelsea’s wedding this Saturday night at Astor Mansion in Rhinebeck, NY will be co-officiated by both a rabbi and a Methodist minister. But who’s officiating at their wedding should really matter a lot less than how they will be as a married couple. At the first meeting with a couple before their wedding, the first thing I explain to them is the difference between a wedding and a marriage. The wedding is only one day in their lives; the marriage is the rest of their lives (God willing).

There has been so much discussion about the upcoming nuptials of the former First Daughter, Chelsea Clinton, that I don’t remember this much attention to a wedding since JFK Jr. married Carolyn Bessette on September 21, 1996 and before that it was the weddings of the British Royal Family that made headlines. The focus for Chelsea and her beau Mark Mezvinsky should be on how they make a home together, how they raise their future children, and how they will work through the same hurdles that face every married couple (whether they are of the same religion or not; of the opposite sex or not; from similar socio-economic backgrounds or not).

My teacher, Irwin Kula, poignantly writes in this morning’s Huffington Post (“From the Cathedral to the Bazaar: What Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Says About Religous Sycretism”) that this high profile wedding is our society’s welcome to the new world of religion in America.

Chelsea’s parents were an interdenominational marriage of a social justice Methodist and a Baptist, which would have been unheard of 50 years ago. Chelsea grew up proudly within mainstream Protestantism, while Mark was raised clearly identified in a mainstream Jewish denomination. Their marriage is the next generational step in crossing borders — from Methodist-Baptist to Christian-Jew. What is unprecedented — wonderful for some and horrifying to others — is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities — in the example of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, at least three different traditions being brought to bear — is the new reality.

I agree. This is the new reality. What matters more than the Mezvinsky’s Jewish heritage and the Clinton’s mixed religious background is whether this couple will be able to live life together, share happy moments, raise moral children, weather difficult storms, and make each other laugh.

I’m a Conservative rabbi forbidden by the Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, to officiate at Chelsea’s interfaith wedding. But I’m not blind to this new reality. The borders are much blurrier than they once were and more religionists are opening their eyes to this new reality.

I echo Rabbi Kula’s congratulatory words: “Mazel Tov, Mark and Chelsea!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Why Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Matters & the Celebrity Double-Standard

I’m hesitant to write about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky, who was raised in Conservative Judaism, because I want to respect the private lives of the bride and groom. However, when the bride is the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, I suppose she is classified as a celebrity and her wedding is fair game as a topic for discussion.

This marriage will spark conversation in the Jewish world about two main issues: How intermarriage affects the Jewish community; and, whether there is a double-standard in the Jewish community when it comes to the intermarrying ways of celebrities.

David Gibson, in his article in Politics Daily, brings to light the key points surrounding this wedding. The question of whether Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism is something that Jews wonder (from Jews who are vehemently against intermarriage and those who are accepting of it). This high-profile wedding will bring many of the implications of intermarriage to a more public forum, forcing the conversation about, among other things:

  1. whether a rabbi should officiate at an interfaith wedding;
  2. whether intermarriage really erodes Jewish continuity;
  3. whether a non-Jewish mother can raise Jewish children;
  4. whether conversion for the sake of marriage is genuine enough to count; and,
  5. whether there’s a double-standard in the Jewish community when a high profile person marries outside of the faith.

Gibson quotes my colleague, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, who claims it’s his dream that Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism. Gibson also read the ongoing conversation at the InterfaithFamily.com website about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding.

In a lively discussion at the InterfaithFamily.com website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding “if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish.” Another, however, cautioned that “this cannot be a Jewish wedding — a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice.” And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: “I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest.”

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Last month I was quoted in a Detroit Free Press article about interfaith marriage (“Do Interfaith Marriages Threaten Jewish Identity?”) and then took part as a panelist in a Free Press online chat on the subject.

After taking part in the online chat with Edmund Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, and an intermarried couple, I can only conclude that this is a very challenging issue because people’s lives, and children, and feelings of love and affection are in conflict with thousands of years of tribal law. It’s really about clubs and who can join and who can’t and who decides the rules.

Regarding the Gibson article in Politics Daily, my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula comments, “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

Some interesting questions surrounding the Chelsea Clinton wedding should make this even more interesting:

  • The wedding will take place on Shabbat (July 31, 2010), so how will this affect whether observant Jewish (shomer Shabbat) guests will attend. Even if they stay within walking distance of the Astor mansion, according to Jewish law weddings are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbath.
  • If Chelsea does convert before the wedding, will her conversion be disputed publicly by the Orthodox who will claim that a Conservative (or Reform) conversion isn’t “kosher.” And, many will question her commitment to Judaism — didn’t she do this only for the sake of marriage and how much preparation and deliberation did she put into this?
  • If Chelsea doesn’t convert, how many of the Bill and Hillary’s Orthodox friends will attend the wedding anyway? Will their attendance at an interfaith wedding (and on Shabbat to boot) signify an endorsement? And what about Conservative rabbis who are technically not supposed to attend interfaith weddings? Will some make an exception for such notable nuptials?
  • Finally, might this high-profile interfaith wedding turn the tides and lead to greater acceptance and sensitivity toward interfaith marriage? After all, as Gibson writes, “The main body of Conservative Judaism [CJLS] voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop “sensitizing” students to “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics.” There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends — and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is sure to grab headlines because of the main actors and the supporting cast, but in the Jewish world this wedding might just be an interfaith “game changer” in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Decade in Jewish Education

A couple days ago JESNA (“advancing Jewish learning, transforming Jewish lives”) chose what it considers to be the best in Jewish education of the decade. At the conclusion of their top 10 (actually 11) list, they invited others to share their own lists. And so I have. First, here’s the JESNA list (in no particular order):

  • Taglit-Birthright Israel
  • Funding Partnerships
  • Consumer-centric Education
  • Rise of Innovation Sector
  • Congregational Educational Change Initiatives
  • Revitalization of Jewish camps
  • Online Jewish Learning
  • PJ Library
  • Jewish Service Learning
  • “Public Space” Jewish Education
  • Focus on Outcomes

And now, here is my list of the best in Jewish education for the past decade:

Jewish Camping – I may be biased as the rabbi of a large Jewish camping agency, but Jewish summer camps are just about the only thing working these days in terms of informal Jewish education (I’ll get to those 10-day free Israel trips in a moment!). Thanks to Elisa and Rob Bildner who had the foresight to found the Foundation for Jewish Camp and to mega-donor Harold Grinspoon, Jewish camps are on the rise. The euphoric experience that thousands of Jewish kids and teens feel for a month or two each summer is the Jewish education world’s home run.

Technology – From online distance learning to Jewish utilization of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), no one can dispute that modern technology and communication have removed borders and made the global Jewish community feel much smaller. Many Jewish organizations have figured out how to use Web 2.0 applications to their advantage and many more are just beginning to navigate the terrain. I have to single out Darim, who’s “committed to assisting Jewish organizations in their efforts to increase their professionalism and relationship-building capacity through the effective use of technology.”

Indie-Minyans – I was surprised JESNA didn’t mention Hadar, which I consider the decade’s premier example of do-it-yourself Judaism, albeit in a professionalized way. Hadar began the decade as a start-up minyan (in a cramped NYC apartment) and ended it as a dynamic community that includes a yeshiva, minyan, and think tank. Hadar is educating 20- and 30-something urban Jews in fresh ways, and the established synagogues and seminaries are certainly watching closely.

JDate – Yes, I’m including an online dating website as one of the best in Jewish education for the decade. JDate has 650,000 members worldwide making it a substantial community. While it may not be a traditional education website, its members learn a lot about Judaism while searching for their potential mate. It also forces many unaffiliated Jews to feel connected with a Jewish community, and to consider their own Jewishness (and their future Jewishness). It also helps “strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come” more than most educational initiatives.

Pro-Israel Groups – I’m always amazed at the level of involvement so many unaffiliated Jews have with organizations like AIPAC and StandWithUs. These groups are committed to educating the Jewish community about Israel’s history, culture, people, and politics, as well as its struggle to survive.

Jewish Service Learning – The past decade was all about a new form of tikkun olam. More Jews than ever combined Jewish learning with a zeal for pursuing justice. This one-two punch caused organizations like AJWS, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Avodah to flourish. Jews were able to apply their Torah learning to real life situations (business ethics to the Enron and Madoff scandals, ethical kashrut to the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors debacle, pursuing global justice to Darfur, pikuach nefesh to post-9/11 security systems, etc.).

Inclusion – Gay rights in the Jewish community came about through education. The Boston-based Keshet discovered new ways to educate the community about GLBT inclusion, while a gay Orthodox rabbi came out of the closet to help create and promote a film about homosexuality in the Orthodox world. The Conservative movement’s seminaries opened their doors to gays and lesbians, and the decade ended with the majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis willing to perform commitment ceremonies for same sex couples.

Informal Ed – In each decade, JCCs and Hillels have had to adapt to new trends. These are the community centers for the Jewish people and thus, have to offer everything the Jewish community seeks — whether in the suburbs, the city, or on campus. Learning Torah with a local rabbi under the same roof you can practice Yoga, swim laps, send your toddler to pre-school or your teen to high school, have a Kosher lunch meeting, go to the theater, and rally for Israel is truly impressive. It’s possible that our JCCs are the most underrated educational agency in our Jewish community.

Post-Denominationalism – I believe the last decade prepared us for true post-denominationalism in this new decade. The last ten years saw the rise of community day schools and high schools, and therefore the growth of Ravsak — the network of these non-denominational schools. It also became common for Reform and Conservative congregations to merge in an effort for both of them to survive. In most cases, these bi-denominational mergers proved flawless. Family foundations and federations created programs, fellowships, and new organizations that transcended the movements. With mega-money from the Bronfmans, Schustermans, Steinhardts, Wexners, Davidsons, Grinspoons, and Adelsons came programs that no one denomination could claim — the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex and PEER programs, Taglit-Birthright free Israel trips, PJ Library, Avi Chai, PEJE, etc. The growth of organizations like BBYO, Melton, and Clal also demonstrate a post-denominational, informal educational spirit.

Interfaith – Through the out-of-the-box education offered by the Jewish Outreach Institute and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the Jewish community began to consider interfaith families in new ways. While the Reform movement was quick to welcome the interfaith family, the more traditional movements need to be educated on why this is of paramount importance to the future of Jewish peoplehood.

Conclusion: The Jewish community is always changing and it is through education that we reach new heights. In the new decade, we’ll begin to see the impact of the young Hadar-influenced leadership on synagogues and temples across the country. New advances in technology will allow us to share Jewish wisdom across continents at lightning speed. We’ll see much more collaboration between synagogues, federations, camps, and youth groups to create community-wide endeavors that will save money and reach more Jewish people quicker. We’ll also begin to determine whether the mega-philanthropists and federations are really getting the bangs for their millions of bucks with the Birthright Israel investment. Because if we don’t see real results in the coming years, we’ll regret how much money was spent on middle-class 20-somethings for their free-ride to Israel at the expense of many other important educational initiatives. Finally, the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life will get smaller as we weed out redundant organizations, and support creativity and innovation — the hallmarks of Jewish education.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Coming Out as a Rabbi

There are times when rabbis might not be so willing to let others know they’re a rabbi. Apparently that wasn’t the case for Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, a Reform rabbi in Westchester, NY, when he was an audience member of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Geoff and I spent a couple of hours learning a piece of text from the Torah together this past November in the Clal offices in NYC as part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. A few weeks later, he posted the following on our group’s e-mail forum:

The reason I’m writing is because I thought you all might get a kick out of this — my girlfriend and I went to the taping of The Daily Show last night. Jon Stewart is actually QUITE Jewish (and is pretty knowledgeable about Judaism), and he does a Q&A with the audience before each show. I (of course) had to see if I could bring out any of his latent Jewish-ness, so I told him I was a rabbi and asked him what his favorite Hanukkah memory was… It was very cool.

Here is the clip from the beginning of the show which aired later that night:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Intro – Rabbi in the Audience (RabbiJason.com)
www.thedailyshow.com

Not all rabbis, however, would be so forthcoming about their profession (especially to a man about to broadcast to millions of people). In fact, Rabbi Mitelman’s posting led to an interesting conversation about when to fess up about being a rabbi and when to keep the cards closer to the chest. One female Conservative rabbi married to a male Reform rabbi explained that they had also been to a taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart a week prior, but chose to not disclose their professions.

She wrote that there are times when she has “not shared that I was a rabbi in order to avoid the inevitable shock, surprise, and ensuing questions. Usually when I am traveling, on vacation, or otherwise outside of my “normal” world, I do not advertise the fact that I am a rabbi, and have often responded that I was a teacher or social worker when directly asked my profession. I am now wondering if I am doing myself and our profession a disservice by doing this. Would it be breaking down more borders and opening up new opportunities to share my profession?”

There are certainly times when it makes sense for rabbis not to broadcast what they do. This would be more difficult for the Catholic priest who’s collar is a dead give-a-away. I know of rabbis who go grocery shopping many miles from their home so as to experience some privacy. There are also rabbis who wouldn’t think of exercising at the local Jewish Community Center for fear of being bothered with work-related questions. Personally, I enjoy working out at the JCC and find that most people are quite respectful of the reason that I’m there (to break a sweat and not play “Ask the Rabbi”).

For some rabbis, the setting might dictate whether they “out” themselves as a rabbi or not. Seated next to a fellow Jewish person on an airplane, for instance, if I say I’m a rabbi I could be in for a long flight listening to every reason why Hebrew School was a scarring experience for this individual. Why their childhood rabbi caused them to despise organized religion in general as an adult. Seated next to a non-Jewish individual on an airplane, I could explain that I’m a rabbi and then field endless questions about why Israel doesn’t just make peace with her Arab neighbors already, or why some Haredi rabbi was indicted for tax fraud. That would be like a Unitarian minister having to defend Catholic priests for the child molestation scandal.

This is the reason why Rabbi Joel Meyers, former executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, admitted to his colleagues at a convention in 2007 that he often tells the person sitting next to him on the plane that he is either a college professor or a therapist.

Ultimately, however, I recognize that I am always a rabbi. There have been times when I’ll tell someone that I am a rabbi and it leads to a wonderful and fulfilling experience. The opportunity to teach strangers (both Jews and non-Jews) often arises at the least likely times. I’m sure it’s no different than my friend who’s a pediatrician not wanting to volunteer her profession when she’s on an airplane for fear that she’ll have to give medical advice for every ailment that has ever afflicted the children of the woman seated next to her. But in the event of a child getting sick on the plane, I know she’d jump into action without a moment’s hesitation.

Last month, I was on an airplane returning home from New York. A Jewish man sat down next me. (I know he was Jewish because as soon as he saw I was wearing a kippah, he immediately told me that he’s Jewish and that he speaks a little Yiddish.) He spent the entire plane ride telling me about what he did for a living. And it was truly fascinating.

The man, Walter Arnold (pictured), is an extremely talented artist who works with stone. He’s designed beautiful fireplaces, breezeways, fountains, and sculptures for some of the most breathtaking homes and churches in the country. Trained in Italy, Walter told me that his art graces the White House, Washington National Cathedral, and the Capitol. He pulled out his computer and showed me dozens of pictures of his work. It was breathtaking.

At the end of the flight, Walter handed me his business card and asked for mine in return. Looking at it, he exclaimed, “Wait, you didn’t tell me you were a rabbi. I could have asked you so many questions.” I explained to him that what he does for a living is much more interesting to me than what I do. I thanked him for the enjoyable conversation. And we said goodbye.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Pope in Israel

My first exposure to Catholicism was as a teenager. I was the assistant to a photographer who photographed several Catholic weddings. I found it fascinating to be in these beautiful churches and watch the religious rites of the Catholic tradition. I joked that, at the time, I had been to more Catholic weddings than Jewish weddings. That quickly changed.

My next experience with anything Catholic was in rabbinical school when I was selected to participate in an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. The now defunct program brought Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theological students (future priests, rabbis, and imams) together in a setting of mutual engagement and exchange. It was sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews). The program was hosted at a large, beautiful Catholic seminary in Baltimore. Again, I learned a great deal about Catholics and noted several similarities between their religion and Judaism.

The summer following Seminarians Interacting, I served a chaplaincy internship at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The Clinical Pastoral Education program was made up of two rabbinical students, three future Catholic priests, and about a half-dozen other future religious leaders. My interactions with the three Catholic seminary students led to wonderful friendships. The program was geared toward pastoral education, but our informal conversations during lunch and in the hospital corridors were about our respective religious tradition. We spoke of personal faith, our families, and the stress of our future positions. These coreligionists responded candidly to me about their individual decisions to join the priesthood and live a life of chastity. They explained the hierarchy of the priesthood to me, helped me understand the importance of Vatican II (Pope Paul’s 1965 proclamation of Nostar Aetate), and taught me the symbolism behind the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Of course, their curiosity about Judaism led to many enjoyable Q&A sessions as well. I remember driving to the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit with one of the future priests to play racquetball (racquetball courts in the Seminary dorms — I was jealous!). On the way, he played a CD for me with the most beautiful Mass service.

Recently, with the Pope’s visit to Israel, I have been thinking much about Catholic-Jewish relations and my own interfaith relationships. This past March, as news of the Israel visit by Pope Benedict XVI was growing, an article in the Jerusalem Post explained that the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, said that it is not proper for him to come to the Kotel wearing a cross. He said, “My position is that it is not fitting to enter the Western Wall area with religious symbols, including a cross.” He said he feels the same way about a Jewish man walking into a church wearing a tallit and t’fillin. Not that it matters since he would never set foot in a church. It’s also a silly analogy because tallit and t’fillin are religious articles used during prayer. Wearing a cross around ones neck is akin to wearing a Star of David or a Chai. While several rabbis responded to Rabbi Rabinovitch, I thought my colleague Rabbi Andrew Sacks put it best. In the JPost blog, he told the following story:

It seems that back in the 18th century, a Christian asked Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn “how can your religion be correct if my religion is correct?” His response was that there is one pasture, but many gates. Or as your scripture puts it, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” Let the many “gates” to the Kotel, the “gates of righteousness,” be open to all.

This week’s Time Magazine has an interesting article on Catholic-Jewish relations, “Pope Benedict and the Question of Judaism”. It addresses the Pope’s first visit to Israel, but underscores the tension he has caused due to several missteps in his relationship with the Jewish community. In reversing the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group called the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), he included the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson who believes the Nazi gas chambers never existed. Further, in a 2006 speech at Auschwitz, he failed to mention anti-Semitism, instead contending that “ultimately the Nazis’ motive in killing Jews was to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.” He also reintroduced a prayer in the Mass calling for Jews to convert.

Last month, I joined several local Detroit-area rabbis for a luncheon with the new Archbishop of Detroit, the Most Reverend Allen Vigneron (right). He spoke openly about which aspects of Judaism have influenced his Catholic beliefs. Perhaps, most impressive, he did not hesitate to speak about the recent controversies of the pope with regard to the Jewish people. Rather than seek to defend the pontiff, Archbishop Vigneron, who is likely to named a Cardinal, expressed his deep desire to further dialogue with the Jewish community. I was very impressed of his knowledge of Judaism and his making Catholic-Jewish relations a priority.

It should be no surprise that the Pope’s arrival in Jerusalem yesterday has already caused a fuss. News is circulating around the Web that Pope Benedict walked out on a sheikh delivering an anti-Israel diatribe yesterday in a meeting of interfaith leaders. Rabbi Barry Leff was there and wrote on his blog about his take on what happened. He wrote:

Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a rant at the gathering at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem. I don’t speak Arabic — and I presume the Pope doesn’t either — so at the time all I could tell was that the Sheikh was very animated. At one point whatever he said received some modest applause from the Arabic-speaking crowd. According to the Jerusalem Post report, here’s what he was saying: ‘In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians’ land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.” He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.

The entire text of the Pope’s speech is available here.

Rabbi Leff adds that the Pope quoted from the Torah portion Lech Lecha, saying: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a land I shall show you.”

No matter what the current Pope does or says, the relationship between Catholics and Jews is an important one. All interfaith relations are fragile in nature. I believe we should look positively on the Pope’s visit to Israel and use it as a springboard toward making dialogue between Jewish leaders and Catholic leaders a priority.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Intermarried Rabbinical Students

The student-run journal New Voices has published some thought-provoking and quite provocative articles in recent issues. Their current issue takes on a theme I don’t think has been discussed much. Is it acceptable for rabbinical students to intermarry? This is certainly not an issue in the Orthodox world and I don’t remember it ever really being discussed at JTS (Conservative). However, in the more liberal rabbinical schools (namely the Reform’s Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the new non-denominational Hebrew College), I guess this has been an issue.

One of my classmates at JTS was dating a non-Jewish woman, but she converted to Judaism early on in our six-year course of study and it was a non-issue.

The New Voices article, “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi”, by Jeremy Gillick opens with the story of David Curiel (right), who decided to become a rabbi in the summer of 2008. Curiel was shocked when Hebrew College told him he would not be welcome at its seminary because his wife was not Jewish. In the “it’s a small world” category, Curiel is from Metro Detroit and is the brother of a Hebrew High School classmate of mine from Adat Shalom Synagogue.

The author explains that the “Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) all refuse to admit or ordain students in relationships with non-Jews”.

The policy at the Reform Movement’s seminaries reads: “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program”.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philly said “The bedrock of what it means to be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people. Leaders of the Jewish community, who model to others what Jewish life can be, should themselves be in homes that are fully Jewish”.

There are some intermarried rabbis out there. “In 1992, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the neo-Kabbalistic Jewish Renewal movement, ordained Tirzah Firestone, making her the first intermarried rabbi on record. In her memoir With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Firestone recounts how her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith.”

According to Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of ordination programs at ALEPH (Renewal), Firestone’s experience informed the school’s approximately 10-year-old policy to evaluate students with non-Jewish partners on a case-by-case basis. When ALEPH does admit such students, it does so with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will one day “join the tribe”.

What do you think? Leave your comment about whether it is appropriate for rabbinical schools to refuse to admit intermarried candidates into their ordination program.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbinical Assembly Speakers

Last month I blogged about Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, when he announced his retirement as a result of his being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Tom Lantos passed away this morning in Bethesda naval hospital. He was 80-years-old. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to meet Rep. Lantos this past March at the AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C.

Tom LantosTom Lantos was a real mentsch and an important voice for human rights in Congress, even if he would never have been allowed to speak at a Rabbinical Assembly convention. Since Tom Lantos was married to a non-Jewish woman (in photo), he would have been forbidden from addressing the Rabbinical Assembly during its annual convention. As a dues-paying member of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I was surprised this week to learn of this policy.

A JTA article explains the little known RA policy prohibiting intermarried Jews from being speakers at the RA Convention. Therefore, the article states, it was difficult for the RA to maintain a balance between speakers on the right and left of the political aisle at this week’s convention in D.C. So, while Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is speaking at the Convention, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (married to a non-Jew) will not be allowed to. The policy even applies to non-Jews who have married Jews making Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ineligible. Each of these men are married to Jewish women (to be fair, Reid’s wife converted from Judaism to Mormonism so I’m not sure why he’s still blacklisted).

I can understand the RA choosing not to invite intermarried speakers to address the Convention if they are only going to promote intermarriage as a virtuous decision, but I don’t believe that choice has to be crafted into a written policy. I wonder if the RA asks all speakers at the Convention to disclose the religion of their spouse when they are invited to speak.

This policy would preclude a lot of politicians, business leaders, authors, and entertainers from speaking at RA conventions. For instance, Christina Aguilera would not be able to perform at an RA Convention (I’d pay to see that!) or speak about what it is like raising her son in the Jewish tradition (married to the Jewish Jordan Bratman, the couple’s son recently had his bris). This policy would also prohibit Jon Stewart from speaking at the RA Convention since he married Tracey McShane, a non-Jewish woman.

As the Conservative Movement tries to reach out to interfaith families through edud (insiration and encouragement), it would be helpful for Conservative rabbis to hear from couples who are living in interfaith relationships. However, under this policy it would be impossible for speakers like Jim Keen, an outspoken gentile father committed to raising Jewish children, to be allowed to speak at an RA convention.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler rabbinical school in Los Angeles, said “It’s the right priority, but the policy isn’t the right policy for the goal.”

My sense is that this policy will soon be reversed. It is possible for the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative Judaism to stand firmly against intermarriage without barring speakers who happen to be married to members of another religion.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

JDate Rabbis

Like most rabbis I read a lot of sermons that other rabbis have delivered. After this past Yom Kippur someone sent me a particularly good sermon that was rather risky. Rabbi Donald Weber even prefaced his Yom Kippur sermon by admitting that it would be a gutsy sermon to give. The rabbi of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, New Jersey told his Reform congregation that in over twenty-five years (and over 100 High Holy Day sermons) he never spoke about interfaith marriage from the pulpit as it was considered to be the “third rail of the Reform rabbinate — you touch it and you die.”

JDateIn Rabbi Weber’s well-crafted sermon about interfaith marriage, he chooses his words carefully and explains that he does not want to hurt anyone with his remarks. The chidush (new idea) of his sermon was that he came up with a way to help curb the rising rates of intermarriage within his congregation. He announced in his sermon (MP3 version) that he and his wife, Shira Stern, would personally pay out of their own pocket for a six-month membership ($149) to JDate for any young singles in his congregation who asked. In his sermon, he told the single Jews in the pews that the survival of American Judaism in its current form depends on their decisions.

Rabbi Webber’s JDate generosity made national news. Six weeks after he delivered his Yom Kippur sermon at Temple Rodeph Torah, USA Today published an article about his idea to promote marrying within the Jewish faith through JDate.com.

In the January 21, 2008 issue of Newsweek magazine it was reported that Rabbi Weber and his wife have paid for 24 six-month subscriptions from their own personal funds. Two other rabbis, Rabbi Kenneth Emert of New Jersey and Rabbi Michael Cahana of Oregon, have begun funding the six-month JDate subscriptions for their single congregants from their rabbinic discretionary funds. The Newsweek article states that two rabbis have also negotiated a bulk rate discount for rabbis who want to buy membership accounts for their congregants (this was also covered in the JTA blog).

The rabbis say they felt compelled to act because of the gradual dilution of the faith through marriage. Almost half of American Jews marry non-Jews, a rate of exodus that has more than tripled since 1970. “This is about creating an opportunity,” says Cahana. Sometimes even Cupid needs a nudge.

JDate certainly works. Almost half of the weddings I have officiated have been for couples who met on JDate (including one eHarmony wedding). If a Jewish couple didn’t meet in high school or college, I have come to assume they met each other on JDate. It will be interesting to see how many weddings Rabbi Donald Weber performs from the individuals who received a free JDate subscription from him. If every rabbi provides free subscriptions I am certain the intermarriage statistics will change positively.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller