Expanding not diluting: Embracing Jewish+ families
The time for this conversation is now
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
In 2016, I was eight years into a job I loved as a Jewish educator, and I was being recruited for a master’s degree program in Jewish educational leadership. I figured out how I would budget my time and balance serious academic study with my responsibilities to my family and my job. I worked my way through the application, my excitement building, until I reached a page that listed the institution’s standards. One standard, in particular, caught my eye, stating that candidates for this degree must “model a firm and lasting commitment to the Jewish home and the Jewish future through the choices they make in their own family lives… Therefore, we will only admit, graduate, or ordain candidates who, if in a committed long-term relationship, are in such a relationship with a Jewish partner.”
My heart sank. I was discouraged and ashamed, and I closed the application. My husband, Rob, (who had been my husband for 23 years at that time) is not Jewish. And even though, together, we participated fully in congregational life at our synagogue and have raised two Jewish children, I was not welcome to learn at this institution.
My partner of 22 years, Chris, is not Jewish; he identifies as non-faith. I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. Before we got married, we- like many couples- had the “family talk,” mapping out how we’d raise our (inevitably brilliant and perfectly behaved) future offspring. We were not always aligned, but one parenting decision was never up for debate. We were both in complete agreement that we would raise Jewish children, in a Jewish home. On this, Chris had one stipulation: that I not “just drop them off at Hebrew school,” which he said felt hypocritical. I, as the Jewish parent, had to be fully involved in their Jewish education. That seemed fair to me at the time, and I agreed.
Romantically planning life is a lot different from reality. After our first child was born, I set out to find a congregation, a place where my family could lay down its Jewish roots. I received an uncomfortable reception. We were not not welcomed; this was NYC in the 2000’s after all, a progressive bastion. We were, in some ways, over welcomed. There was an odd curiosity about my Black toddler who could recite Modeh Ani before he could walk. Many, many people asked me if he was adopted. At one event, a congregant cheerfully approached my husband (who happened to be wearing a Ugandan-made kippah) to say, “Welcome, you must be Ethiopian!” and then appeared to recoil when he told her he was “just Black.” Countless people, continuing to this day, asked whether (or when) Chris plans to convert. We have not been made to feel unwelcome by the Jewish establishment, per se, but we have felt othered. Different. Less than. Outside the tent.
My lived experience from those years, combined with my commitment to my husband that I remain deeply and meaningfully engaged in our children’s Jewish education, led me to create the Jewish education program I built with them in mind. A place where every member of my family can belong, as their whole, authentic selves.
If I am only for myself, what am I?
We have different stories and backgrounds but what we have in common is partners like Rob and Chris, who have consistently inspired us to live more Jewishly at home, and in our professional lives, because they trusted us and the institution of Judaism with the responsibility of raising our children. Rob and Chris choosing Judaism in this way scaffolded us in our journey to become Jewish educators, even when we faced barriers as interfaith families.
The good news is times have changed. The institution described above updated its policy and we are both engaged in the program from which we had been previously excluded. The Jewish community as a whole has made strides towards inclusivity and being more welcoming. But the language we use to refer to “interfaith” families has not kept pace with this increasing inclusivity, and may in fact undermine it. Informed by the experiences of our own families and the work we do in Jewish education, we propose Jewish educators adopt new language, and a new framework in which to engage interfaith families.
For decades, Jewish educators and scholars have identified that the words “interfaith” and “intermarriage” do not work. The word “interfaith” is inadequate; it is also often inaccurate, as is the case with Rachel’s family. People who do not identify as Jewish do not necessarily identify with another faith. More harmfully, the term “interfaith” is consistently used negatively, which is born out clearly in the news, academic literature, and research. Phrases like “the continuity problem,” “plague,” and “keeping me up at night,” are used to describe Jews choosing to partner and build families with non-Jews. Scholars, educators, and community leaders commonly advance the idea that intermarriage is something we must “stand against” and figure out how to prevent. And yet the latest Pew population study shows that 72% of Jews married since 2010 are married to non-Jews. How can we as educators continue to use such damaging, unfavorable, and- quite frankly- fatalistic language to describe such a large percentage of the families engaged in our learning programs? And what about the many, many more who are unengaged because they feel marginalized?
We believe it’s time for a new narrative.
To that end, we’re trying on for size the following terms:
Jewish Adjacent 1: describes a member of a Jewish family who does not identify as Jewish. Jewish+ Family: a Jewish family with at least one family member who is Jewish Adjacent
We suggest that, instead of using the term “interfaith” to refer to families with Jewish Adjacent members, we think of them as Jewish+. Describing a family as Jewish+ introduces an open and positive association with Jewish Adjacency. Our Jewish Adjacent family members are adding to the Jewish experience and narrative, not detracting from it. They are not diluting it; they are making it richer. In a 2018 episode of Judaism Unbound, sociologist Tobin Belzer, PhD, talks about her research on contemporary American Jewish, and highlights how often non-Jewish people are fundamentally involved in making Jewish people Jewish. Belzer actually refers to this as “revolutionary,” but from our lived experience, it isn’t revolutionary- it is simply reality. And it describes what happened to us: our partners inspired each of us to live more Jewishly in profound ways. Len Saxe, PhD, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies who advised on the Pew study, points out that when Jewish+ families have access to meaningful Jewish experiences, they engage in Judaism and raise Jewish children.
Language holds power. Jewish+ language comes from a position of authentic inclusivity- where everyone in the Jewish family is automatically included in the group. (Of course, they have the option to opt out.) Conversely, “interfaith” is linguistically (and is, in practice) exclusive. The prefix “inter” means between. The term “interfaith” doesn’t center Jewishness, and it puts distance between the Jewish and Jewish Adjacent members of the family, instead of viewing them as a unit engaged (together) in Judaism. “Interfaith” also places distance between the Jewish+ family and the rest of their Jewish community, because “Jewish” is the norm, and “interfaith” is then, by definition, othered.
We feel it’s also important to name here that Jewish families of color and Jewish+ families are not (necessarily) the same thing. Though there may be some overlap, we should not assume that the two groups do overlap- and we want to acknowledge the harm that can come from making this assumption. Jews of Color are Jews, period. Jewish Adjacent family members are not. Either group may be of color, but it should never be assumed that someone of color is Jewish Adjacent. Even within the same family of color (as is the case with Rachel’s family), some family members may identify as Jewish and others as Jewish Adjacent.
We are aware that there are Jewish+ families who do not engage in Jewish life. But we believe it is possible many of these families choose not to engage because they don’t feel represented, heard or welcomed. We believe that Jewish+ language is an opportunity to widen the invitation to engage new families.
Guided by Hillel (Pirkei Avot 1:14), we do not ask this only for ourselves and our own Jewish+ families. We accept and elevate our responsibility as Jewish educators to honor all Jewish families who want to learn about Judaism and live Jewishly. If we don’t invite the Jewish Adjacent family members of our communities to participate in a meaningful way, we risk alienating not just those family members, but also their Jewish children who are our learners.
And if not now, when?
The time for this conversation is now. The 2020 Pew study (and the subsequent articles and commentaries about it) throw its relevance into sharp relief. While it’s easy to focus on the data that highlights how Jews are divided and/ or diminishing, we propose that we think about how we are expanding. We believe that Jewish Adjacent family members can inspire and enhance the Jewishness of Jewish+ families, if we invite and engage them. Here are some of our ideas.
Action #1: Talk to members of Jewish+ families to learn about their lived experience
We, as educators, need to engage Jewish+ families and Jewish Adjacent family members directly, in personal and meaningful conversation, to genuinely understand their lived experience in our learning programs. If it’s true that our Jewish Adjacent community members can enrich the Jewishness of our Jewish community members (and we think it is!) then it’s to our detriment if we don’t actively engage them and learn from them.
Action #2: Change the narrative in our communities
We implore fellow Jewish educators to stop using the term “interfaith” to describe Jewish+ families, and “non-Jew” for Jewish Adjacent people. Instead, consider using inclusive, positive terms- either the ones we put forth here, or something else. Whatever terms you choose, define them prominently and use them consistently. Language runs deep and permeates every aspect of a community; here are some opportunities for change and adaptation:
- Use Jewish+ language on websites, mission/ vision statements, other places where the values of the community are communicated
- Update application and registration forms to reflect inclusive, Jewish+ language. Rather than ask people to check “Jewish” or “Not Jewish,” ask more holistic questions: Do you identify as Jewish? Did you choose to be Jewish? Are you Jewish Adjacent? Do you identify with another faith?
- When speaking to or about our community members, use Jewish+ and Jewish Adjacent language
Action #3: Walk the walk when it comes to inclusivity
Just about every Jewish community says it is “inclusive” and “diverse,” and we believe many Jewish communities genuinely aspire to these values. What does it look like to authentically include Jewish Adjacent people and Jewish+ families? Here are some questions we can ask ourselves:
- Is anyone on our board or leadership team Jewish Adjacent?
- How does our community incorporate Jewish Adjacent family members in our lifecycle events?
- How does our community make space for and support diversity in home practice?
- Can our students bring their authentic, whole Jewish+ selves into classroom discussions?
Action #4: Share your story
If you are a Jewish educator with a Jewish+ family, share your story with others. Be visible. Lend your voice. Share the richness that your Jewish+ family contributes to the larger Jewish narrative. We know that our individual stories drive our work. What’s your story?
There is a tired, antiquated narrative about so-called interfaith families, and it’s one of dilution, of less than. This narrative does not serve the families in our education programs, and it doesn’t serve the Jewish community as a whole. We welcome, with open arms, a new narrative: one of expansion and positivity. It’s a story for all of us, about all of us, and we hope other Jewish educators will join us in telling it.
Alison Weikel and Rachel Weinstein White are cohort members of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion executive master’s program in Jewish education. Alison is the director of education at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA and Rachel is the founder and executive director of Fig Tree in Brooklyn, N.Y.
1 We do not definitively know the origin of this language, but the earliest mention we found was in a 2013 article by Christopher Noxon.