Monday, December 24, 2007

Four approaches to Kiruv

There's nothing groundbreaking here, just a few observations on the way kiruv is done, triggered by an article on New Jew.

Last week, New Jew carried a link to a Jewish Federation of San Francisco article about an intermarried woman celebrating both Jewish and Christian December holidays.

New Jew was perturbed by a Federation’s use of its tzedakah dollars to promote an intermarried lifestyle. I am troubled, too, but I see this issue in the context of a greater question: How do we reach out to intermarried couples - or to anyone, really - in a manner that is simultaneously honest, respectful and substantive?

1. Close the door
Some take the tack of closing the door entirely. They refuse to insult the intelligence of the intermarried by pretending to accept them, and they refuse to bend on the issue of acceptance.
The positive side is that they are entirely honest and upfront.
The negative side is that although the occasional Jew is brought home by this ostracism, those are exceedingly rare exceptions.

2. Take the door off the hinges
On the other extreme, some embrace the intermarried and tell them to come as they are, wherever they are, pledging an open heart, open arms and an open mind no matter the sins being embraced.
The positive side is that they give the transgressor every opportunity to repent, on any level - even that of a single mitzvah.
The negative side is that there is usually - although not always - an inherent dishonesty involved in the “openness” pledge. My experience is that many mekarvim who take this approach are not usually sincere about it; they are just taking the path of least resistance into people’s hearts.

3. The revolving door
Then you have the approach of that San Francisco Federation - to openly and honestly accept the intermarried couple where they are, actively and vocally supporting their choices. This is also the approach of the Jewish Outreach Institute, known particularly for their Mothers Circle program.
The positive side is that they are honest in their respect for all choices.
The negative side is this question: What sort of Judaism and Jewish community are we marketing here, if we recognize intermarriage as a choice we will support, and even promote?

4. The door opens and closes, as you choose
And then there’s a fourth approach: Respectful disagreement, delivered with open arms.
By this I mean that the mekarev recognizes the Gd-given right of Free Will, which empowers every human being to make independent decisions.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with or support your choices, just that I respect your right to make them. I can advise you of my own opinion and present my arguments, and you can do the same in return, and either one of us will convince the other or not, but we will emerge with the recognition of each other’s integrity.
The positive side: It’s honest and forthright and accepting, and the mekarev gets to present his point of view.
The negative side: It’s probably more accepting than some would like, and may not have the greatest success because it’s not a hard-sell tactic.

I advocate this fourth approach. It’s anchored in a Torah-based tolerance, as well as a Torah-based sense of responsibility to engage others in discussions of mitzvos and aveiros, so I’m comfortable with it, and it has worked well for me.

As I said, no novelties here; just my musings, triggered by that article.


  1. Dear Mordechai,

    Thanks for quoting me.

    My primary issue is not as much with intermarriage, but with the choice of the Federation to headline an article which I feel promotes Christian religions over Judaism, which I thought was the strangest and most unfortunate of all decisions they could have made at this time of year.

    Thanks for quoting me, it's an interesting discussion of the four options you have. I'll link back to this post on my own blog to see if we can drive some traffic here.

    Appreciate your stopping by.


    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  2. Hello Mordechai,

    Thank you for your link to the Jewish Outreach Institute and your mention of our Mothers Circle program...and for grappling honestly with this issue. Unfortunately, I feel that you've misrepresented JOI and I'd like to clarify some points.

    Yes, JOI "accepts the intermarried couple where they are," but the choice that we "support" (i.e., that we dedicate resources towards) is the creation of Jewish households.

    It's their decision of course, and we don't try to punish them if they choose otherwise (how could we anyway?), but our programming is about encouraging Jewish choices and providing the venues to "do Jewish." Thus the word "Jewish" in our organization's name.

    The Mothers Circle program that you reference is for non-Jewish women who have committed to raising JEWISH children. Conversion to Judaism is not an option for most of these moms for a variety of reasons (though a percentage of them do convert). We understand and respect those reasons, and instead thank them for raising Jewish children; provide them with the education to do so; and recognize the sacrifice they are making of their own religious heritages to raise their kids in a different religion. Too often they are met with the closed door of your first scenario, and that is what we are trying to change.

    However, our outreach is not a "revolving door". It's an open door, more like your second example, but it's a sincere open door (unlike your suspicions) because we know from experience that most interfaith families won't bother walking through that door anyway until they've already made a commitment to (or are at least leaning toward) Judaism. So in fact, our outreach methodology is not only about opening that door --- or tent flap, as we see it, in the tradition of the Biblical Abraham --- but also about going outside our tent as Abraham did and meeting people where they are first, then inviting them inside.

    The challenge in your post is that you conflate outreach to the already-intermarried with promoting intermarriage, which it most certainly is not. Intermarriage happens because American Jews are Americans. The rise of intermarriage in this country began years before any outreach programs were launched to the already-intermarried. The programs were a response to the phenomenon, not vice-versa. Among all the factors that lead to intermarriage today, "programs that support the intermarried in making Jewish choices" is well near the bottom of the list, I promise you.

    I recognize that you are coming at it from an observant point of view in which intermarriage is a sin. But if we're talking about outreach methodology --- with the goal being to encourage more interfaith families to make Jewish choices --- you have to recognize that the overwhelming majority of intermarried Jews don't see their action (marrying the person they love) as sinful in any way. That's "your" rubric (the observant Jewish community), not their's. If you genuinely want to reach them and share with them what you love about Judaism, it can't be done with the judgment that they are sinners. That's why Chabad's outreach is often effective, because they don't appear to come with judgment.

    And it's why your fourth scenario, "the door opens and closes," hasn't worked in attracted the intermarried and will continue not to work. Because WHO'S opening and closing the door? You tell yourself it's based on THEIR decisions, but it's really you determining who's acceptable or not. Granted, you claim to be working from a pretty authoritative guideline: Jewish law. Yet there are blurry lines marking where Jewish law ends and synagogue "culture" or "tradition" begins, even in Orthodoxy. It doesn't just differ from movement to movement, but from institution to institution, maybe even from person to person. And that's the real challenge. Who can stand on the bima? Who is congratulated in the synagogue bulletin? Those are not questions of Jewish law.

    Bottom line: short of conversion, what does it take from an intermarried family before you to open the door to them, as per your fourth scenario?


  3. Hi Maya,
    Thanks for your comment and link.

    Hi Paul,
    Thank you very much for taking the time to present such a thorough exposition.
    A few points:
    1. I wasn't claiming that JOI/MC promote intermarriage; the 'promotion' part was regarding the Federation's article, and indeed its whole Bridges concept.
    2. I understand what you are saying when you write that you are going out of the tent to met these families where they are. However, one point with which I wrestle - and it's a problem within my #4 as well - as that the more options we provide for intermarried couples to 'fit in' in the Jewish community, the more we send a message that this is an acceptable decision. From where I sit, that's a problem.
    3. I disagree that I am the one opening/closing the door. I don't close the door on anyone, intermarried or otherwise. They are free to come in and learn; indeed, some MC participants attend my classes, which is how I came to know about MC in the first place.
    4. I'm not sure why you take the bima and bulletin out of the realm of Jewish law. I suspect that's part of a broader disagreement we would have regarding the nature and definition of Halachah.

  4. Thanks and glad to learn of your work with some MC moms. My main reaction was to the phrase "revolving door," which tends to have negative connotations (like "revolving door justice" for example). As in, impermanence. I'd hope that the Mothers Circle, combined with the classes you teach, and other Jewish opportunities, are part of a deepening Jewish engagement for those women. As in, permanence.

    When you wrote that the Federation's approach "is also the approach of" JOI's, and then question that approach, I hope you can see why I thought you were also talking about JOI when asking "What sort of Judaism and Jewish community are we marketing here, if we recognize intermarriage as a choice we will support, and even promote?"

    While that article was poorly chosen by Federation, I'm familiar with their programming and assure you that it is not representative of their work. They are bringing interfaith families into the Jewish community. If you worked out there, you'd also get folks into your class from their work. That one woman's experience should not have been used as representative of the outcomes of their work.

    The choice we are supporting is not about intermarrying, it's about engaging in Judaism and Jewish life and raising Jewish children. It's after the fact, not before the fact. I know that has some halachic relevance, but I am sorely unsuited to debate halacha with you. But I'm not asking you to change your understanding of halacha, I'm asking how we can work together within that understanding.

    You are right though, that it will be increasingly more difficult to portray intermarriage as "beyond the pale" if our institutions even slightly begin to reflected the demographic reality that today there are more intermarried households than in-married households. If we acknowledge that intermarried Jews are still capable of raising Jewish children (although often with more difficulty than when both parents are Jewish), it's going to require us to treat intermarriage as a transgression more akin to not keeping the Sabbath, and no longer as the murder of countless future Jewish generations.

    Do you think it will lead to more intermarriage, if we drop the shrill? I don't. I think the trends that caused the rise in intermarriage are way bigger than anything the Jewish community has control over.

    Peer pressure, communal pressure, even familial pressure ain't what they used to be in the Jewish community. Maybe it's still powerful in the Orthodox community. The fact that you are even grappling with it is remarkable to me, because I think there's an assumption that it does not touch the Orthodox world. Of course, demographics like in the National Jewish Population Study suggest that even in the Orthodox world, the exit doors are flung open a lot wider than the entranceways. But it would still be easy enough today for you to ignore it, so I applaud you for looking at it in a nuanced way.

    And I think the nuance is the key. It's not black-and-white, and we do ourselves a disservice by insisting that it is. I think a more honest conversation has to evolve about the challenges of intermarriage, but also about the opportunities. I'm sure some of those MC moms you've met are amazing individuals.

    The alternative is triage, cutting people off in the hope of keeping what's left. Luckily, that's no longer the policy of most of the community (though even in the liberal movements, it's remarkable how many institutions and individuals maintain it as a tacit policy). I'd prefer to draw as many people through our doors as we can -- whatever kind of doors they are. ;)