Earlier this month my family hosted some of the Israeli staff from my son’s summer camp before they went to the camp for training. We have done this for the past three summers, and it has been a wonderful experience.
This year, the staff that we hosted had spent time with Birthright tours in Israel, and one had an American girlfriend who he met while serving as an IDF liaison to a trip. As he told us about her, he mentioned that she was Jewish. Really Jewish. Since 30 percent of Birthright participants have only one Jewish parent, I assumed that he meant that this young woman came from a family with two Jewish parents or was of matrilineal descent. A moment later, my young Israeli friend elaborated on the comment, “Her mother and father are both Jewish.”
The language used was an immediate red flag because my son’s camp was affiliated with the Reform movement and accepted as Jewish any child with one Jewish parent regardless of whether that parent was the mother or father. There would be many not-really-Jewish kids at camp according to his classification. I wanted the counselor to understand that his language was not acceptable and could be hurtful to the very children whose Jewish identities camp was supposed to nurture. I needed to say something.
I explained that since the camp was Reform, there would be many children from interfaith homes being raised within Judaism and that all were accepted and welcomed as Jews. I shared that there were no really-Jewish and not-really-Jewish campers. They were all Jewish. Drawing any distinction between kids from different types of homes was not in the spirit of camp, especially one that greets everyone with the phrase, “Welcome to Camp!” My guest said he understood.
The conversation made me think about the larger discussion about interfaith marriage not just in the US, but also in Israel. With the interfaith marriage rate in the US at 70 percent for non-Orthodox Jews, the success of American efforts to connect interfaith families to Judaism is hugely important to Jewish continuity and the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Many researchers and Jewish communal professionals in America see programs such as Birthright as significant opportunities to build the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of children of interfaith marriage. Program data proves that the trips are doing just that which is great news.
But working to create Jewish communities that are welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families needs also to happen in Israel. The old rhetoric about interfaith marriage that is still common among Israelis has to change if children of interfaith marriage are to develop a strong connection to the Promised Land. Let’s face it; future generations of American Jews will mostly come from interfaith homes. If they feel disconnected and alienated from Israel, the historic ties between the American Jewish community and Israel will diminish.
But even with the trends we see in Judaism, change will be difficult because Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls religious law and services. Hopefully, over time and with political and religious reform, money and more Israeli exposure to the diversity of Jews in America, we can at least get everyone to refer to children like my son as simply “Jewish.”