I just returned from a (freezing) Chicago where I participated in the 2012 Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (a lot of words, I know, but still shorter than my own alma mater, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion). It was masterfully put together by IISHJ’s North American Dean, Rabbi Adam Chalom, and hosted by Northwestern University.
The topic was “Half-Jews? The Heirs of Intermarriage” and it was fascinating from beginning to end. And I’m not just saying that as a partisan Humanistic Jew. The sessions went far beyond any particularistic point of view and took a very deep look at an entire generation of self-identifying Jews from mixed backgrounds.
The conference opened with artist Maya Escobar. She blew us away with her in-depth – and highly entertaining – review of her work about her own identity. Another highlight for me was Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute. He presented a highly inclusive vision of Jewish community that is rapidly becoming the standard for many Jews. And that’s something to be both excited and grateful for. As more than one presenter pointed out, the Jewish community is no longer talking about whether to be welcoming to all kinds of Jews from all kinds of backgrounds. It’s talking about how.
Golin also made a startling demographic point with some simple math. We’ve long talked about the 50% intermarriage rate, but that translates to the fact that two out of every three new marriages involving a Jewish person involve a person from another background. So for every one household with two Jewish partners, there are two households created with one Jewish partner. Improved outreach means that a whole lot of them are now connecting to the Jewish community. Translation: Soon there will be more Jewish households of mixed heritage than those from a solely Jewish background.
In keeping with the tradition of these colloquia, the speakers were from a broad spectrum of (non-Orthodox) Jewish life. We heard from Hillel and Birthright/NEXT professionals and from academics, too. Our own movement’s Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas wrapped it up with a look at Israel’s struggles with these issues. There are over 300,000 Israeli so-called “non-Jewish Jews” whose ancestry is insufficiently matrilineally Jewish. They are victims of the nation’s completely unethical Orthodox stranglehold on Jewish status.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation about the heirs of intermarriage was really a conversation about the boundaries of Jewish inclusivity. As such, it was really about us all.
The Colloquium also launched the soon-to-be-released book, “A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews,” by Humanistic Judaism’s founder, the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Adam Chalom has spent years putting Wine’s manuscript in shape for publication. I’ll be reviewing it very soon.