Mixed-faith couples discuss the challenges they face
Reform Judaism's senior rabbi has urged recognition and celebration of the fact that mixed-faith couples were "fundamentally integrated into Jewish life".
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner highlighted the need to embrace diversity at the annual "I'm Jewish, My Partner Isn't" seminar, held on Sunday at Finchley's Sternberg Centre.
Liberal and Reform rabbis and counsellors joined couples for the event, now in its 26th year. Topics ranged from abstract notions of identity to the practical questions of arranging mixed-faith weddings and raising children as Jewish.
Launched by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the seminar is now led by Rabbi David Mitchell of West London Synagogue, who said that, despite a softening of attitudes, it remained important to "keep an open forum. The stigma has definitely decreased, but every week I am contacted by people asking me what their options are.
"The stats we have today suggest that up to 50 per cent of Jews are marrying someone of a different faith. With figures like that, and with the ongoing challenge for Judaism to be as modern as possible, why wouldn't you offer people a place to come together and facilitate discussion?"
It is important to show them they are not alone
Rabbi Janner-Klausner added: "My primary concern is Jewish longevity. There are many different ways to care for people and ensure continuity - and this is one of them. I start from the position that anyone who is Jewish in the diaspora is making the choice to be Jewish. If somebody cares enough to give up his or her Sunday afternoon and come here to talk about these issues, then they're already on the inside."
Counsellor Sheila King Lassman, who has worked with couples in mixed-faith relationships for 25 years, was on hand to discuss ongoing challenges. "When these seminars started, there was still a lot of hostility to the idea of marrying out," she recalled. "In fact, when I was younger, Jewish parents sat shivah if their child married a non-Jew.
"But there can still be issues to deal with like brit milah. Jews need to take into consideration the fact that, for many people, circumcision is actually a barbaric act and it can be very frightening for their non-Jewish partners."
A recently married couple who first attended the seminar three years ago credited it with opening their eyes to the options available for those in mixed-faith relationships. "It was the first time we had really looked at ourselves as a unit," said the wife, who asked to remain anonymous.
"We got engaged soon after and started thinking about options for our wedding. I'm Jewish and we were both keen to have a mixed-faith blessing, but we never thought it would be possible. We discussed it all with our rabbi and got married in the summer with a civil ceremony, followed by a blessing in our synagogue. It was brilliant. All our guests said how inclusive it was.
"It's important for us to be here today to show other people they are not alone and they have a lot of options available to them."
Rabbi Mitchell intends to take the seminar to Manchester to reach more people in mixed relationships.
"The ultimate challenge is how to make the Jewish community a welcoming place all round," he said. "If someone faces a closed door, then the conversation is already over."