Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Love Makes a Family--and I Help

My late father, Mel Fischman, was kind and respectful to gay men and lesbians as individuals. He would not want them harassed by police or molested by mobs. Not in his wildest dreams, however, could he imagine that same-sex couples would ever be legally married. The closest he came was when my dear wife Rona asked him, "Suppose I were not in love with your son Dennis, but your daughter Denise?"

If Rona were in love with Denise four years ago, we could have gotten married in Massachusetts. As of a few weeks ago, our Massachusetts marriage would be recognized as binding in New York, where Rona grew up. If we were visiting Rona's cousins there and one of us became seriously ill and went to the hospital, the other would be treated as her spouse. And as of today, a left coast Rona and Denise could get married in California (as Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons have done after so many decades).

This past weekend, I did something else that my father, the Jewish community, and I myself would have found unthinkable when I was growing up: I co-officiated at an interfaith wedding. I have known the groom since he was a small boy, the son of close friends at Temple B'nai Brith. I know that his fiancee makes him stronger, saner, more confident, and more able to let his naturally sweet nature show. My brief acquaintance with her has made me like her and admire her intelligence, humor, and commitment to a better world. The two of them remind me of Rona and Dennis--except that she and her family are Christians. Like Rona and Denise, Alex and Katie have had to find their own way to marry.

Why did I sit down with them and the minister from the Welcoming ministry at College Avenue United Methodist Church and help them plan a wedding? Partly, because I knew them and believed in them. Partly, it was because they were so thoughtful about it. They could have had a civil wedding and ignored religious considerations entirely. Instead, using Rabbi Devon Lerner's book Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony, they came up with a wedding that felt true to both traditions.

There was a time when I would not even have considered participating. I believed, and most of the Jewish community believed, that "intermarriage" could never be "good for the Jews." Social science seemed to back up that opinion. Jewish/Christian couples tended to be less involved in synagogues or home rituals and less identified with the Jewish community. The prediction was that in two generations, their descendants would lose all trace of Jewish identity. For a people as minute and as close to extinction as the Jews have been, this seemed like a crime in which I could not be an accomplice.

My own experience at TBB has shown me that it ain't necessarily so. In fact, both in Somerville and in Melrose, where I tutor, if it weren't for the children of mixed marriages, there wouldn't be any children's schools! A recent study by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (CJP) finds that in Greater Boston, "the majority of interfaith Jewish households — around 60 percent — are deciding to raise their children as Jews." Said Christopher Winship, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, who converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish woman:
"Intermarriage has often been claimed to be a disease that's slowly going to wipe out the American Jewish Community, but now you've got to do the math, and you see that if all the Jews that intermarried raised committed Jewish children, we could double the size of the Jewish population in one generation."

That's a particularly rosy view. I don't think it's likely. What's more probable is that we will double and redouble the number of people in the U.S. who think of Jews as family. As my father's example shows, it makes a difference if you think of members of a particular group as "those people" or as "Rona and Denise," or "Alex and Katie." Homophobia declines among people who know out gays and lesbians. Antisemitism is bound to decline among Christian or secular people who have Jews in their families.

The CJP study also shows that when we welcome interfaith couples to the Jewish community at the time they're getting married, they're more likely to stay involved with the community. That made me feel even better about doing what I already considered a mitzvah: helping these two loving people celebrate the love that God had given them.

So, my final words on interfaith marriage will be the final words I spoke at the wedding: Mazel tov!

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