Intermarriage: What Does It Really Mean?

Jeremy and Alyssa

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College recently decided to admit students to study for the rabbinate who are either married to or in a serious relationship with a partner who isn’t Jewish. There has been quite an uproar in the various Jewish-themed periodicals about this decision. It is a very emotional exchange and a theme about which the Jewish community continually wrings its hands.

Intermarriage, in and of itself, is not a predictor of the Jewish person’s commitment to Judaism. There are many intermarriages where Judaism is the culture and tradition chosen by the family. Just because a Jewish person marries someone who isn’t Jewish, doesn’t mean they intend to abandon their Judaism. But studies have shown that in other intermarried families, Jewish identity becomes diluted or abandoned. I have met more than a few Jews who intentionally and specifically choose a partner who isn’t Jewish as a way to separate themselves  from the formal Jewish community. Ironically, it is sometimes the non-Jewish spouse who is more interested in Judaism and feels cheated that their Jewish partner demurs from helping guide them in.

What intermarriage does indicate, is that Jews have finally broken out of the ‘ghettos’ in America. Over the last 50 years, Jews have become Americans and other Americans have no problem marrying Jews. It is also true that the Reform movement in Judaism accepted intermarriage as a reality in 1983. The phenomenon has continued to grow in the past 32 years. Few, if any, Jews are grieving when their children marry people who aren’t Jewish.

There are a great many “born” Jews who have grown distant or abandoned any Jewish practices, even when they are married to Jews. I recently heard from the father of a bar mitzvah student whose ceremony is scheduled in three weeks. This is a success story – right? This family used to be a member of a synagogue a few years ago. When I asked what happened to their other rabbi for the private service, I was told that they hadn’t yet contacted a rabbi. The father then proceeded to tell me that they didn’t want Hebrew in the ceremony since no one would understand it; that they didn’t want any Jewish songs since no one knows them; that they didn’t want the ceremony to be too long because everyone would be bored; and that the student should do everything involved in the ceremony because this will be his day and everyone knows him. For this family, Judaism is incomprehensible and boring, yet they still feel tied enough to the culture to want their son to make a statement about his Jewish identity. But what example are they setting for him?

This is the larger question: why do so many Jews find Judaism no longer compelling as a way of life? Address this question and you also go a long way in addressing the challenges posed by intermarriage. I’ll explore this more in my next post.

#intermarriage #interfaithwedding  #patrilinealdescent

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at and LIKE her Facebook page at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.


Making Sacred Space and Sacred Time


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Relationships with other people are a key ingredient to living a good life. The success of Facebook is certainly due to this idea. But if you are only friends on Facebook, are these real friendships? Other than being in a special interest group, I propose that these friends provide only shallow connections, not the deep and satisfying relationships that I think we all want.

There was a wonderful Toyota commercial a few years ago that illustrates my point (watch it here: It featured a young woman sitting in front of her computer in her apartment, talking about an online article that proposed that older people are becoming more anti-social. She encourages her parents to join Facebook. While the daughter has nearly 700 friends on Facebook, she is disappointed that her parents have only 19 friends. As the daughter continues to talk and comment on what she is reading on Facebook, proposing that ‘this is living,’ the commercial shows her parents in their Toyota Venza driving to a wilderness area to go on a bike ride with their friends.

We are now in the midst of the Jewish fall harvest festival of Sukkot during which we build a temporary dwelling in our yards where we eat most of our meals for a week, enjoying the beauty of nature in the company of friends and family. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect and strengthen relationships in real time with good food and good conversation. Judaism advocates being in relationship with other people. It is how we experience greater joy during our celebrations and support when we have challenges. We are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can only do this if we make time to spend with them.

As much time as I spend reading my newsfeed on Facebook, I don’t pretend that this particular activity is the same as interacting with my friends. This is unlike the woman in the Toyota commercial. The activities shared on Facebook aren’t the entire truth of anyone’s life, but it seems to me that there are people who forget this reality. My newsfeed is regularly cluttered with videos, articles, and photos that people share that are not about themselves at all. There is also a growing volume of advertising. I use Facebook as a tool for letting people know that I am thinking about them, and I like being notified of birthdays so I can send a greeting. I’m fairly certain that much of what I post goes unread by those who are in contact with me if they have more than a few friends. It is very difficult for me now to sort the wheat from the chaff with all the information that comes through.

The devices that allow us to connect with each other virtually are the same devices that distract us from connecting with each other in real time. I have a number of friends and clients who keep their mobile phones on the table when we’re together; they check the device whenever it makes a noise. But in order to really pay attention to each other, to nurture our in-person connections, we need to ignore the device. The younger a person is, the harder this seems to be. Unless something is an emergency, it’s important to be in the moment with the person in front of you.

It takes time and energy to nurture relationships. That is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for Jewish holidays over the course of the year and for Shabbat (the Sabbath) each week. These calendar days are set to remind me (and all of us) to use these sacred times to be with one another. Time passes whether we mark it or not. It’s up to each of us to make time to be together, to catch up on the news of our lives, to be in the same space and really pay attention. This time is a blessing, as are the relationships it allows. So this week of Sukkot (which ends on October 5), I am enjoying the company and the meals we are sharing together. I consider myself wealthy and blessed in my relationships, that we make time for one another. I look forward to the new friendships that come my way, and the chance to share more good food and good conversation around the table.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at You can also LIKE her Facebook page at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

Getting Your Groove Back With A Little Pink Pill


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration finally approved Flibanserin as a medication to treat low libido in women. It will be available by prescription on October 17. The media has been calling this drug Pink Viagra ( since it helps some women with sexual disfunction as blue Viagra helps men. However, flibanserin doesn’t increase blood flow to the genitals the way that Viagra does. Flibanserin is a serotonin inhibitor, affecting brain function. It was originally developed as an antidepressant, although it wasn’t effective in treating depression.

According to a June 4, 2015, article in the Los Angeles Times (, 4.8 million pre-menopausal women experience low libido (or these are the women courageous enough to talk to their doctor about it; it may be a much larger population). Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) is the official name for low libido. In contrast to men, who have 24 drugs to treat sexual disfunction, women will now have just one. Flibanserin is not intended for use by post-menopausal women, yet in the August 24th article from Yahoo Health, the three women interviewed were peri- or post-menopausal. And it only works for 8-13% of the women who take the drug. Critics question whether it is worth taking a medication every day on an ongoing basis for such a low percentage rate of efficacy.

So why should I, a rabbi, be so concerned with a medication to treat low libido in women? As a feminist, it has seemed grossly unfair that a medical condition in women hasn’t been deemed worthy of real treatment until now. I hope that the availability of Flibanserin will encourage researchers and manufacturers to pour more money and energy into further treatments for women with a variety of sexual dysfunctions. Critics say that the increase of desire for sexual encounters is minimal, increasing by one more each month. My opinion is that if you go from nothing to one, that’s a big deal. I’m also concerned as an advocate for long and healthy marriages. Sexuality is part of the glue that holds relationships together. For many people, chemistry is the first level of connection, and can lead to greater closeness not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as well.

Jewish culture recognizes the importance of physical passion in a marriage. It is considered a mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being) to have a sexual encounter with one’s spouse on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Sex is not reserved for procreation; it is embodied holiness to experience physical pleasure within the relationship. Unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism teaches that sexuality is part of how God created human beings to be.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from celebrating sexuality. The entirety of the book Song of Songs illustrates the sexual connection between two young people. Each praises how the other looks and how much they desire each other. These love poems are traditionally read at the end of the Passover seder, as the family gathers after the main part of the meal to sing and praise. So, theoretically, everyone who attends a Passover seder should be very familiar with the text of Song of Songs. At the end of the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:18), the Eternal says that it’s not good for a person to be alone, but should have a reflective helper and that the two of them should become one flesh (2:24). Jews have always understood this to mean a sexual connection.

Throughout the history of Jewish literature and culture, sex and sexuality have been hot topics. The rabbis of the Talmud, medieval codes and commentaries, and folklore were fascinated by sex and wrote extensively about it. In recognition of the continuing importance of sex and sexuality within Judaism, the Reform movement recently published Jewish perspectives on sexuality in a multi-vocal book edited by Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow titled The Sacred Encounter. It is filled with wisdom and insight about relationships, marriage, sexual identity, and sexual expression by rabbis and scholars.

It is important to be candid in discussing sexuality and desire. I don’t believe that only 4.8 million American women have some kind of sexual dysfunction. I speculate that it was that number who had the courage to discuss it with a doctor. It’s been a long time since Dr. Ruth Westheimer publicly, frankly, and enthusiastically encouraged us all to enjoy our sexuality through her books, radio show, and television appearances. She related her own first sexual experience at the age of seventeen on a starry night on a haystack, which she later used as a story to teach her listeners and readers that it was a mistake not to use contraception. But Dr. Ruth’s main message was that sexual pleasure was a life-giving force, that such passion made life and relationships better and closer.

Like any medication, Flibanserin is not a one-size-fits-all. It won’t work for everyone, but it will make some women’s lives better. It is a start. I hope it will also open more opportunities to speak more openly and candidly about the importance of women’s sexuality and pleasure, to affirm that this a topic worth studying, discussing, and experiencing.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at and LIKE her Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

Are We Still Sad?


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Today is the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av (Tisha b’Av), a day Jews commemorate as the date when the holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. The first was destroyed in 586 bce by the Babylonians, with most of the Jewish population taken as captives to Babylon (see the biblical book of Jeremiah). After being rebuilt in Jerusalem by a small group of Jews allowed to return under the Persian protectorate (the Persians conquered the Babylonians), the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce and the Jewish population there was dispersed throughout the Roman empire. Tisha b’Av was also the date in 1492 when Spain finalized the edict to expel the Jewish population from that country.

In synagogues today, the book of Lamentations (probably contemporary to Jeremiah) is read as Jews remember the loss of lives, property, and the place to gather as a people to worship together. The destruction of the Second Temple caused a radical shift in how Judaism was perceived and practiced. There were no longer animal sacrifices or need of the priesthood and Levite helpers who tended the Temple rituals. The synagogue as an institution was born.

Even though this is a day of sadness, I’m not sad that animal sacrifice is on hiatus as a Jewish method of worship. I celebrate the re-creation of Israel as a Jewish country — a modern one — and tend to ignore those prayers about rebuilding a Temple and restoring ancient sacrificial forms of worship. What’s more, for the Temple to be rebuilt, the mosque that currently exists on that site would be destroyed. I don’t think that is a good idea for anyone. Talk about a reason for a holy war . . .

However, I do think it is worthwhile to reflect on loss, destruction, and sadness as a community endeavor. This is particularly important when experiencing personal loss. It seems like American society expects us to ‘get over it,’ that death and illness should only cause a temporary sadness, a blip on the radar of an otherwise totally joyful life. Judaism is wise in the ways of sadness. Grief is a journey, with sign posts to help in the process. There is no particular time when we’re supposed to be ‘over it.’ The loss is always with us; it becomes more bearable and familiar over time, but nothing fills the empty place that the death of a loved one leaves in a family. I officiate at numerous funerals in which the family is basically on their own to manage their grief. This makes me terribly sad. I remember when my sister-in-law died, how important it was to me to have the extended family and her friends around to share memories and take care of day-to-day details. It was meaningful, and continues to be so, to say her name aloud in my synagogue community on each anniversary of her death. I’m not ‘over’ her death, I just don’t feel the need to cry every day.

As Jews, we used to be really good at being present and mindful of one another. There are specific mitzvot (Jewish ways of doing and being) to visit the sick and comfort the mourner. I see families I work with refusing offers of comfort and help, feeling that they should be able to handle everything without taking their emotions into consideration. They want to be strong, to not wear their emotions on their sleeves nor to be a burden. I believe their family and friends want to help, to reflect the love in their hearts into the work of their hands. A grieving family denies others this specific mitzvah and themselves that solace that comes from community.

Synagogue communities are still mostly successful at being present and mindful. But, there are more and more Jews who aren’t synagogue members, who have been turned off by synagogues or don’t see the need or purpose of synagogues. They see synagogues in a narrowly focused way, as places to ‘bar mitzvah’ children and to pray. If they’re not ‘into’ those two things, they stay away from synagogues and the Jewish community as a whole. Many Jews live by the myth of total self sufficiency and the necessity of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. They feel they don’t have the time for or the need of community. And yet, they are impoverished when they experience illness and deaths of family members, because they have no community on which to rely. They are also impoverished when there are joys to share. It often seems when I officiate at weddings that folks no longer know how to rejoice a wedding couple. They come, drop off a gift, eat a meal, and leave. Many no longer dance, or even offer sincere good wishes to the couple.

There is no short term fix to these problems. Synagogues need to shift their marketing to show the myriad other benefits of belonging to community that are offered in addition to bar mitzvah and praying. Jews in general are woefully uneducated. How to reach them effectively is complex. Small efforts of one-to-one invitations — such as those practiced by outreach organizations — are successful, but there needs to be more funding for those by the Jewish community as a whole. Hillel and Moishe House are successful, but they still reach only a minority of college students and 20-somethings. We need a big and diverse effort, with the costs amortized over a lot of folks and institutions. There needs to be cooperation rather than competition.

So, I’m still sad today for the loss that those ancient Temples represented — a big, powerful, glorious gathering place for all, filled with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that assaulted the senses and lifted us as a community. While we honor the memory of our past glories and tragedies, we need to focus our main energies on our future. Today’s tragedy is how we are losing the generations of today and tomorrow — slipping away nearly unnoticed rather than lost in a cataclysm like the Roman Wars, the Expulsion from Spain, or the Holocaust.

It is just as important to guide folks in how to celebrate in their lives and in each other in a Jewish context rather than just mourning. Building and maintaining community begins with comprehensive and accessible education for all ages, not just children. While the Birthright Trips are an excellent beginning of outreach to 18-26 year-olds, there needs to be ongoing programming and engagement for this population. I know that many synagogues and organizations would appreciate this type of funding to make Jewish education affordable for all. Rather than dwelling in popularized myths of death and destruction, we need to popularize the wisdom and joy that Judaism provides for living a good life.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at and LIKE her on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

Balak and my body: unexpected blessing

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

When I was in first grade, we were lining up to go back inside after recess and a kid next to me asked me if I was pregnant.  I don’t think I even knew exactly how a person became pregnant at that point, but I knew that I wasn’t pregnant.  And I knew that he was referring to my belly.  For whatever reason, I have always been fairly thin but have had a little bit of a belly that, yes, I suppose could make me look like I’m a few months pregnant.  

I became very self-conscious about my belly after that first-grade comment but I don’t think I mentioned it to any friends or family for years.  I just let it stew in me.  I’m sure that my classmate didn’t mean anything malicious by it, but the question was seared into my memory.
Fast forward 25 years.  I’m now actually old enough that I could be pregnant.  I’m not, though.  I’m not even in a relationship.  Though those two things don’t necessarily have to go together, they are related in my mind.  Over the course of a year or two, three different co-workers of mine in a hospital stop me in the hallway, somewhat excitedly, to ask me if I’m pregnant.  NO.  I’m not.  I try to play it down as if it doesn’t affect me, but it does.  I think more consciously about the outfits that I wear.  Maybe the shirt was just too fitted.  Maybe I should work out more.  It’s not about working out – I try to remind myself – I’ve run several half marathons and am in good shape.
It’s just how I look.  Each and every one of us have parts of our body that we love and parts that we wish we could swap.  I love my shoulders and my arms.  My legs are toned; a friend saw me a few weeks ago and commented on how great I look.  And honestly, most of the time, my belly doesn’t bother me.
Until someone says something.  I don’t just feel like I’m in first grade again.  There’s another piece now.  They aren’t saying that I’m fat.  They are actually happy for me, trying to wish me positive thoughts on a pregnancy that isn’t there.  It reminds me that I want to have a family and I am not there yet.  It reminds me that I’m not getting any younger and that the biological clock is ticking somewhere out there.  They are trying to bring me joy and instead they end up bursting open my insecurities, both about my body and now about my relationship status and yearning for a pregnancy of my own one day.  The intended blessing feels like a curse.
Today, however, the same interaction became a blessing.  The words that I had come to feel as painful transformed themselves into something empowering.  Maybe even holy.  I just finished a run and was meeting some of the others in the running group.  A woman introduces herself to me and we start talking; friendly and casual enough. Then it happens, totally unexpectedly.  “Is there a child in there?,” she asks, as she motions toward me.  Then, for the first time, I really truly brushed it off.  I said, “Oh…no, that’s just the way I am.”  She paused, maybe apologized – I’m really not sure – and then asked if I wanted to get drinks with her and some of the other girls.
I realized tonight that I am finally confident in who I am and how I look.  Maybe when I finish training for this race,  I’ll have a slimmer torso.  Maybe not.  Who cares?  My ability to slough off this vulnerability that I have been carrying for so long is something powerful.  And that unexpected blessing is rooted deep within our Jewish narrative and within this week’s Torah reading.
By the time we reach parashat Balak, the Israelites have become quite numerous as they continue to journey through the wilderness.   Balak, the king of a neighboring nation, feels threatened by their size and asks Bilaam, a diviner, to curse the Israelite people on his behalf.
Bilaam hears God that night, who tells him that he cannot curse the Israelites, as they are already blessed by the blessings that they inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Balak doesn’t settle for no; after the second request, God allows Bilaam to go with Balak’s people to the Israelites under then condition that Bilaam must follow God’s commands when he gets there.
Twice, Balak asks him to curse the Israelites but his words are dictated by God to be words of blessing and praise.  As Balak takes Bilaam to the third vantage point to look upon the Israelites and curse them, he actually blesses them with words of his own.  In the first two instances, God tell Bilaam to “speak thus” and Bilaam parrots back God’s words . This third time, though, he isn’t prompted directly.  Instead, God’s spirit, ruach Elokim, is upon Bilaam and he articulates the words on his own.  In those words, he notes that his eyes are uncovered.  Now that they are uncovered, he can see God more clearly and he can see his role and own self more clearly.  He opens this speech and the subsequent one announcing himself:
“Word of Bilaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled” (Numbers 24: 3-4)
He is taking ownership of the words.  When the phrase “God uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” occurs a bit earlier (Numbers 22:31), the 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it may mean that Bilaam gains an extra ability to see.  Just as his eyes were opened, leading him to claim his role, I was able to see in a new way tonight. I could now see my exact same body with different eyes.
After years of people asking if I was pregnant and jabbing at my insecurities, I too was able to stop the curse and see the blessing that God had placed in front of me.  I am happy and healthy and have a body that does everything that it should.  For all the hours that I have looked at myself in the mirror, perhaps my eyes weren’t fully uncovered until today, when I was able to truly see myself, whole and wholly intact.  No one can take that away.

Celebrate Good Times, Come On!

Liberty & Justice for All
by Rabbi Wendy Spears
About two and a half years ago, I changed my Facebook profile photo to this image of Lady Liberty kissing Lady Justice. My promise was that it would remain as my profile photo until there was marriage equality throughout the United States. While I prayed and worked to make marriage equality a reality, I didn’t dare to dream that it would come so soon. That dream became a reality last Friday, June 26, 2015. I cried tears of joy, and reveled in the outpouring of celebration in the media and in my community.

The media has covered both sides of the marriage equality debate, playing up the opposition more than necessary and portraying religious voices primarily as part of this opposition. Within the Jewish community, both liberals and conservatives have celebrated the decision of the Supreme Court. I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post from an Orthodox rabbi which supported marriage equality. This is not to say that this Orthodox rabbi would officiate at a Jewish marriage ceremony for a same gender couple. Rather, the support is for marriage equality as a civil right in America.

My support for marriage equality comes from a religious as well as a political viewpoint. The interpretation of what marriage means in America has changed radically over the course of the 20th century and continues to do so into the 21st century. Historically, marriage was primarily a business transaction where a man purchased a woman from her father’s household. The groom gained a valuable worker for his own household as well as a vessel to bear his children. A woman was property, much like any other property a man could acquire. I don’t think that any American truly believes that this idea is what marriage is about today. Rather, it is an equal partnership between two adults who want to be a family and share a life together.

So, too, in Judaism, the philosophy of marriage is changing. My colleague Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler has written extensively on marriage as partnership in her book Engendering Judaism. She was instrumental in developing the many egalitarian and liberal Jewish marriage documents available to all couples from Ketubah Ketubah and MP Artworks. These ideas and documents intersect easily to include same gender couples.

Judaism is an interpretive tradition and culture that has adapted to time and place throughout the course of our history. We don’t take the words in the Bible and other literature just at face value or surface level. It isn’t enough to read the English text; it is crucial to examine the Hebrew as well. It is also important to read the questions and comments of scholars from Jewish history as well as contemporary opinions. We pick and choose what we hold close as our values and what we discard. For example, in Deuteronomy 21:18, parents are instructed to take a rebellious son to the town elders to have him stoned to death. I’m happy we don’t do this anymore. I am reluctant to rely on the Bible exclusively as a proof text for anything. So when I read in the newspaper or in online media that some conservative Christians say that the Bible reserves marriage for one man to one woman, I can’t agree. The Bible has many more passages that promote polygamous marriage than it does about anything regarding same gender relationships (about which it really says very little).

As a religious person who believes that all people are created in the Divine image, I prefer to focus on the big picture that marriage equality is a benefit to society as a whole. Judaism views the family home as a place of peace, safety, and hospitality. This type of home fosters community and the Jewish value of making the world a better place (tikkun olam). I also value the Jewish principle that developed from Genesis 2:18, that it isn’t good for a person to be alone. Everyone should have a suitable partner who helps them to achieve their best self and life path. Each person must choose for him/herself who that best person is.

While there is still much healing to be done in our world, the achievement of marriage equality is a big victory. I choose to celebrate this moment with exuberant joy.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at

Interfaith: A Misnomer

Micah & Wyatt

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Christianity and Islam have their roots in Judaism, but they are not variants of Judaism. Despite its name and claims to the contrary, Jews for Jesus is a Christian organization. Their population is composed of those who used to be Jewish before making a break with Judaism by accepting Jesus as their messiah. Their goals and techniques for proselytizing are the same ones that Christian missionaries have used for centuries. I met their official representatives in mid-April at the Christian Missionaries Training Association (which I happened upon by chance while I was attending another convention at the same venue), not at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention nor at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations.

When I decided to become a rabbi 33 years ago, I never imagined that it would be necessary for me to clarify that Jews don’t believe that Jesus is our messiah or the son of God. Neither are we bound in obedience to Allah through the teachings of Muhammed. It is dishonest and disrespectful to Muslims, Christians, and Jews to claim that the three Western religions are the same. This isn’t just my opinion; it is the consistent position of all three religious traditions.

I’ve spent the majority of my rabbinate working with interfaith couples and families to introduce them to the resources of the Jewish community. If someone is not already an involved communal member, it is difficult to find those resources. The term ‘interfaith’ is confusing because it means different things to different people. For the American generation of the 1950’s and 60’s, interfaith meant Protestants, Catholics, and Jews finding ways to co-exist alongside each other and cooperate where there were shared goals. Today, for Jews for Jesus and other organizations which don’t advocate for Judaism exclusively, it often means practicing two or more religions in a home. When I (and the Union for Reform Judaism as well as my fellow rabbis, cantors, educators, and other Jewish professionals) meet couples and families who identify themselves as ‘interfaith,’ we choose this term to mean that one of the adults is Jewish and the other isn’t. I don’t mean the syncretism of ‘being both,’ a combining together of various theologies, rituals, and holidays that don’t fit into any recognized system or practice. I am liberal and open-minded to a variety of points of view, but not so much so that my brain falls out. Being Jewish in America, where the majority of the population isn’t Jewish, is more of an effort than being Christian. It is a worthwhile effort for Jews in living a good life.

Most often, the adult who isn’t Jewish in a couple or family is open to living a Jewish life with his/her partner and isn’t committed to another religious practice. I provide Jewish experiences so folks get a taste of Judaism and can begin planning their life vision together. In my work reaching couples and families who aren’t official members of the Jewish community, I present some of the beauty and wisdom of Judaism to demonstrate how it can provide a foundation for a meaningful life. I guide them in finding a synagogue that will be their home community, where they can be supported in times of challenge and sorrow and celebrated in times of joy.

There have been a few couples over the years who have initially said they wanted to ‘be both.’ I recognize that people value their relationships and are willing to make compromises to protect those relationships. Choosing both or none seems less painful than making a choice for a lead religion in the family. They usually haven’t really discussed what they mean by ‘being both.’ Most are minimally educated in the religious tradition of their respective families. It is my responsibility to them, both as a rabbi and as a Jew committed to Judaism, to advocate for why it is good to live a Jewish life. I am able to help the Jewish person articulate why Judaism is important for their life together. Sometimes, after listening to a couple talk about themselves, I encourage them to visit with a minister, priest, or imam, as is appropriate, to help them find the path that will work best for them. It is also my responsibility to help couples and families wrestle with the hard questions, preferably before their children come along.

The reluctance to advocate for one family religion seems to come from a place of fear — fear that an honest discussion about values and beliefs might reveal irreconcilable differences. This is a possibility. But not having this discussion is like waiting for a time bomb to go off in the relationship, which can cause irreparable damage. Marriages need honesty and trust as well as shared values and rituals to sustain them over the long term. It is better to have discussions about religion and everything else that is important early on to minimize conflict, discord, and unhappiness. Judaism offers a particular worldview that is complete in and of itself, providing meaning and purpose in living a good life. It doesn’t need to be enhanced by rituals or holidays from other religious traditions.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at

Target: Interfaith Couples and Families


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I had the opportunity a few days ago to be in conversation with Jews for Jesus without them knowing that I am a rabbi. I chanced upon a Christian ministries training workshop where Jews For Jesus had a vendor booth. They gave me literature which outlines the most effective ways to share the message of Jesus with Jews. The salient point they make is that Jews don’t need to give up their identity as Jews in order to embrace Jesus as Messiah.

To my way of thinking, as well as to every minister, priest, and Christian lay person I know, embracing Jesus as Messiah is the identifier that makes a person Christian. This seems straight forward and easy to understand. To take the position that a person can believe in Jesus as Messiah and not be Christian is disingenuous at best. I imagine that faithful Christians are proud to be so and might take the position that it is disrespectful to them and their faith to say that they aren’t Christian.

Many Jews say that they are not religious, but view their Jewish identity as cultural. They say, too, that they are spiritual but not religious. This doesn’t mean that their Jewishness is unimportant to them. Most Jews are proud of their identity as Jews. Jews For Jesus knows all of this very well. They also know that most Jews have a very limited knowledge of scripture and theology. Their strategy to bring Jews to faith in Jesus is to present Jewish scripture and theology through a Christian lens.

Christians have used Jewish scripture to prove Jesus’ messiah-ship throughout their history. This is the Christian worldview and is relevant to Christian practice, prayer, and belief. It is not, however, a Jewish world view. It is difficult for Jews who are uneducated in Judaism to refute a scriptural argument by a Christian missionary group like Jews For Jesus. I don’t recommend that most Jews try to do this, anyway.

My biggest concern regarding Jews For Jesus isn’t their general missionary activity. It is, rather, their increased efforts to reach out to interfaith couples and families. As the Union for Reform Judaism (I am a Reform rabbi) has severely curtailed its directed outreach efforts to interfaith couples and families, other organizations like Jews For Jesus have stepped into the breach to offer a warm and welcoming community. Individual rabbis and congregations have maintained their outreach but without further official resources, they are at a disadvantage. There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.

It is not enough to encourage interfaith couples and families to make some Jewish choices. This has a desperate tone to it, as if doing some Jewish activities alongside Christian activities is a good way to live a Jewish life. Christianity isn’t an authentic Jewish path. It is a religious path distinct from and different than Judaism. As a rabbi, I need to present the beauty, wisdom, and spirituality of Judaism as the authentic way of life and faith that it is. Jews don’t need Christianity to ‘complete’ us. We do need to be familiar with our core stories and the values and actions that those core stories come to teach us. Our scriptures are the first place to find those core stories, as well as the place to explore our relationship with the Divine. For most of us, our life circumstances are radically different than those of the characters in our core Jewish stories. The relationships expressed in those stories, as well as the search for God’s presence in our lives, continue to be relevant today.

I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life. It won’t. In my work with them, I will continue to be an advocate for authentic Judaism.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at

A Glass Full or Empty?

By Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov

I try hard to be an optimist. Sometimes, I guess I fall short of that and hopefully, I’m just a realist and not a pessimist.  I want to see life as the glass “half full,” and not “half empty.”  Of course, though, there are days when I’m not sure whether it’s half full or half empty- it just is.

As we celebrate Passover, we will need to fill many glasses, not only our own but two other communal glasses. At almost any seder there is set aside a traditional cup for Elijah.  This cup symbolizes our hope that Elijah the prophet will come to our seder and herald in the messianic age- a time when there will be peace on all the earth.  I recently learned of a custom whereby everyone at the seder pours a little of their wine into Elijah’s cup, thus symbolizing that we must all do our part to bring about peace in the world.

 Another cup that has been added to many seders within the last 25 years is “Miriam’s Cup.”  This cup, to be filled with water, represents the role of both women and water in our lives.  So much of the Passover story deals with men, and by adding a cup that represents Miriam the prophetess, we are making sure to add the heroic efforts of women into our story as well.  The idea of filling this special cup with water is representative of a story from the Talmud which says that in honor of Miriam, God gave the Israelites a well for their journey in the desert. That well, and water in general, represents how critical water is to our existence. Personally, I believe that by having a cup of water on our seder table, we can be reminded that sometimes even the most mundane of things- like water- are actually critical to our survival and we must not take it for granted.

Having a “Kos Miriam” (Miriam’s Cup) can also serve to remind us that around the world 750 million people lack access to clean water and sadly, every minute a child dies of a water-related disease.  Passover is our opportunity to remember the past, but hopefully it can also serve as a wake up call to look to the future and make a difference, such as by going to and learning more about the international water crisis. Thus by doing so, as we fill Miriam’s cup we can actually also fill the cups of so many in need.

Of course the seder isn’t complete without each person having four cups of wine (or grape juice). When we fill our second cup of wine, we will pause to take out 10 drops of liquid – one for each of the 10 plagues delivered to the ancient Egyptians.  Taking out these ten drops- even the smallest of drops, reminds us that we can not drink a full cup of wine (our symbol of joy) when we know others have suffered, even our enemies.  Still today as we go to our Pesach celebrations we must be reminded that although we are free, others are still enslaved. Today as we celebrate our faith, around the world there are others who must practice their religions in secret. Today as we are blessed to eat with friends and family, others go hungry.

 This Passover we are blessed to have so much to celebrate. Even as many of us face some sort of trials and tribulations, let us instead try to see our cup as almost full. Let us use this time of Passover to give thanks to God and let us lift up our cup and truly say “L’chaim- To Life!”

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi of Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY.

My Hero, Rabbi Denise Eger

Denise Eger

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Many years ago, when I was the rabbi educator at Temple Emet of Woodland Hills, California, I often asked my students to name their Jewish heroes and explain why they made their choices. Sometimes they chose characters from the stories they heard or read, but they mostly chose people that they knew who had affected them in some profound way. This is true for me, as well. I have had many mentors, but one of my heroes is my colleague and friend Rabbi Denise Eger.
Two weeks ago, Rabbi Eger was elected as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the union of Reform rabbis. She is only the third woman in the history of this organization to hold this position and the first openly LGBT person. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration and panel presentation in her honor at her synagogue Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.

Rabbi Eger was not elected as president because she is a lesbian, but rather because of her wisdom, advocacy, and leadership in the Jewish community. In all of these areas, she inspires me. She has been my go-to person when I was crafting wedding ceremonies to celebrate my gay and lesbian clients, as well as for the heterosexual couples. She confirmed to me that love and family is what we make it to be, and that this personal commitment is very much a political statement. Every couple deserves to be celebrated and recognized in the spirituality and desire to be a family together along with the legal rights accorded to heterosexual couples. This is a civil rights issue. Rabbi Eger has been in the forefront in the fight for marriage equality, even at its most ugly and contentious. We prayed together often that marriage equality would be a reality in our lifetimes, and through her advocacy and leadership in this area our prayers are being answered.

Rabbi Eger has been a model for me on feminist issues. She was among the first rabbis I knew to struggle with God language that caused spiritual dissonance for women living Jewish lives. Her insight into prayer and theology helped me in my own spirituality as well as what I could offer to my clients and students. As a feminist, she has and continues to advocate on the issues of equal pay for equal work and family leave benefits. In my own career, she encouraged me to ask to be paid what I’m worth based on my education and experience and not to be intimidated when clients thought they should get a discount because I’m not a man. She inspires me in how she connects with other female colleagues; she taught me that we need to support each other in advocating for ourselves collectively – the “old girls’ club” is important for women in creating opportunities and mentoring of each other.

I am so grateful for Rabbi Eger’s friendship. When I’ve needed guidance in my rabbinate and about my family, she offered me her counsel and kindness. She demonstrates strength and courage in so many areas. Just as she has created a warm and welcoming community at her congregation, so has she nurtured me with warmth. Though we are not far apart in age, her wisdom is far beyond her years. She continues to be one of my blessings.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at