Why “Will Chelsea Convert?” Is the Wrong Question

It drives me crazy.

No sooner had word of Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky hit the news, than the question, like a mah-jongg tile gone supernova, exploded sending shockwaves across the internet and into the hearts of our communal neuroses.

So let me say this right now: I don’t care if Chelsea Clinton converts. Her spiritual decisions are not some ethno-religious trophy we should seek to display like a white rhino head next to Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Ivanka Trump. If you need this point underscored take a stroll through The Daily Beast’s slide-show of converts and celebrity flirtations with Judaism (kicking-off with an always-classy nipple shot of Britney Spears). The accompanying article matches this level of sophistication with a plumb of a quotation from Ed Koch suggesting that Chelsea Clinton acquaint herself with Chinese take-out menus. Although to be fair, it does get some slightly more thoughtful comments from the likes of Ruth Wisse, Rabbi David Wolpe and Joyce Antler (who was here a few years back with her book You Never Call! You Never Write! A History the Jewish Mother). Yet it still misses the point entirely.

The question is not whether Chelsea will convert, but how important is living a Jewish life to Marc Mezvinsky? And to be really honest, I don’t truly care how important it is to Marc Mezvinsky specifically, as I do to the thousands of Marc Mezvinskim who are going to marry non-Jews in the coming years, most of whom will not be presidential offspring. Despite all the progress that has been made in how the Jewish community deals with intermarried couples, we still view a conversion decision as a make or break moment. While that decision is an important, and often desirable one, it is but one on a spectrum of decisions an individual and then a couple make in relation to Judaism in his or her life.

It is great that Chelsea went with Marc to Yom Kippur services. But if that was the only Jewish connection Marc was going make this year, either with or without Chelsea, then it doesn’t really matter if she converts. However, if Chelsea never feels like taking a dip in the mikveh, but they light Shabbat candles, observe the yearly rhythms of the Jewish holidays, make themselves knowledgeable in Jewish history and practice, and decide to communicate these values and practices to any children they might have… then I think we as a people will still come out ahead.

What about halachah you ask? If Chelsea doesn’t convert then any children of that marriage will not have a Jewish mother and thus not be Jewish. You’re right. There are parts of the Jewish community that will not accept that child as Jewish. But the same would be the case if Chelsea does convert, but does so through the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. And there are growing sections of the Jewish community that will welcome that child, and contrary to the doomsday predictions of some, the Jewish community will be stronger for it.

So let’s stop acting like this is 1959 and the acceptance of the Jewish community by the “mainstream” needs whatever help it can get — and if that help comes in the form of Eddie Fisher marrying Elizabeth Taylor so be it. That was 50 years ago, and while tolerance and pluralism can never be taken for granted, neither should we be overly impressed when the elite of the elite decide to marry the elite of our elite. The kid is the son of two former members of Congress — it’s not like she’s marrying Motel the tailor.

I presume Marc and Chelsea will be setting-up shop in New York, but they should know if they decide to get digs in DC that they can come to our Pre-Marriage workshop beginning in January. If they don’t have the time to commit to that, then they should consider coming to the Washington Jewish Film Festival screening of Love and Religion: The Challenge of Interfaith Relationships this coming Sunday, December 6. The film is by Dr. Marion Usher who has been running our Interfaith Couples groups for the past 15 years. She’s been way ahead of the curve in reaching-out to intermarried couples and encouraging them to make Jewish choices, while still respecting the beliefs of the non-Jewish partner.

Chelsea. Marc. Dr. Usher is awaiting your call.

The Meeting of the Interfaith Couple and their Teacher: A Most Unlikely Rendezvous!

Worlds Collide

Interfaith Meet-Up in Siena

by Marion L. Usher, Ph.D.

(Dr. Usher has been conducting interfaith couples workshops at the Washington DCJCC for nearly a decade. For more information about her fall workshop click here. )

It was a beautiful night. There was a cool breeze in the air, we had just finished a sumptuous dinner, and had consumed an indulgent amount of smooth red wine. I could still taste the lingering tangy flavor of the lemon sorbet which finished off the meal. The evening light was amber and luminous. My husband and I were strolling back to the hotel holding hands and enjoying this magnificent place. This is what vacations are all about!

And then I hear someone calling in the dark, “Dr. Usher, Dr. Usher is that you?” Before I turned around to find the voice, a couple approached me with “I can’t believe it’s you!” And there they were: Jessica and Shanon, a couple who had just participated in my last interfaith couples workshop. What a wonderful reunion and what a coincidence to meet in this idyllic Italian town! Shanon’s parents had rented a villa nearby and they were in Siena for the day. Introductions were made all around. I met Shanon’s sister, his brother and their partners, and his parents who were generous in their praise of the workshop. Shanon and Jessica had told them all about the sessions and they were incredibly supportive of their attending the group. I took a picture of the whole family. Hugs all around and we said our goodbyes.

This was truly a most unlikely and totally incredible rendezvous!

PS. When I sent this vignette to Shanon he reminded me of another coincidence; the family picture was taken in front of the shop of a Hebrew calligrapher artist, something of a rarity in the tiny town of Siena with its infinitesimal Jewish population!

Shabbat Surfing: Leap Year Edition

  • Dr. Marion Usher, our interfaith guru, was interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More. According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religious Life, 44 percent of adults change their religious affiliation from that of their childhood. A roundtable of spiritual counselors discusses how the challenges of intimate interfaith relationships might support the new findings.  It airs today on WAMU at 2pm but can be heard on their website as well.
  • The blogosphere has been buzzing with posts analyzing Barack Obama’s positions on Israel and Tim Russert’s injection of Louis Farrakhan as a campaign issue. The JTA has a decent round-up of all bloviators and a follow-up post with more reactions. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton’s Jewish supporters soldier-on in Ohio, and John McCain’s  campaign, in a weird manuever, suggests a tri-lateral debate between the candidates’ Jewish surrogates and then withdraws at the last moment.
  • Prince of Petworth asks a question that’s occurred to me every time I’ve walked out our Q Street entrance for the past 11 years.
  • Jehan Harney, a local filmmaker, gets selected for an online film festival for her documentary, Soul Mechanic that tells the story of a Muslim mechanic who creates artworks inspired by three religions in his garage.
  • The National Capital Memorials Advisory Commission rejected a sculpture as a memorial to victims of terrorism designed by New York sculptor Suse Lowenstein, whose son was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The commissioners said they preferred something more abstract and timeless than Lowenstein’s 76 figures of women locked in the pose they were in when they learned their loved one had been killed. The figures in the work, Dark Elegy are nude, which the artist says reduces them all to the same level, but which the commission feared would offend some sensibilites and encourage distasteful vandalism. While I understand the commission’s decision, I was profoundly moved by Lowenstein’s work when it was displayed in my home town some years ago, and hope it can find a home somewhere in the DC-area.
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