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Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Jews Wonder -- and Ponder the Implications

4 years ago
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The survival of Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people as a community are eternal worries for Jews around the world, but rarely do those dual concerns come together as spectacularly as they will in the wedding later this month of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and the scion of another Democratic clan, Marc Mezvinsky.

In many respects, the impending nuptials feature the same dramas so many families experience as the big day approaches: The father of the bride (that'd be former President Bill) is struggling to drop 15 pounds before the wedding; the mother of the bride (that'd be current Secretary of State Hillary) is fretting about the dress (Oscar de la Renta or Vera Wang?); and the bride is trying to figure out who to leave off a select guest list of 400 who will be invited to the July 31 celebration at the former Astor mansion in the upstate New York village of Rhinebeck.

Chelsea Clinton, Marc MezvinskyReligion is an issue as well, as it often is: Chelsea, 30, is the daughter of a social justice Methodist (Hillary) and a Bible-quoting Southern Baptist (Bill), and Mezvinsky, 32, was raised in Conservative Judaism, a major Jewish movement that discourages intermarriage and forbids rabbis to officiate at -- or even attend -- interfaith weddings in which the non-Jewish spouse does not convert.

No details on how the couple will navigate these religious shoals have leaked out, just a few tantalizing hints -- such as Chelsea's attendance with Marc at Yom Kippur services last September at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship institute for Conservative Judaism.

The silence surrounding the wedding's religious protocols has only increased speculation in the Jewish community about what the couple will do: Will a rabbi officiate at the ceremony? A minister? Or both -- or neither? And will the bride convert? Or the groom? Or neither? And what about the kids?

"As a rabbi, I would be delighted to see Chelsea convert," Rabbi David Wolpe, a Conservative Jew who leads Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, recently told The Daily Beast. "That would be my dream scenario."

(Wolpe once worked for Mezvinsky's father, Ed, who was a Democratic congressman from Iowa before he went to jail on a seven-year fraud sentence after getting caught up in a series of Nigerian e-mail scams. The groom's mother, Marjorie Margolies, was a freshman representative from Pennsylvania who lost her seat in 1994 in part because she was the tie-breaking vote that passed President Clinton's first budget. Through it all, the Mezvinsky-Margolies clan remained close to the Clintons -- and now they'll be in-laws.)

Wolpe's wish that Chelsea convert is a common, but not exclusive, sentiment among American Jews who are pondering the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

In a lively discussion at the InterfaithFamily.com website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding "if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish." Another, however, cautioned that "this cannot be a Jewish wedding -- a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice." And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: "I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest."

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Yet this being the Clintons, and the religion in question being Judaism, the interfaith angst is taking on a significance far beyond that of the usual family tsuris over such matters.

Would such a marriage -- if Chelsea does not convert or the children aren't raised Jewish -- point again to an eroding Jewish identity among younger people and an existential threat to the survival of Judaism itself? Or could this be good for the Jews? It is, after all, a kind of dynastic marriage that would further bond the Jewish people to an influential Clinton clan that is already known for its affinity for Israel. What could be so bad about that?

Plenty, given Jewish history.

"Intermarriage has been fraught for Jews for a variety of reasons, and continues to be," said Julie Wiener, a columnist at The Jewish Week who writes a monthly essay dedicated to the intermarriage question. "Traditionally there has been a huge taboo against it because Jews have always been a tiny minority, and particularly after the Holocaust they were even smaller."

Rabbis in the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish movements are barred from officiating at any interfaith wedding, and the Reform tradition -- the largest and most liberal Jewish denomination -- formally opposes participation in mixed-marriage weddings, though it does leave the decision up to each rabbi. Some rabbis will even preside at same-sex Jewish weddings but not at heterosexual interfaith nuptials.

"Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today," Steven Cohen, a leading expert on Jewish intermarriage and a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, told The Associated Press in a recent article on whether intermarriage is hurting or helping Judaism.

Jewish observance had already been tailing off in recent years, especially among younger Jews, and overall the number of Americans identifying themselves as religiously Jewish has dropped from 3.5 million in 1990 to as low as 2.7 million in 2008. Jewish leaders also worry about a growing distance between younger Jews and what had been almost reflexive Jewish support for Israel -- at a time when Israel is feeling as besieged as at any point since its founding in 1948.

That's why intermarriage is such a crucial issue for Jews, and always has been. But especially since 1990, when surveys first showed that an eye-popping 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the religion, the Jewish community has become fixated on Jewish matchmaking and bolstering Jewish identity.

Jewish dating sites have sprung up across the Internet, and Jewish agencies have spent millions on trips to Israel for younger Jews intended not only to bond them to the Jewish state but also serve as a kind of extended singles party.

Last year, the Israeli government even co-sponsored a campaign against intermarriage that included newspaper ads and TV clips showing mock missing-persons fliers printed with Jewish-sounding names and the word "Lost" -- a reference to Jews who marry outside the tribe.

The spots were pulled after an outcry from American Jews, but a nationalist group in Israel called Lehava, which tries to get Jewish women to split with non-Jewish partners, recently lobbied to break up the relationship between Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yet none of these efforts has made an appreciable dent in intermarriage rates, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College and a leading analyst of trends in Jewish life.

"If you look at 100 percent of weddings taking place in 2010 in which a Jew takes part, 55 percent of those weddings will be intermarriages," Heilman said. "This marriage" -- between Chelsea and Marc -- "is a symptom and not a cause, another example that no family is immune to this kind of change."

As a result, most Jews are beginning to make the best of the situation -- and are in fact doing a pretty good job of it.

"There is less of a stigma attached to intermarriage," said Julie Wiener, "and more and more you are hearing people talking about intermarriage as an opportunity rather than necessarily a problem."

Besides, she added, "This isn't the first high-profile intermarriage in politics or Hollywood."

For example, Caroline Kennedy, a living link to Camelot Catholicism, married Edwin Schlossberg in 1986, and in 2002 Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President George W. Bush, married Rebecca Davis, who is Catholic. (Rabbi Harold White, senior Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, performed the marriage with a priest in a ceremony that included a chuppah, or canopy, which is customary for Jewish weddings, a traditional glass-breaking, and a marriage contract, or ketubah.)

On Saturday, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York City Democrat and vocal champion of Israel who is sure to be a wedding guest of the Clintons on July 31, married Huma Abedin, a Muslim and a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Bill Clinton was to officiate in the civil service, thus avoiding any religious issues altogether.) "I think it's wonderful," Weiner's mother, Fran, told the New York Daily News about her son's choice of a wife. "Anything that makes them happy."

To some degree, official Judaism is also starting to agree with Weiner's mom, and is taking steps to adapt.

In March, for example, a task force on intermarriage set up by Reform leaders concluded the movement should do more to encourage mixed-faith couples to be active in Jewish life, including creating special blessings for major life events, like weddings and funerals. Rabbis are still discouraged from taking part at interfaith weddings, but the focus is now on encouraging mixed-faith couples to create Jewish homes rather than just discouraging interfaith marriages.

Also this year, the main body of Conservative Judaism voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop "sensitizing" students to "issues of intermarriage and changing demographics." There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends -- and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

The change is backed in part by a growing body of research that indicates welcoming a non-Jewish spouse can benefit Judaism in the long run.

"When I was young and inflexible I refused to do such weddings unless there was a conversion," Rabbi Lester Frazin wrote at the Interfaith Family website. "We lost many couples and those who had converted often disappeared if the marriage failed. I have found in my career that you attract more people through compassionate acceptance than obstinate refusal."

Indeed, some say non-Jewish spouses, especially wives, can be more trustworthy in passing on the faith.

"It's often the non-Jewish mothers in interfaith marriages who end up knowing more -- and caring more -- about Judaism and Jewish traditions than their husbands," said Nadine Epstein, editor of Moment, a leading Jewish magazine. "In fact, they help reawaken their husbands' interest in their own heritage."

Another factor easing concerns about intermarriage is that assimilation for American Jews no longer automatically means becoming part of the surrounding culture by effectively erasing one's Jewish identity.

"[W]e happen to live in a time and place where it is very cool to be Jewish," Epstein said. "Jewish values are also in sync -- and even the source of -- some contemporary American values such as emphasis on education, the power of debate and questioning, and working to make the world a better place."

That doesn't mean the Clinton-Mezvinsky marriage is completely in the clear.

Research indicates that interfaith marriages tend to fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages, and many Jews still hold to the tradition of matrilineal descent -- that the religion is passed through the mother rather than the father. So if Chelsea does not become Jewish, many Jews, especially the Orthodox, would not view the couple's children as Jewish. Moreover, there is a fierce debate within Judaism about what constitutes a legitimate Jewish conversion, so even if Chelsea did convert there would be disagreements. (It is telling that nowhere in the speculation among Jews is there any consideration that Marc Mezvinsky might become Christian.)

Still, few see major downsides to this high-profile union.

As Heilman explained, Orthodox Jews may not accept the religious legitimacy of the wedding, but "they know well enough not to talk about it. Not to celebrate it, but not to make a public issue about it."

"Even the Israelis," he added, "might look at this and say it's not bad having the U.S. secretary of state with a Jewish son-in-law."

What most American Jews will be looking for, Heilman said, is "some nod to Judaism not being second class at the wedding" -- a chuppah, the crushing of a glass under the groom's heel, "maybe a yarmulke here or there." And since the wedding is scheduled for a Saturday -- the Jewish Sabbath -- that pretty much rules out any traditional Jewish ceremony, he added.

As for any other quibbles, they will likely be drowned out by Jewish pride at one of the tribe finding such a catch as Chelsea Clinton -- what Julie Wiener called the "celebrity double standard."

"Jews are much more willing to forgive famous Jews for intermarrying than they are for the Jew who lives down the street," she said. Not to mention your own son or daughter.

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