East Bay agencies try to answer Why Be Jewish

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Fifty-two percent of Jews don't marry other Jews. So it's no surprise interfaith marriage is often on Rabbi Mark Diamond's mind.

But the spiritual leader of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham is making a conscious effort to not think of the negative side on Sunday, Nov. 19. That day, Diamond and many others will focus instead on all the reasons "to be Jewish."

The second East Bay conference for interfaith families and Jews-by-choice is titled "Why Be Jewish?" A series of workshops will address various dilemmas these groups face.

Diamond explains that the key question is not "Why is there intermarriage?"

Jews' continued integration into American society makes intermarriage commonplace, he says. And while "many Jewish leaders shrei gevalt [shout `My God'] ," he says, "I prefer to think of [interfaith marriage] as a challenge and an opportunity instead."

It appears he's not alone in his optimism.

Nearly 150 people attended the first Why Be Jewish? conference, held at Beth Abraham four years ago. Positive reactions to that conference and "a desire to get together and talk about difficult issues" led leaders to stage a second event, Diamond said.

Nineteen Jewish agencies and synagogues agreed to co-sponsor this year's effort — among them are Conservative, Reform and Renewal synagogues, service and education organizations and even retailers.

In addition, the Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay will provide funding.

"That all these groups can band together…says this is an important enough topic to put aside our differences for a similar agenda," Diamond said.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. therapists, social workers, rabbis, Jewish communal professionals, and Jews-by- choice will conduct workshops on such topics as "Why Is It So Hard to Get a Rabbi to Perform an Interfaith Marriage?"; "Intermarriage and Conversion: Diverse Religious Perspectives"; "Raising Jewish Children: What Does it Mean?" and "The Challenges of Interfaith Relationships: Cultural Differences; Relationships with Parents and In-laws."

Other workshops explore Judaism's basic beliefs, practices and traditions; prenuptial planning; Jesus' role in Jewish tradition and Christianity's views on Torah.

Rabbi Lee Bycel will give the keynote address.

As dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Bycel helps prepare student rabbis, educators and Jewish communal workers for the challenges they will inevitably face. Intermarriage tops the list.

"It's a reality in contemporary society," Bycel says.

"This is a difficult and sensitive topic with 50 subcategories that seem to fall under it," he says. "How can we be sensitive? How do we help both the Jewish and the non-Jewish partner connect? How do we embrace a couple or family, allowing them to be what they want without compromising general values of Judaism?"

Synagogues, federations and community centers nationwide are trying to answer these same questions. Educational programs and conferences like Why Be Jewish? are especially successful because they "meet people where they are right now," Bycel says.

This sort of outreach "says we're aware and understand living in a world where people are highly assimilated," he explains. "It says, `We deeply value you.'

"It's our responsibility as Jewish leaders to teach the power of being Jewish, to find a better way to articulate the messages of why people remain Jewish."