On the big question of religion and marriage, Sylvia Telser and the Orthodox rabbis agree: mixed marriages are a threat to Judaism.
It's the details on which they disagree. Telser, a social worker from Hyde Park, once counseled couples of mixed faith, married or not, in the hope of convincing the gentiles to convert or to raise their children as Jews.
The rabbis, in contrast, want such workshops abolished, at least for the unmarried, on the grounds that nothing good can come from interfaith dating.
So far the rabbis have prevailed in this fierce little struggle waged behind the scenes of local Jewish social service agencies. Earlier this year the Jewish Family and Community Service canceled Telser's workshop after one Orthodox rabbi called to complain. When Telser protested, she was fired. At 65, she finds herself in line at the state's unemployment office.
The rabbi says he had no choice but to complain. "We could not condone the idea of counseling mixed-dating couples," says Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz. "The only counseling one should give is that one should not mix-date."
But Telser says what happened to her should warn others about the intolerance of fundamentalists and the spinelessness of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, JFCS's parent agency. "This is an example of where a good thing, appreciated by the majority, is shafted because of the extremist attitudes of a small minority," she says. "Rabbi Lefkowitz is entitled to his opinion. But should the total community cave in to a fringe?"
Telser had over 20 years of counseling experience when she went to work for JFCS in 1986. Initially she offered workshops for widows, widowers, and recent divorcees. But by the late 1980s she was studying the impact of interfaith marriage on what social workers and rabbis call "the continuity of Judaism."
"All the census studies show that the Jewish population's staying even or falling, as the larger population grows," says Telser. "People are marrying later and having fewer children, and there's also the issue of assimilation. At least 50 percent of Jews marry outside the religion."
The more she studied, the more questions she found herself asking. Why, for instance, do some Jewish men feel compelled to date only gentiles? Is this not a sign of shame or self-hatred? And what about those Jewish women who say only non-Jewish men will do? Will they ever outgrow their adolescent need to shock their parents? And what if Jews find true love outside their faith--have they no obligation to preserve their heritage? Or should they say: Ah, what's the difference, we're all Americans?
"It's not always easy for some to be Jewish in a largely Christian society for it means being different--and few people dare to be different," Telser says. "This is why I think some Jews put up Christmas trees. Personally, I think it's illegitimate for Jews to put up Christmas trees because a tree celebrates Christ the messiah and Jews don't recognize that. You have to come to terms with the fact that in some ways any minority is different. Even Mormons in Utah are different in their own way than the rest of society."
On the issue of interfaith marriage, Telser's position was clear. "I'm not a moral relativist on this issue. I believe that while a particular interfaith marriage may be a blessing for the people involved, the overall trend is bad for the continuity of the Jewish people. What happens in many cases is that the Jewish partner converts, or they say they have no religion. And you know what happens then. Christian decorations go up, and gradually the family merges into the mainstream of secular, vaguely Christian culture. Then it's no longer a case of working out psychic traumas, like characters in a novel by Philip Roth searching for the golden shiksa. We're talking about the future of a religion."
In 1993 Telser conducted her first workshop, under JFCS's auspices, at the Hyde Park Jewish Community Center. "There were some powerful sessions," she says. "I remember a moment with a Jewish man and his Christian fiancee. The man said, 'Any Jew growing up in America knows a little about Christian culture.' And she responded, 'You didn't grow up knowing the joy of Jesus Christ your savior.' His jaw almost dropped. At the end of the session he said, 'I want the kids to be raised Jewish.' I don't know how that relationship worked out."
In 1994 she offered a second six-week workshop, which she advertised in local papers and wrote about in JFCS's newsletter. "During both workshops, JFCS was supportive, though some supervisors wanted me to be more clinical," she says. "They thought I was being 'too Jewish.' They didn't want me to be up-front about my point of view."
About a year ago Telser was preparing for a third workshop, to begin last January. She wrote a flier headlined "Mixed Blessings" that described the workshop as a "6-week group to deal with the issues of dual heritage. For dating or engaged couples, parents and prospective parents, and grandparents."
"I didn't intend to use the phrase 'dual heritage,'" says Telser. "I added it at the insistence of my supervisors, who said without it I wasn't respecting the autonomy of non-Jewish partners."
The flier was mailed to therapists, social work agencies, and religious organizations, including the Chicago Rabbinical Council, an association of Orthodox rabbis. Thus it was that Rabbi Lefkowitz learned of Telser's workshop. What he learned he didn't like. "The brochure said 'mixed dating,'" says Lefkowitz. "One could justify counseling mixed marriages--the issue is toward 'what purposes?' But we could not condone the idea of counseling mixed dating."
Lefkowitz was also offended by the phrase "dual heritage," which sounded to him like a wishy-washy way of telling Jews it's OK to raise their children outside the faith. Beyond that, he did not believe Telser, or any social worker, was qualified to handle such complex matters. "As an Orthodox rabbi I can tell you, we get these calls all the time," says Lefkowitz. "People want to talk to a rabbi about God--not a layman."
To protest, Lefkowitz contacted Telser's boss, Martin Langer, the JFCS's executive director. But Langer defended the program. So Lefkowitz called Steven Nasatir, the Jewish Federation's president. According to Lefkowitz, Nasatir said he knew nothing of the flier or workshop. "He told me he was appalled," says Lefkowitz. "He said, 'We'll take care of it.'"
Soon afterward, Telser's supervisors told her to cancel the workshop. "I did as I was told and I didn't publicly complain because I was a good team player," she says. "But I was angry."
The ruling made no sense to Telser. "It does no good to tell someone to stop dating," she says. "That's too authoritarian for most people. They'll just say no thanks and then they'll leave. And this notion that only rabbis can counsel--that's wrong. Some people won't go to a rabbi about these things; they want to go to a more neutral person."
She was also angry at Langer, whom she openly mocked, calling him "Neville Chamberlain" for caving in. He had, she felt, betrayed her and abandoned his principles. "They were the ones who wanted me to add 'dual heritage,' and now it was as though I was going against the program," she says. "I couldn't understand the federation either. They were far too easily manipulated. As far as I know there was only one rabbi [Lefkowitz] who complained."
In June, Langer and other JFCS staffers met with a group of rabbis to discuss how the workshops should be handled in the future. "I don't know what was said because I wasn't invited," says Telser. "I was treated like a peon--I wasn't allowed to defend my program."
On June 20 JFCS placed Telser on probation, charging her with attempting to revive the workshop without permission. In August Telser was fired. The charges, she says, are baseless; and she has filed discrimination complaints with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
Nasatir did not return phone calls for comment. Langer refuses to discuss any details of the story other than to say, "We're meeting with rabbis to rework [Telser's] program. We're not rabbis. We need to be sensitive to members of the rabbinate."
In the future, will it be open to interfaith daters?
"I don't know--it's a complicated issue."
To Telser the matter is relatively simple. "They caved in," she says. "I still don't understand how Nasatir can say he knew nothing of my workshops--I wrote about them in the newsletters. They're using me as the fall guy to appease the orthodoxy. Say this for Rabbi Lefkowitz--at least he has the courage of his convictions."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.