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An Open Letter to Chelsea

An Open Letter to Chelsea

Like you, I belonged to the Methodist Church and married a Jew.


I know I’m writing at the worst possible time. As you and Marc begin married life, you hardly need another Jew offering intrusive suggestions about how to navigate your interfaith marriage. You didn't ask for the incessant media coverage and a parade of rabbis, ministers and interfaith outreach advocates opining about what they believe your marriage means to the American Jewish community. You just fell in love with a nice guy who happens to be Jewish.

I hesitate adding my voice to the already-deafening cacophony of Jewish opinion. I do so only because 20 years ago, I stood in your shoes.

Like you, I incorporated both traditions into my wedding, attempting to seamlessly blend them to the higher calling of love.

I was not born Jewish. I grew up in a devout Christian household, going to church every Sunday. Like you, I fell in love with a man who happened to be Jewish. Like you, when I met my husband, I attended a Methodist Church. Actually, I did more than that. I was the Minister of Music at what was then one of the largest Methodist churches in Texas, where every Sunday morning I led multiple choirs at three services attended by thousands. When I met my husband, most of my waking moments were spent in the Methodist church.

Like you and Marc, my husband and I incorporated both traditions into our wedding, attempting to seamlessly blend and bend them to the higher calling of love. Like you and Marc, we wanted a Methodist minister and a rabbi to co-officiate. Unable to find a rabbi, the senior pastor of my Methodist church spoke, basing his message largely on remarks written by a rabbi who was sympathetic short of participation.

When we got married, Methodist Minister of Music as I was, I would no more have considered converting than moving to the moon. Yet, these many years later, I write these words from my home near Jerusalem, my every waking moment immersed in Judaism.

What happened, and what does this have to do with you?

The story is complex and too long to recount here. Our journey from the margins of Jewish life to its center could fill a book, which in fact, my husband and I are currently completing.

The short version is that, quite simply, I explored Judaism on its own terms, and found in it something beautiful. Christianity has brought religious connection to billions on this planet. But in becoming a Jew, I have embraced a very special relationship with God and with the world that only a tiny percentage of people get to experience. I have embraced something precious. More than that, in discovering Judaism, I have discovered my truest self.

Chelsea, over the coming months and years, you will hear from an abundance of diverse Jewish voices. For the Jewish interfaith outreach activists, you are their new poster child. Some will insist that you can fully integrate into the Jewish community short of becoming Jewish, and it’s really inconsequential whether or not you convert. Others will assure you that Judaism and Christianity can easily co-exist in your home, and your children can always choose a religious identity when they grow up.

For the in-marriage advocates, you are a poster child of a different sort. Your marriage is a symbol of what is wrong with the Jewish community, a problem that they hope can be solved. Some of them will dismiss you. Others will want you to become involved in Jewish life, not because of any intrinsic connection to you, but because they can worry less about Jewish continuity if your children should grow up to be Jews.

From my experience moving from Methodist Christian to observant Jew, none of these voices will serve you well. Whatever anyone says, raising children in both religions is a fool’s errand, and is almost always done for the parents’ convenience rather than the child’s best interests. And whatever anyone says, there is a vast difference between participating, even enthusiastically, in Jewish activities as a Christian, and actually becoming Jewish. Otherwise, conversion would be meaningless.

There is a vast difference between participating in Jewish activities as a Christian, and actually becoming Jewish.

None of these voices have your true interests at heart. They are not asking how Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky can lead a meaningful religious life together. Whether or not they admit it, what they are really asking is how Chelsea and Marc can become a vehicle for their Jewish survival concerns. Their answers are different on each side of the divide, but the question is the same: What can we do to ensure Jewish continuity? However, their worries are neither your creation nor your responsibility.

What you will rarely hear, Chelsea, and what I am suggesting based on my experience, is to take a close look at traditional Judaism. Not because Jews are concerned about Jewish survival. Not because some people want it for your children. Not because it might make your husband or your in-laws, or anyone else happy.

Rather, you should take a look for the simple reason that it is an amazing tradition which enriches one’s life in ways too numerous to count. Having been on both sides of the religious divide, I can say that, in Judaism, you, together with Marc, may find a treasure.

In a recent article in The Forward, Ed Case expressed the hope that young people would look at your wedding and say, “If this is good enough for Chelsea Clinton, then it’s good enough for me.” But you don’t seem like the type that settles for “good enough.” And I can attest that Judaism is the antithesis of “good enough.”

Don't get me wrong; I am not pushing you to convert. Conversion is a monumental life decision that can only come from you; it cannot be forced. I am only suggesting that in having married a Jewish man, you now have a tremendous opportunity to discover something that may move your very soul.

Chelsea, I wish you only the best. And if you and Marc ever visit the Holy Land, we would be honored to have you as our guests for Shabbat.


Gayle Berman

Related Articles:

What's Wrong with Intermarriage?

Why Not Intermarry?

Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?

August 14, 2010

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 59

(59) Dr C D Goldberg, April 20, 2017 11:45 AM

Best Religion

The best religion to follow is Modern Orthodox Judaism and to keep as kosher a home as possible. There is a wealth of scholarly learning and rich and rewarding lifestyle, for which a couple of a mixed marriage cannot wish for better, and is something worth perusing.

(58) Anonymous, September 26, 2016 5:50 PM

Marc's grandparents were from Ames, Iowa and I'm proud to say when yontiff rolls around they'd stay at my aunts home in Des Moines, Iowa for an orthodox services.

(57) Harold Berman, June 10, 2013 11:28 AM

New book based on this journey to Judaism

Gayle and I recently wrote "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope" about our journey from being an intermarried couple to becoming a Jewish family, which fills in many of the details started in Gayle's letter to Chelsea. It's readily available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

(56) Yitzhak Alexander, January 9, 2012 3:45 PM

Wonderful approach I can relate to

In reading this article, I feel that the author has provided what, for me, is the most powerful reason for not having an interfaith household. In addition, I think that it is a more powerful argument in terms of maintaining Jewish continuity: it tells WHY we might want it to continue. I also converted, following much the same path as Gayle did. After my second synagogue service, I was in tears. I had found G-d. I was home. As Gayle says, "in discovering Judaism, I (had) discovered my truest self". At the same time, I met a woman at shul and we fell very much in love, deciding to become engaged not too long thereafter. In the process, I realized that the power and strength that comes from having a common spiritual approach to the world was incredible. I knew that what I had found was so wonderful that I couldn't imagine living my life with somebody with whom I could not share these ideals and beliefs. I am finding Judaism to be vibrant, enriching, and bracingly exciting. I frankly don't understand and/or feel sorry for those for whom it is not so (not an atypical for a convert, I guess). While I had long (about 30 years) suspected that this was the case, it wasn't until I started attending shul (in part because I had signed up for JDate and wanted to see what Judaism was all about) that it became real. I just wish that somebody had said to me the things that Gayle has said to Chelsea! Thank you Gayle for articulating a more humane - and I believe much more persuasive - way to deal with intermarriage.

(55) josh, January 4, 2012 6:21 PM

great words great courage great message

we are all proud of your courage to address a national and perhaps international personality on a sensitive intimate matter. most people would refrain from involving themselves in the lives of leading national personalities, let alone offering personal advice. It is wonderful that you did what you did and with Hashem's Help, you will have a strong effect upon Chelsea. As our Sages of Blessed Memory taught:" words that come from the heart find their place within the [other's] heart." continue your great work of inspiring others for years to come

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