Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
In late April, I attended the Consultation on Conscience, a social justice conference in Washington D.C., created and organized by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. I wrote about it in a previous blog, but I left out one very important detail: By some stroke of luck, I was able to get into the Supreme Court to hear a portion of the arguments for the case that would decide on marriage equality in all 50 states. I write this blog post many weeks later, knowing now how the case turned out, still in awe and in a state of permanent pride both as a member of the gay community and as an American. So here is my story:
The final day of the conference was Tuesday, April 28, the day that the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on the historic case, Obergefell v Hodges, the case that could possibly make gay marriage legal in all 50 states. I decided to skip the final morning of the conference and head over to the Supreme Court; I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I arrived at 8am and the plaza was near full already! The energy was infectious and colorful, rainbows abound. People were singing, chanting and praying, sending all their energy toward the looming white building in front of them.
Rabbi Jillian with her ticket
Of course there were also those there shouting for an entirely different result. I found a few friends and grabbed as much rainbow paraphernalia as I could and joined in with the crowd. In the midst of the chaos I also joined a long line, hoping to get one of those elusive bright yellow squares of paper, give out by the Supreme Court security guards that allowed the recipient a full three minutes INSIDE the courthouse. I was absolutely sure there was no way I was going to get in—there were too many people ahead of me, too many people on the plaza, but I waited in that line, next to a man spewing such vile hatred in the name of his God that I almost moved several times. But I stood my ground, blocked out the noise, focused on the rainbows as the clock ticked down.
Thirty minutes before the end of the arguments, the word came down the line that they were allowing one more group in, as there had been a protester who had gotten in to the court earlier and caused quite a commotion. The security guard walked down the line and one by one, handed out the yellow tickets. I put my hand out, took a deep breath, and he placed one in my palm. I was in!
We were led onto the large plaza directly in front of the court to a side entrance. After two metal detectors and stuffing my large bag into a very small locker so fast I didn’t even remember which locker number I had chosen, I waited with my group of about 10 outside the large imposing doors of the Supreme Court courtroom. I was buzzing. After several more instructions given by even more security guards, none of which I had even a small hope of remembering, the doors opened and I walked into the Supreme Court in the middle of the closing arguments. As I walked to my seat, I stared at each justice, down the line and tried to figure out as quickly as possible, what was going on in the case.
One lawyer for the plaintiff was telling the story of a career Army man who served his country for many years with honor and pride and was married to his husband in a state where it was legal. He was then transferred to a base in a state that did not recognize his marriage. All of a sudden, so many of the equal rights he and his husband had enjoyed were no longer available to them through no choice of their own: He was following his transfer orders.
This man’s story was one of thousands of stories of discrimination that could change if the court voted it so. I think I held my breath the entire time I was inside the courtroom, afraid I would miss something. Since I had been the last group in, as we were led out of the courtroom and back to the locker room (thankfully, I sort of remembered where I put my things!), the court let out and I watched in awe as well-known senators and congressmen and women walked by, every major director of every organization fighting for marriage equality walked by and then the plaintiffs themselves and their lawyers walked right by.
We all ended up on the large plaza, news anchors and paparazzi yelling, a whirlwind of flashes and chaos. I think I finally took a breath. When I think about it now, I still can’t believe I was able to hear a bit of the closing arguments on a case that would not only allow millions of people in this country to choose love and would right a very long standing wrong, but would also affect me personally. I wasn’t sure how I was going to wait until the end of June to hear how those nine justices would rule.
Fast forward to this past Friday morning: While on vacation, feverishly scanning Twitter and stuck in front of CNN, I heard the news, saw the scroll on the bottom of the screen: “Same Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States.” I blinked…it was still there. Tears filled my eyes and I had goosebumps on my arms—we did it, it was done, same-sex couples can legally get married in each and every single state of our Union.
Starting now, we live in a more just country, a place I am a little happier to be from, a place where our children won’t remember a time when loving couples who choose to marry were discriminated against, told they weren’t worthy, their love wasn’t enough, wasn’t valid, wasn’t real love. This decision is monumental, it is life changing and it is above all, justice. I had the honor of officiating at a wedding this weekend, on a little piece of paradise in the Caribbean and toward the end of the ceremony, I recited the words of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion:
May we all seek and receive equal dignity for the decisions we make and the relationships we have in eyes of the law, within our families and in our own hearts.
As we say in Judaism, Ken Y’hi Ratzon, May it be so!
We have many more fights to achieve true equality and lasting justice in our country but let us revel in this win and let that rainbow flag fly high with pride alongside our American flag.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Up here at Camp Tawonga in Northern California, the Jewish theme of the summer is “being a mensch.” One of those Yiddish words that has found its way into the English lexicon, a mensch is a good person. It could be argued that Judaism, as well as every religion, is built around making us good people. A related Jewish term is “derech eretz,” or, how we are in the world as human beings.
I often talk to my kids about this idea. There are many things I hope for my children: happiness, success… But if they aren’t kind, if they aren’t at a basic level good people, none of the rest matters.
A great tool for figuring out how to be a good person (and raise a good person) is the Making Mensches Periodic Table. It lists 43 of the attributes Jewish Mussar (ethics movement of the 19th century) named as mensch-like qualities, for example: compassion, love, joy, modesty, justice and integrity. This chart can be particularly helpful to interfaith couples. When partners come from different backgrounds, it can be difficult to figure out which tradition to emphasize or how two religious traditions can be expressed side by side.
Try this exercise that I ask of every couple I marry: Figure out what values you share. Some couples value education more than saving money, others value a shared sense of human responsibility toward the natural world. For others, a peaceful home is more important than hospitality. These values are, most likely, part of what attracted you to one another, how you saw yourself intertwined with that person, or maybe even what one of you lacked growing up that you value in the other. Think about these values that underpin your relationship.
If you need ideas, scan the Table. Which five values or qualities are most important to you? Which are lower on your list? Have your partner do the same. Talk about why certain values rose to the top for each of you and why. What do you share? Where do you differ? Do you express your commitment to those values in unique ways based on where you first learned about them? Who passed them on to you? Don’t worry if they aren’t completely aligned. Talk about what you want this shared life to look like so you can start to intentionally live according to those values and make them come alive in your home and your relationships.
Many of us were raised with some iteration of the Golden Rule. In the Torah, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever you name it, wherever you learned it, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
One of Oren’s comments as reported in the Ha’aretz article demands a response:
Oren discussed what he described as the unprecedented predominance of American Jews in the Obama administration – “there were discussions in the White House in which there were six Jews – 3 Americans and 3 Israelis, discussing a Palestinian state – and the only non-Jewish person in the room was the President or the Vice President.” He said that the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews in the administration – “have a hard time understanding the Israeli character.”
It’s not clear if Oren’s comment was meant to be limited to particular American Jews in the Obama administration; a Times of Israel article about the same interview has Oren saying that “the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews don’t fully grasp Israel’s position.” In any case, there is a clear implication that Jews who are intermarried, because they are intermarried, are not supportive of Israel. That’s an offensive notion to which we strongly object.
At InterfaithFamily we don’t take positions on political issues about Israel. But we strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace, and we strongly encourage interfaith couples and families to travel to Israel, because all experience shows that doing so leads to further Jewish engagement, which is our ultimate goal. That increased Jewish engagement, for interfaith couples who do travel to Israel, can include increased feelings of attachment to and support for Israel – in not only the Jewish partner, but the partner of another background as well. That’s the kind of attitude shift that people who care about Israel should want to have happen.
People who want the American Jewish community to support Israel should be careful what they say about interfaith families, who make up a large and growing segment of our community. Suggesting that intermarried Jews are not supportive of Israel is likely to be discouraging and off-putting to them and hardly conducive to strengthening their support for Israel. It’s especially disappointing for that kind of comment to come from Ambassador Oren, who was raised in the United States and spent years here as Israel’s ambassador. Let’s hope he clarifies what he said or meant to say.
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.
Today was a very big day for everyone who wants to see interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community.
As we previously covered in a post in January and another in April, the Genesis Prize Fund had announced that it was awarding its $1 million annual prize to Michael Douglas in order to emphasize the importance of welcoming interfaith families.
Douglas said he will use the prize money to reach out to other Jews from intermarried families seeking a connection to the Jewish community. He announced grants to Hillel and the Jewish Funders Network for programs that reach out to intermarried children and couples…. Coupled with matching grant programs from Genesis and the Jewish Funders Network, some $3.5 million would be available for such programs as a result of Douglas’ prize.
The Genesis Prize Fund and the Jewish Funders Network simultaneously announced a $1.65 million matching grant fund for organizations and projects that support and enhance avenues to Jewish engagement for intermarried couples and their families. The goals of the matching grant are:
To encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families.
To energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.
To use the leverage of matching funds to foster the field and bring both new funders and new funding into the field. These new funders offer a prospect of long term sustainability to the field.
To encourage funders to engage with non-profits and other organizations on particular projects and take an active role in developing the field.
We are thrilled for our friends at Hillel and for the opportunity that this very significant funding provides to InterfaithFamily and other organizations in our field. Two years ago, in an essay in eJewishPhilanthropy, I asked whether interfaith families were even included in what was then a growing movement towards “inclusive Jewish philanthropy.” The Genesis Prize Fund, by selecting Michael Douglas as its 2015 recipient, joined now by the Jewish Funders Network, has turned that corner. InterfaithFamily has been operating for fourteen years; now we are finally seeing significant philanthropic resources that will be devoted to what we believe is the most pressing opportunity the Jewish community has to grow and be enriched. This is truly a wonderful day.
And we hope that this philanthropic turn will lead many more leaders in the Jewish community to agree with Mikhail Fridman, a founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, who said in his comments at the award ceremony:
In the strictest sense, our laureate this year is not a “perfect” Jew. His mother is not Jewish. I even suspect that he does not spend every Friday evening in a synagogue and does not follow kashrut. Yet, he is someone who put his energy and determination into being Jewish, who exercised his free will and showed commitment to follow the path of his ancestors in search for a foundation. Should we deny his Jewishness on the basis of his mother’s birth or should we celebrate it on the basis of his commitment to embrace Judaism and pass his Jewish heritage to his children? Are not free will and determination the essential qualities of the Jews? We can respond to freedom by building barriers and closing up, or we can respond to it by being inclusive and supportive of those who chose a path of Judaism. I choose the latter…. [W]e should support and encourage those who have made a decision to embrace their Jewish identity and pass their Jewish heritage to their children, like Michael Douglas is doing. We should welcome them with open arms – not turn away from them.
Does the huge conversation about Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, WA, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she identified as African-American while her parents are White, have any relevance to efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community?
I’m not commenting on Dolezal’s conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as “clearly disturbed” in the Forward’s “How Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.” Dolezal’s claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly don’t mean to be.
In “What My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,” (also in the Forward) Alina Adams, a Jewish woman married to an African-American man, who has written six wonderful articles for us over the years, says that her three children “are being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not ‘half’,” while her husband “didn’t convert, and he doesn’t self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.”
As the wife of an African-American man and the mother of three biracial children, I feel much more personally connected to cases of police shootings, racial profiling and the academic achievement gap for minority children than I ever did before my marriage.
Would I self-identify as black? No. Never. That would be insulting, in my opinion. (I believe even wearing ceremonial clothes of another culture is pretentious, though many would disagree with me.)
But do I feel black?
Then, about her husband, she says:
The same way my husband sometimes says “us” or “we” or “our” when he’s talking about Jews. I honestly can’t imagine how you can love a person and not feel like a part of their struggle. Which is a part of them. Which becomes a part of you.
So Alina Adams doesn’t “self-identify as black” but she “sort of” “feels black” while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their children’s Jewishness has become a part of him.
It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as “transracial.” Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alina’s husband as “transJewish?”
I don’t think so. I don’t think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alina’s husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a “ger toshav,” a Biblical category that literally means “stranger in the camp.” But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who don’t, and I think that’s a bad idea.
I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “transJewish” because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now there’s no civil or cultural conversion, only religious conversion, and in any event there are many people who feel sort of or partly Jewish who for many reasons aren’t interested in converting.
But the notion of a person who is born with and/or raised with one identity, who feels an affinity with and eventually adopts in some fashion a different identity—that’s what strikes close to home. There are many people who were not born or raised Jewish, who are married or partnered with Jews, who feel an affinity with Jews and Jewish traditions and who in some fashion adopt a Jewish identity, the way Alina Adams’ husband has. The increasing understanding that that kind of identity shifting happens is the positive implication of the Dolezal incident for those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
I agree with Alina’s conclusion:
My primary takeaway from the incident and my family’s own experience is that, apparently, identity is much more complicated than my husband and I ever imagined it would be before our kids were born. And that instead of having all the answers, we’re going to be learning right alongside with them—and the rest of America.
Postscript June 23, 2015
In the Sunday New York Times on June 21, 2015, there is a letter to the editor from Ron Brown of Brooklyn, who describes himself as a Christian married to Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.
He writes, “Over time, I have grown to ‘feel’ Jewish myself. I even feel a bit insulted and left out when I am singled out as the only one in the family who is Christian. I can understand feeling so identified with a certain group that you wish you were born into that group, so identified that even a reminder that you are separate from that group hurts. I can understand Rachel Dolezal. But I would never consider lying about it. I wish Ms. Dolezal hadn’t either. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.”
I went to a small Episcopalian school in the heart of the South. It was a very homogeneous Protestant community (but not without some Jews as well) with a distinguished Southern heritage that included some families that even had family crests. The graduating class had 65 kids. Fifteen of us were Jewish.
I recently attended my 30th reunion and connected with people whom I hadn’t spoken to (or even thought of) in years. In a school that small, we were all pretty good friends and it was a lot more fun than I anticipated. It warmed my heart to know that people who I have barely kept in touch with are doing well in their lives and it was fun to catch up. Several people asked where I worked and I mentioned that I worked for an organization that assists interfaith couples and families where one of the partners is Jewish—what a conversation starter!
My friend Robert was first. He mentioned that his wife was Jewish. He told me that when they got engaged, she asked if he was surprised that he was marrying a Jewish girl. His response was “No. I knew a lot of Jewish kids and so I am very comfortable around Jewish people. What really surprises me is that I am a Southern boy marrying a girl from New Jersey!”
My friend Jason was next. Jason and I reconnected a few years back. Our conversation was a bit different. He casually mentioned that his daughter was named Aviva (a name that is typically Jewish or Israeli), and since he is not Jewish, that was my first clue. We were chatting and he said he was a bit disappointed that he was missing the vote for his synagogue’s new rabbi. I said “Oh, are you not allowed to vote on synagogue issues?” His response: “Nope, I can’t vote because I am out of town and the vote is tomorrow morning!”
Then there was Ashley. Ashley lives in New York. We spoke for a few minutes before she mentioned that she had converted. I said “converted to what?” She laughed, “to Judaism!” It took me a few seconds to process that the Jewish population from my Southern school was increasing! Then she mentioned that most people are really nice about welcoming her into the Jewish community. But just last week, she was at a gathering and an 8-year-old relative of her husband’s asked if she was Jewish. The parents and family members were mortified but everyone quickly responded with a resounding “of course!”
It is mind-blowing to think that some of my Christian friends from my high school class are raising Jewish kids. I wonder if our group of Jewish kids were ambassadors in some way but didn’t realize it. We introduced the Christian members of our class to Judaism and fun bar mitzvah parties. Still, I would’ve never guessed how our 30th reunion would pan out.
Though I have to say, I am not so surprised that one of my Southern Christian friends from my class married someone from New Jersey!
There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forward’s Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language – when in-marriage “fails.” Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So let’s focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, let’s encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.
Madeleine Albright speaking at the Consultation on Conscience conference
We live in a world of infinite choices, from the most minute (the sheer volume of restaurants that will deliver dinner within an hour), to the most important (the multitude of ways, places and communities in which we can express our values and sense of identity). With whom do we spend our time? What kinds of communities are important for us to belong to? How and to where do we donate money? All of these choices are an expression of our values, whether we know it or not.
Often we make choices out of convenience: which pre-school is closest to our home, has the best hours alongside their educational pedagogy and general warmth? And we make choices out of comfort or lack thereof: I’m not sure my Catholic spouse would feel comfortable joining a synagogue as a family, even though we have decided to raise our children as Jews, and we’re not sure it’s worth the hefty price tag if we don’t really feel welcome … AND we’re not sure about the God thing … AND we have found other types of non-religious communities that share our values.
I have heard from so many of my peers of all religious backgrounds that they are no longer moved by ritual or what they remember of religious community and spiritual life but do want to express their sense of religious values in other ways. (I must mention that as a rabbi, someone who does still find great meaning in ritual, music and synagogue community, that I am saddened by this trend. There are so many amazing synagogue communities that are constantly striving to evolve and create meaning for all generations in a great number of ways!)
A Jewish friend of mine takes his family to a soup kitchen twice a month to volunteer and takes the time to explain to his children that this is how they enact their Judaism: by feeding people who are hungry, by welcoming the stranger as Abraham and Sarah did, by “praying with their feet” as Abraham Joshua Heschel said about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine there are many others who also find similar value in these kinds of social justice/social action choices and have chosen this form of prayer, of meaning making, of religious expression over organized religious practice.
There is so much power in action, in getting up and doing something, in making even one person’s life better in real time, if only for a moment.
Two weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C., created by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism called, Consultation on Conscience. The goal of this conference is first to educate those who attend about the political and justice issues that our country is facing through high level speakers and conversation and secondly to provide tools to take back to individual communities to help galvanize increased involvement on these issues through a Jewish lens.
The issues ranged from Iran’s nuclear capabilities to environmental protection and marriage equality to fighting poverty. A third goal, easily achieved, was that of inspiration. I certainly left feeling not only a sense of pride to be involved and connected with people working to make our country and world a better place, but also inspired to find more ways to enact my Judaism through justice work. I was profoundly moved by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization enacting justice by attempting to rectify the injustice in our justice system, one case, one person at a time. (Check out his TED Talk here if you are looking for a bit of inspiration. And you can see his RAC conference talk here. He begins 51 minutes in.)
I told many people after hearing his incredible stories and message that I would like to just follow him around for a while. (I’d even hold his bags, just to see him make the world better and more just, one person at a time.)
I get it, action is powerful. But so is community. Bryan doesn’t work alone, and neither do any of us. It is so important for each of us, for our families, to raise our voices for those things we believe in alongside moving our feet, and we have learned that the song sounds a bit sweeter in a choir and the dance always works a bit better with another person; the power of community.
The choices we make come from many sources and many needs but they do reflect our values and how we understand our identity and place in the world. Our children remember and learn from the things they feel a part of along with the things we teach them. We are stronger and can do more together.
So my question for you is: How do you enact your values (or how do you WANT to start)?
This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.