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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.
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.