A Jewish Leader Who “Gets It”

I hardly need to say that intermarriage is not a popular topic. I am often frustrated when Jewish leaders do not agree with me that engaging interfaith families in Jewish life is an issue of such overriding importance for the liberal Jewish community that it should be talked about openly and even aggressively.

Shortly before Passover this year, I had one of those frustrating meetings. When I arrived home later that day, I found in my mail the Passover message to donors to the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies from Barry Shrage, CJP’s president.

The contrast in attitudes was striking.

In a two-page letter to people who are certainly key constituents of his federation, Barry Shrage explicitly brought the issue of engaging interfaith families directly into the spotlight. Here is how what he said appeared in the digital edition of Sh’ma:

How will this year’s seder be different from all others? Who will sit at our seder? What questions will they ask and what stories will we tell? As we gather our families and friends around the table, many of us will be sitting with children raised in interfaith households and young adults who have returned from Taglit-Birthright Israel trips to Israel. Those children and grandchildren may be asking surprisingly spiritual questions. (A recent study found that the next generation of Jews is actually more spiritual than the last and that the children of intermarriage are the most spiritual of all.)

Hopefully in the future, statements from Jewish leaders, that recognize the reality and presence of people from interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, and say something positive about that reality, will become increasingly more common.

By the way, Barry’s answer to his question is extraordinary too, and well worth remembering:

• In a time that lacks vision and prophecy and that yearns for meaning, our stories are carrying an ancient faith in an ancient God so that our children and grandchildren will have spiritual options to fill their lives with light and joy.
• In a time of greed and selfishness, our stories are part of an old – a very old – tradition of caring for strangers – love of the poor and oppressed – and responsibility for widows and orphans, the elderly and handicapped.
• In a time of forgetfulness, our stories are part of a living chain of learning and literature in the world, inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
• In a time of anomie and loneliness, our stories are imbued with a thirst, and we maintain a commitment to creating community and providing a sense of belonging.
• In a time of rootlessness and alienation our stories are connected to a religious civilization with a 3500-year-old history and an infinite future and the ultimate responsibility for the betterment of humankind in the name of the God whose story is at the heart of our existence.   

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2 thoughts on “A Jewish Leader Who “Gets It”

  1. Barry Shrage truly is a unique Jewish communal leader.  But the beginning of the article in which he is introduced represents a tiresome, yet strange refrain.  It says that engaging intermarrieds is of importance to “the liberal Jewish community,” as if no one else is thinking about these issues.  It is true that the Orthodox and traditional Conservative, because of their approach to Halacha, look at the intermarried through a different lens.  But that does not mean that they don’t engage with them.  In fact, a case could be made that they have met with some real success by engaging simply by being who they are.

    It is hard to walk into any Chabad house, Aish HaTorah, etc. and say that engaging the intermarried is only of importance to “the liberal Jewish community.”  All of the traditional Kiruv organizations are working with the intermarried, and their children.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being poured into organizations like Eternal Jewish Family, to provide a user-friendly option for those intermarried who want to consider becoming halachically Jewish families (not an option for everyone; but the point is that, there are people in the Orthodox community who do have an interest in the fate of intermarried families, even if their approach may differ from some in the liberal Jewish community). 

    For that matter, although the article doesn’t mention it, Barry Shrage, one of the most outspoken Jewish communal leaders on engaging the intermarried, is himself Modern Orthodox.

    I guess all I am asking is that the stereotyping stop.  There are people across the entire range of Judaism who are passionate about engaging the intermarried.  The fact that they may have different answers does not mean that any one group is any less engaged in the issue.

  2. she wants (maybe not what you want but what she says she wants). Here in Toronto the only funding the UJA gives is for a Jewish singles hotline — just weekly announcements on a phone recording.  Some billions.

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