We often speak of Jewish outreach to intermarried families, where progressive organizations and programs can serve as a bridge between the intermarried and the Jewish community. But it works both ways. The intermarried can serve as a bridge between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. Intermarriage can actually be a form of outreach to the general secular world.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky elaborates on this notion in an op-ed for the New Jersey Jewish News:
Numerous Jewish community relations councils (throughout the country and in cities of all sizes) have worked tirelessly to nurture tolerance among various segments of the non-Jewish population. Some of their efforts have been technically defensive but most of the time they have followed the notion that education through familiarity is the key to promoting tolerance. So they make sure that people in the community learn about the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of Jewish life, beginning with simple things such as the rituals surrounding Shabbat, kosher dietary laws, and the timing of the Jewish holidays. All of this is a sincere effort to make members of the Jewish community seem less like “others” or “outsiders” by actively sharing our rites and beliefs with people from other religious backgrounds.
In an effort to find friends in the community to make their work easier, we are missing the proverbial answer that is right in front of us: all of the non-Jewish relatives of those who have intermarried. These relatives can seamlessly be incorporated into Jewish celebrations and life-cycle events, and we know we can count on them to support us. In an era when anti-Semitic events seem to be increasing, we should be able to use all of the resources at our disposal. Why not seek out interfaith families and their extended family members when facing a community crisis or even when there is a need to communicate basic information, including the back story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
In a well-done segment on intermarriage for PBS’s “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” (available in both video and transcript format), Saul Gonzalez interviews voices on all sides of the debate in the Jewish community, including Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, author of Making Intermarriage Work. Reuben seems to share a similar perspective on the possibilities of intermarriage to open people’s eyes to the “other”:
It is the natural outgrowth of having a society that is open and free and accepting, where there aren’t the same barriers that shut down communities and make people live in ghettos and make people live only with their own religion, or their own race, or their own culture, or their own kind, whatever that might be. Every interfaith relationship is like a pebble in the pond. There are ripples that go out that touch many more people than that couple and their kids.
Engaging the relatives of non-Jewish members of intermarried couples may be the next frontier in outreach. By befriending the extended families of non-Jewish partners, the Jewish community just may find the bigger project–raising Jewish children–to be a little easier than it was before.
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