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Why are programs and activities created especially for interfaith families called “outreach”? A blogger whom I’ve been following since I started my job here at InterfaithFamily.com referred to this rhetorical strategy as “symbolic violence”–a way of articulating the idea that good Jews are on the inside and interfaith relationships are on the outside. Why, she asks, are all the programs about the December Dilemma and conversion, with nothing acknowledging how much of the work of Jewish life is actually done by people in interfaith families? Why is the model to have people from in-married families doing outreach to intermarried families?
(Ah ha, I just finished an entire month of December Dilemma articles with a Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion. Nice timing, I now feel maximum defensiveness–though also an enhanced appreciation for January.)
Why do we call it outreach? The way the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with anything it finds scary is through ostracizing. When people talk about outreach, or in Hebrew kiruv, the implication isn’t only that someone is on the outside and someone is inside, reaching. It’s also that we aren’t actively pushing people who are inside, away.
“We” shouldn’t only mean in-married Jews who are working with intermarried Jews, because in my experience, people in interfaith families, including non-Jewish partners, are in the Jewish community, making good things happen. But I’m afraid the vision is still as my original blogger indicates, in spite of all the Jewish educators, lay and professional community workers and voices of the Jewish community that are children of interfaith families or in interfaith relationships or marriages.
Lately, I’ve seen more use of the word “welcoming” to mean something comprehensive about what kinds of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions we’d like to have. Sometimes we make a list of the groups of people we are explicitly NOT excluding, and sometimes not.
At the same time, the Jewish community is still doing the push-away activities that outreach is supposed to oppose. Unfortunately we still need a good code to communicate to people who want open, friendly Jewish communities, “we aren’t mean rude jerks.” Or at least, that we don’t mean to be–there are so many ways to fall short. I guess we have to keep listening if we want to achieve a Jewish community with no outreach because no one is out and it’s not a big reach for them to belong.
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