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IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâ€™s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movementâ€™s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â€“ indeed, embrace â€“ not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as â€śin,â€ť as part of â€śus,â€ť as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as â€śout,â€ť â€śother,â€ť not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person â€śisâ€ť Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to â€śdoâ€ť Jewish.
Itâ€™s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, â€śitâ€™s wonderful that your daughter has a partner â€“ but wouldnâ€™t you prefer that she were straight?â€ť No, he wouldnâ€™t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâ€™ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said â€śis she Jewishâ€ť? right in front of my daughterâ€™s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be â€śsub-optimal.â€ť
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenâ€™t â€śreallyâ€ť Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like â€śger toshavâ€ť is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they donâ€™t want their childrenâ€™s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more â€śinâ€ť or â€śoutâ€ť and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â€“ and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the â€śusâ€ť to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have anÂ aliyahÂ excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After theÂ Cohen Centerâ€™s recent researchÂ showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogueâ€™s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâ€™s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. Thatâ€™s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ€™ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to â€śdo both.â€ť What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors â€“ when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion â€“ they mostly get â€śnoâ€ť for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonâ€™t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who havenâ€™t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donâ€™t have to recommend or favor raising children as â€śboth,â€ť providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive â€“ yes, a truly audacious â€“ hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donâ€™t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?