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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
It’s not about caving on interfaith marriage.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter. People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit 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 movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and 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, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.
It’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, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’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 “sub-optimal.”
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” 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 don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – 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 “us” 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 an aliyah 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 the Cohen Center’s recent research 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 synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’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. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ 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 “do both.” 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 – 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 – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’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 haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” 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 – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’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?
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
That’s right – an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: “At Romemu the diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.” I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the “Strangers No More” program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But there’s more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com – one of her subtitles is “From Taboo to Commonplace” – that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says “It was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. There’s a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.” One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds “to ask questions in a safe space.”
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources “because of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.” (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that “When it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selves… in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.” I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are “uncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]….” – and that’s more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, “are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]” or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say “we are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];” Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are “the people who fit the demographic of the active group” – referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not “meant for Jews” that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not “meant for Jews” but instead are “meant for” Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are “for Jews” but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionists’ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
There’s an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews won’t remain forever separate, and sees her program “as a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.” She hopes her program won’t need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: “these are the people who get us… [t]his is our community.” The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemu’s benefit, “Awaken Your Voice,” on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success – it deserves to be.
It was all over the news. “Ivanka and Jared can ride in cars on inauguration Shabbat” proclaimed the New York Post on Thursday, January 19. “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Get Rabbinic Pass to Ride in Car on Inauguration Shabbat” said a headline in The Forward. All of my friends were talking about this and posting about it on social media. How could Ivanka and Jared say that they’re modern Orthodox Jews, who observe the Sabbath, and yet they’d be traveling in a car following Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, after the beginning of Shabbat? Why were they granted special permission by a rabbi to use a vehicle on Shabbat out of safety? After all, my friends would point out, Ivanka and Jared didn’t have to go to the inaugural balls and galas. Other friends were saying that they probably got the dispensation because they’re rich and powerful.
The more I heard people criticize Ivanka and Jared, the more uncomfortable I got. Whether or not I like or support them or the president is irrelevant; I don’t think I have the right to criticize Ivanka and Jared’s Jewish observance.
I often hear people judge interfaith couples and families just as they’ve been judging Ivanka and Jared.
If the Jewish partner truly cared about Judaism, they say, then they wouldn’t have married someone who isn’t Jewish. (For my personal thoughts on this issue, see my post ‘Marrying Out is not ‘Abandoning Judaism’.)
If they wanted to have a Jewish home, they wouldn’t have a Christmas tree.
Their children aren’t really Jewish because the mother is Christian and they never took the children to a mikveh (ritual bath) to convert them.
How could they have had both a rabbi and a priest at their wedding?
How can the Christian mom be raising Jewish kids if she herself goes to church?
Many years ago, Rabbi Israel Salanter said, “Most men worry about their own bellies and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.” What a beautiful teaching! Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could spend less time focusing on and talking about the ways in which other people practice their religion, and more time trying to bring healing to our fractured world?
I spend a lot of time advocating for interfaith couples and families to be accepted by the Jewish community “as they are” and encouraging synagogues and Jewish institutions to welcome and embrace all those who want to walk through their doors, rather than judging them. I think that it’s only fair that I speak out in favor of giving that same respect to Ivanka and Jared. Let’s not obsess over the fact that they traveled in a car on Shabbat – it’s not really news. We’d all be a lot better off, to paraphrase Rabbi Salanter, focusing on our own spiritual and religious lives and concerning ourselves with eliminating hunger and poverty. Now that’s something to talk about.
I know this will embarrass you (and definitely make you cry) because that’s who you are, but in the spirit of this month of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say thank you.
Thank you for…
…saying yes when I was 7 and came home from a visit to Hebrew School and declared that I wanted to go back and learn Hebrew. I often imagine what the conversation was like between you and Dad that evening, but you had the courage to let me follow my heart and we joined a synagogue so that I could. There’s no way you or anyone could have known the impact that decision would have on all of our lives. Since you were never really moved by your family’s Catholicism or any sense of religion, I bet it was scary and uncomfortable at first, but you put me first and have always encouraged me to follow my passions.
…participating in my Jewish life, learning the prayers and the music the best you could, showing up for everything, being so proud of me at my bat mitzvah and then confirmation and encouraging me to make every Jewish choice I wanted. Not only did I want to learn Hebrew, but I also wanted to belong to a community and I wanted you and Dad and my sister, Evyn, to belong too. We were lucky to find a community that embraced us all, found committees for you to add your voice to, made sure you felt comfortable and allowed us to find meaning and make life long friends.
…influencing the person and the rabbi I am today. The odd rude person has asked me through the years if I ever was frustrated that you hadn’t converted or even that you weren’t Jewish. Once I got over my offense at the question, I always answered that so much of who I am is due to the person you are and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. When I became a rabbi, I made sure that your name was on my ordination certificate, transliterated into Hebrew because both you and Dad created me and saw me through those many years of study, struggle and triumph in order for me to reach that particular life long dream. You are the calm voice in my head, reminding me of what I can achieve, telling me sometimes to relax, urging me to stand up for myself, reminding me how proud I make you.
…enduring any ignorance that might have come your way: the people who didn’t understand how you could have a daughter who is a rabbi or those who simply didn’t include you, or even ignored you. You never let it bother you because you knew who you were and you showed me by your example how to be strong in a world where not everyone is accepting or kind.
Thank you for all the ways you choose love, by loving me, accepting me and always being my champion and my most fervent supporter (along with Dad, of course). I wouldn’t be who I am; wouldn’t be doing the work I love; couldn’t live the happy life I do—without your example of a strong woman, your humor, your quiet confidence, your effortless style and your soft heart. There will never be enough words to express how grateful I am for all that you are.
So thanks Mom, for being you.
P.S. Writing this made me cry—thanks for that too!
It’s 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to “on duty” and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbie’s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New York’s Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: “You know, this is crazy. I don’t even know your full name.”
Man: “Bernie….Steinberg. What’s yours?”
Woman: “Bridget….Bridget – Theresa – Mary – Helene – Fitzgerald.”
Then they both say at the same time: “I think we have a problem.”
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish community—and certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didn’t care about Judaism. When you “married out” you were seen as “writing off” your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who “sat shiva” (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who “married out.” The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fading—at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In today’s world—a world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish—it’s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who aren’t Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we can’t just “cancel the show” and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage was to preach against it. Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernie’s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. We’d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernie’s marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our “Love and Religion” workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class to consider “how” and “why” to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, “primetime” is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who aren’t Jewish; to let them know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. It’s a time to let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that not only are we not “sitting shiva” for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. It’s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the “Bernies” out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love “Bridget.” And for all of the “Bridgets” out there, we hope that just as you love “Bernie,” you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.
My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
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.