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There are people that we meet that we enjoy and treasure, and then there are people who change our lives forever. When my friend Erin suggested I apply for the job at InterFaithways, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in working for a non-profit. But I figured, one never knows where a chance meeting or interview will lead. So I walked into my interview without any strong feelings about whether or not I would be offered the job. Throughout the meeting, I realized that the mission of the organization — to welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community — was something I could embrace. As it turned out, I was offered the job and met privately with Rabbi Mayer Selekman a few weeks later. We had a conversation that has changed my life.
Rabbi Selekman is not what I was used to in a rabbi. Most of the rabbis I knew were very stoic in nature. Rabbi Selekman is funny, sarcastic, and enjoys good conversation with lots of witty banter. I asked him why he had decided, back in the 1960s, to perform interfaith marriages. He said that he decided it was important that no one ever feel rejected. This answer really touched my soul: it was so simple yet so many people didn’t see it that way. In the 1960s, he was threatened by many people for his decision and even risked his career for his willingness to perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. As a result, he felt like an outsider in the Jewish community. But his congregation supported him and thrived because his kindness was so genuine. Soon other congregations took note and other rabbis decided, like Rabbi Selekman, that performing interfaith ceremonies could only lead to good things — people feeling comfortable in the Jewish faith and deciding to raise their children with Judaism. I realized that while many people were trying to preserve Judaism by rejecting those who intermarry, the reality was in fact the opposite: rejection leads to negative feelings and ultimately disassociation.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Years before, I had realized that if people were negative toward someone, they might think they are exerting control but they are actually relinquishing it. Now I knew that this concept came from a critical piece of my Jewish upbringing — kindness. We were always taught to be kind and that it is fundamental to being a Jew. It was ironic to me that for so many observant Jews, the one area where they were not welcoming was to their own people. And by trying to exert control over someone, you actually are relinquishing any influence you might have had. Through our conversation, I found it very liberating. The concept of kindness based in Judaism also included Judaism.
I now apply Rabbi Selekman’s philosophy to all aspects of my life — I try to remind myself to be kind even if the other person is being difficult. I attempt to avoid negativity (even though I am cynical by nature). I look at situations and try to be as inclusive as possible. While I am still cautious or cynical, I am doing my best to be welcoming and encouraging. Most importantly, I also teach my children the same.
As InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia takes its first steps as a new entity, I am proud to let you know that much of it started 50 years ago by a man who didn’t want people to feel rejected and wasn’t willing to let the kindness of Judaism have limitations. By knowing Rabbi Selekman, I learned that through kindness and welcoming, good things will happen. He has touched many lives in meaningful ways through his acts of kindness. I am pleased to say that I am one of the lucky ones he has influenced and I am better for it!