Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
One for Your High Holidays Check List: "Welcoming the Stranger"
The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, The Jewish Week. Visit www.TheJewishWeek.com.
From the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul--in the heat of summer's end--we begin a process of deep self-reflection, part of our spiritual preparation for the coming High Holidays. Psalms are read. Prayers are said. At the height of this introspective period, we stay up late on the Saturday just prior to Rosh Hashanah and offer prayers of supplication called Selichot. Reflecting back on the previous year, we vow to change negative behaviors and try to make amends with those we've offended. The process culminates on Yom Kippur, when we join members of our families and spend the day (or at least part of it!) in synagogue, atoning for our sins and hopefully coming out refreshed and renewed, ready for another year.
But if we are honest with ourselves--and the holiday season dictates that we should be--we must admit that our efforts to make amends often stop short, unrealized. Those who need and deserve our rapprochement most are probably not even among the family invited to join us in the synagogue, or if they do join us, may be subjected to messages of unwelcome from the pulpit or the pew. Who are these people? They are the intermarried members of our families, countless individuals who were not born into Judaism but have cast their lots with our own. They are spiritual seekers like us, yearning for inspiration inherent in the ancient message of our tradition. Isn't there enough room in our synagogues--and in our hearts--to give them the opportunity to hear it too?
Recently, several families related painful stories to us. These were not just any Jews, but highly involved lay leaders of the Jewish community, meeting at an annual conference. They spoke of having always considered their synagogues as extensions of their own families, and wanting their intermarried children to share the same strong connection to the community. However, they were disappointed and embarrassed when the Jewish community--their synagogues in particular--proved not so welcoming to their intermarried family members. The very institutions that they had led and financially supported rejected these new members of their families. And it hurt. As a result, they feared that the young couples would become less interested in participating (and who could blame them?) in the very communities that they were so proud of leading for so many years.
We gently helped these leaders realize that they themselves may have unknowingly contributed to shaping the attitude of their communities. And we explained that the reshaping of such attitudes has to begin with our own families--and ourselves.
So what are the questions and where do we start? Perhaps we begin by asking ourselves "How might I have been (unknowingly) offensive to my interfaith family members? What specifically can I do to make them feel more welcomed?"
The High Holidays are about telling the truth. Thus, it is time to start speaking the truth about our behaviors and making plans to change. No more jokes about "the goyim" (non-Jews). No more comments like, "funny he doesn't look Jewish," or worse, "she's got shiksappeal" (a shiksa is a non-Jewish woman). No more sermons about "intermarriage finishing Hitler's job for him." And let's stay away from the sprinkling of Yiddishisms as if they were some secret codes to make us feel superior and these new members of our families inferior as a result. If our goal is to include rather than to exclude, then this is the season to begin our work.
Don't wait another year; begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul) now. Reach out to the interfaith members of your family. Invite them to join you for the holidays. As befits the holiday season, ask them for their forgiveness for calling them "other"--even as you forgive yourself for doing so. And don't forget to ask the rabbis whose sermon your interfaith family members might be listening to this year if perhaps they might find the right words of welcome, too. Then maybe this can really be a new New Year for the Jewish community.
Yiddish for "gentiles," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.