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.
It was a typically difficult telephone call, one of the many that we receive at the Jewish Outreach Institute on a weekly basis. A young interfaith couple. Married a few years. Agreed to raise any children as Jews. Ready for their first child. Learned that it would be a boy. Time to arrange a brit milah (ritual circumcision). Suddenly, reality struck. Promises revisited.
"That was not part of the agreement," relates the young man, in a heavy Southern drawl--only to be countered by his New York-accented spouse: "But you said we would raise our children as Jews."
"True, but I didn't realize that meant circumcision--and publicly too," comes his response. "I wasn't circumcised. And I am okay, right?"
The subsequent conversations with me took place hurriedly over the next few days. Decisions had to be made. The baby was only a few days away from a scheduled delivery by Caesarian section. "Rabbi, can we raise a Jewish boy who is not circumcised?" Both asked the question nearly simultaneously.
I have to admit that it was not a question that we were prepared for in rabbinical school. Nor are most of the questions that I receive from interfaith couples. But I've come to recognize these conversations as make-or-break points for the (present and future) connections of these couples to the Jewish community. And I wondered how many rabbis or others in the community would have ridiculed the question or slighted the questioners. An abruptly ended discussion could feel like a door closing in their faces, perhaps even ending the couple's potential involvement with Judaism, and unfortunately this still happens all the time.
Instead, I simply told them the facts, as I know them, without a lengthy sermon or guilt trip or talking down to them. "Jewish boys are Jewish irrespective of whether or not they are circumcised. However, when they become responsible adults--which Judaism marks as the Bar Mitzvah (sometimes more painful than circumcision!)--then they themselves have the responsibility to get circumcised if their parents did not arrange it for them as infants. I don't think you would want your son to carry the burden of that kind of decision, especially during the already-difficult years of ages twelve and thirteen."
After thinking about it from the perspective of their son, the couple decided on a brit milah.
We also talked through the religious and spiritual significance of the act. I explained that, while there are now also "covenant ceremonies" for girls, brit milah remains definitely a "male ceremony" and it isn't just because men have the right equipment. Brit milah is a sacred Jewish ceremony that serves as an important ticket of admission into the Jewish community for males. It is an initiation rite that becomes part of family legend and communal memory, which is why it is perhaps even more important for interfaith families.
Finally, I spent some time with the couple discussing the details of the ceremony itself. Like other Jewish lifecycle events, there are criteria that an officiant will most likely employ to determine whether he or she is willing to perform the ritual circumcision. However, unlike some other lifecycle events for intermarried couples, some of these criteria may provide the opening for even Orthodox officiants to participate! For example, most Orthodox mohalim (plural form of mohel, a ritual circumciser) will perform a brit milah on any male child whose mother is Jewish, irrespective of the religious status of the father. Alternatively, if the circumcision is done for the sake of conversion (and preceded by a dip in the mikvah, ritual bath), an Orthodox mohel will also most likely be willing to participate. A Conservative mohel will probably respond similarly. (And since a child has to confirm--or reject--his or her conversion at age thirteen, there is still a great deal of room for exploration and personal decision-making later in life.) For the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, most liberal mohalim will be willing to perform a circumcision--providing the child is to be raised as a Jew--without the need for conversion.
Because of the challenges of new parenthood, most parents leave the ceremony almost entirely up to the mohel (or perhaps the local rabbi). It is difficult to be creative on little sleep, only eight days after the birth of a child. However, since the ritual requirements for brit milah are rather limited--both in time and scope--there is a great deal of room for creativity and the inclusion of extended family members and friends. So plan ahead. Use the nine months of pregnancy to gather information, to speak to friends who have recently "been there," and to create a ceremony that reflects the various elements of your life as a family and the dreams you have for your child.
While my rabbinic training did not anticipate the specific needs of the huge and growing intermarried population, I was able to draw on what I did learn in order to assist this couple: to be compassionate, listen, and "welcome the stranger." At JOI we've seen how every Jewish professional--not just rabbis, but temple presidents, outreach workers, JCC staff, even the secretaries at these institutions--are ambassadors into the Jewish world for intermarried and unaffiliated people. Every active Jew, in fact, can make or break the way an unaffiliated Jew (or "Jew-curious" non-Jew) feels about entering the community, based on the kind of reception we give them. Let's all try to speak openly about the challenges and opportunities available and welcome in with open arms all those who want to understand our traditions.