A House of Prayer for ALL People
May 1, 2009
This article originally appeared in the Reform Advocate published by the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and is reprinted with permission.
The phenomenon of intermarriage is a reality of Jewish life today. Many (if not the majority) of our young families may have a spouse that was not born into the Jewish community. If we are lucky, and if we, as rabbis and congregational leaders, respond in a warm, welcoming and inclusive way, that family will decide to raise their children as Jews. We may not have control over whom our children choose to marry but we can certainly create an environment in our synagogues that is conducive to an interfaith couple feeling welcomed and wanted.
The first step for a rabbi is starting with a positive attitude toward interfaith couples. Regardless of whether a rabbi is willing or not to perform the actual wedding ceremony, I believe it is crucial to talk face-to-face with the couple, even if it is to refer them to another officiant. A telephone refusal or, even worse, being told by the rabbi's secretary that he/she is unwilling to perform the wedding, is the death blow to the relationship between that couple and the temple. How can we expect our young people to stay involved in a synagogue where the rabbi treated their request for support at this critical moment in their lives as an annoyance to be quickly dispatched? Personally, I see an interfaith marriage both as a challenge and as an opportunity for the Jewish people. By our response we have the potential of either ensuring a Jewish future for that family or alienating them. Being deeply committed to officiating at interfaith ceremonies, and standing in solidarity with a couple throughout the process of their wedding, as well as the ongoing journey that follows, opens the door for a lifelong relationship. In my preparatory meetings with couples, I always emphasize that my hope is that their wedding will be the beginning of our relationship, rather than the end of it.
My congregation, the New Reform Temple of Kansas City, Mo., has always believed that the supportive environment and spiritual community we create for interfaith families is a primary value of our Classical Reform principles. The following thoughts and policies on the bar and bat mitzvah experience reflect our approach to all life-cycle celebrations.
Isaiah's words "My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all people" are well known to all of us and are emblazoned in the entrance of many synagogues in our nation. But are we truly welcoming? Are we making all we can to welcome our non-Jewish members and their extended families into our community? I believe we must look critically into our traditions and practices and try to determine where we can be flexible and what are the points that must be retained. For instance, a traditionalist interpretation of Jewish law would prohibit a non-Jew from touching the Torah scroll. In fact, this approach would also include women in such a prohibition. Reform Judaism rejects such outdated and outlandish concepts in favor of a progressive, inclusive and egalitarian understanding of our tradition. We see tradition as having a "voice but not a veto" and thus feel obligated to adapt our tradition to our times, in order to make Jewish observance relevant to our people. When we see that there are non-Jewish parents who are very involved in the religious upbringing and education of their children and who are active volunteers in our temples, we cannot deny them full participation in an important family milestone, such as a bar or bat mitzvah. Thus, they absolutely must be called to the Torah together with their Jewish partner. In the liturgy surrounding the reading of the Torah, we speak of passing our heritage "l'dor vador…from generation to generation." If there is anyone who deserves to be honored at the ceremony as a critical link in this inheritance, it is the gentile parent, who has so often demonstrated great personal dedication as a link in the chain of transmission of our faith through the generations.
We also try to create opportunities for involvement for more distant non-Jewish relatives and friends at such celebrations. It is crucial that they feel involved and appreciated and participate in the service to the full extent of their comfort level and ability. Honors such as opening the ark, participation in readings, and serving as ushers to greet other family members are all appropriate venues for involvement for the non-Jewish relatives who clearly respect and want to share in the celebration of these milestones.
We live in a world where the greatest challenge facing our people is not the lack of acceptance, but the fact that we are so accepted that the rate of interfaith marriages is high and rising. We must find creative and meaningful ways to extend the openness and acceptance that we have experienced and so greatly benefited from in American society into our own life as a Jewish community. Of course we want to work to develop within our children a deep and meaningful enough Jewish commitment that they will want to share it with their life partner. However, we must also respond positively to the reality that in a diverse society, this will not always be the case. As rabbis and congregations we must be aware that by responding with narrow, exclusionary actions that are both morally discriminatory and personally hurtful, we risk alienating and loosing our children...and their children. Conversely, by taking positive, welcoming and supportive steps to welcome the entire family, and every member of our temple, we truly make them houses of prayer for ALL people, with efforts that will surely yield great results and a bright Jewish future!