Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Atlanta, Georgia. When this article was written, he had been rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, Georgia for 12 years. Ordained in 1973 at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Kunis is a past president and founder of Morasha, the Rabbinic Fellowship of the Union for Traditional Judaism.
Bridget and Bernie Go to Shul
This article is an excerpt from The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (c) 2001, edited by Ronnie Friedland and Edmund Case. Order by mail or call 800 962 4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, PO Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.
Do you remember the TV series of the 70s: Bridget and Bernie? Nice Jewish boy marries, as Lenny Bruce once put it, his "shicktza (a demeaning term I would never use) goddess." Their lives depict an interesting mixture of two cultures: kosher salami and Virginia ham. What the viewers do not see in this series or most other of Hollywood's depictions of such relationships is how they deal with their spiritual lives. Perhaps it is typical of how many mixed marriages avoid the issue altogether. But there are now many mixed marriages that do want to make God and tradition a part of their lives.
More than ever interfaith couples (if the non-Jewish spouse converts it is not an interfaith couple) are coming to the synagogue. One might think that this is merely a reflection in the rise in interfaith marriages among Jews. But the Jewish rate of intermarriage has been high for some time now (fifty-two percent in the 1990 Jewish population survey). I think it reflects a spiritual undercurrent in our society, a longing for the divine, and a search for our inner selves that is so strong that it emerges despite the obvious complications of an interfaith marriage. Despite what many Jews may think, Jews in interfaith marriages have not given up on God or Jewish tradition. In fact, the opposite may often be true: they need this spiritual connection now more than ever.
My congregation, Shearith Israel, is a "Traditional" congregation. Its service is lively--filled with song and spirit, and it follows the traditional liturgy that has remained the same for hundreds of years. There are mechitza sections for men and women who choose to sit separately, but most of the congregation sits in the larger mixed seating section.
When I came to Shearith Israel twelve years ago, if an interfaith family wanted to join the synagogue, only the Jewish partner would be accepted, and he or she would then be listed as a "single" membership. This was typical of Traditional, Orthodox and even Conservative congregations. I had a problem with this policy and insisted that it be changed. If we, as a congregation, would have any spiritual impact upon these families, we needed to approach them as a family.
Yes, the non-Jewish spouse cannot be buried in our cemetery or lead the service or become an officer of the synagogue, and most of them understand that. But he or she is invited to be a full participant in congregational programs--Shabbat dinners, Friday night family services, adult education, socials, religious school programs, etc. Non-Jewish spouses are encouraged to become active on committees to help plan and carry out programs. In my first year at Shearith Israel I began an interfaith couples support group to meet at holiday times and discuss the inevitable holiday conflicts that arise and how to best deal with them. I make myself available to interfaith couples for marital and family counseling. I wanted both the non-Jewish as well as the Jewish spouses to feel comfortable in Shearith Israel and to know that they have a spiritual home here.
This may seem strange coming from an Orthodox rabbi (I received my smicha, ordination, from Yeshiva University). The prevailing belief in Orthodox, Traditional and even Conservative circles was that by making interfaith couples feel so welcome in the synagogue, we are, in effect, encouraging intermarriage. This argument may have had some validity--probably not much--50 years ago when the intermarriage rate was less than five per cent, but now we know that it is not true. This attitude is exemplified in the following bad joke: A young Jewish man confides in his mother that he has met a wonderful American Indian woman and that they plan to marry. He tells her of the Indian name that his fiancee has given him, Little Bear. "Oh," said his mother, "I also have an Indian name." "Really Ma?" asked the son. "What is it?" The mother replied, "Sitting shiva" (mourning the death of a loved one).
Sitting shiva, mourning for a child who has intermarried, has never brought a child or his or her children back to the fold. But what has helped keep the Jewish family members of an interfaith family into the fold has been the support and embrace of the extended Jewish family. Whether or not a synagogue will welcome a non-Jewish spouse into its midst is simply not an important consideration for the overwhelming majority of those contemplating intermarriage. But once the intermarriage has taken place, how we welcome them can make a huge difference in the Jewish life of this family and whether or not it will have Jewish children.
In Shearith Israel, non-Jewish spouses have become regular attendees of Shabbat (Sabbath) services. Many attend our adult education classes in order to learn more about Judaism, and after a few years of participation, some have decided to convert (no pressure, I promise)--some after fifteen years of marriage! If the mother is not Jewish, I will convert the children providing the mother sign a declaration promising to raise her children as Jews, faithful to Jewish tradition. This of course, I tell them, must include one of the most difficult of religious tasks--carpooling the children to religious school.
The children of interfaith couples are thus full participants in synagogue life. They attend our religious school, participate in youth services and programs, and regularly lead services and read Torah after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, as do other children. No stigma is attached to them and disparaging remarks are not tolerated.
How often, in the wake of the Holocaust, have we agonized over our declining numbers and in the decline in Jewish observance? My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik, taught that we are called the Children of Israel, who was Jacob, and not the Children of Abraham or Isaac, because it was only Israel who had a lasting relationship with his grandchildren. The barometer of Jewish survival is perhaps through our grandchildren. Several years ago there was a survey of intermarried grandparents in Philadelphia. Not one of the grandparents surveyed had a grandchild that was being raised as a Jew today. Perhaps this has something to do with the attitudes of that past generation. My experience has shown me that this does not have to be!
I'm not saying that synagogues should promote or condone intermarriage. Quite the contrary. But the truth is that intermarriage is not going away, and we cannot afford to abandon any Jewish soul. The non-Jewish spouse is not our enemy. He or she also has a soul created in the image of God and might have been attracted to marry a Jew because of a conscious or sub-conscious affinity for Judaism. Only if we welcome these families and show them the joy and the beauty of Jewish life will we have a chance that all our grandsons and granddaughters will be Jewish.