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A Conversation with Rabbi Lev Ba'esh

August 19, 2008

Originally published in The Connecticut Jewish Ledger with the title "Conversation with … Rabbi Lev Ba'esh Director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, InterfaithFamily.com, Inc." Reprinted with permission.

With intermarriage on a steady rise in the U.S., the makeup of many congregations is changing to reflect an increasing interfaith presence. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders are working to understand and meet the unique and often complex needs of interfaith families seeking to build Jewish lives.

Since 1998, InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. has provided an online resource for interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. An outgrowth of InterfaithFamily.com, the Jewish Family & Life!'s online magazine, InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. provides resources to help interfaith families make Jewish choices for themselves and their children, and encourages the Jewish community to include interfaith families.

Lev Ba'esh
Rabbi Lev Ba'esh, director of InterfaithFamily.com's Resource Center for Jewish Clergy.

Rabbi Lev Ba'esh is director of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc.'s resource center for Jewish clergy. Ba'esh was ordained in 1994 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He served as rabbi of Temple Israel in Dover, N.H., from 1994 to 2006, and as interim rabbi at Congregation Beit Ahavah in Northampton, Mass. from 2006 to 2007. While at Temple Israel, Ba'esh was also the Jewish chaplain at the University of New Hampshire and a member of several interfaith councils.

A longtime educator with the Reform movement's outreach division, Ba'esh teaches Introduction to Judaism courses throughout greater Boston. He joined InterfaithFamily.com a year ago, where he develops educational materials for Jewish clergy, and works with Jewish couples and families who contact the organization.

Rabbi Ba'esh also facilitates discussions at synagogues and other Jewish institutions throughout the country. He spoke at Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield on Sept. 12. He discussed his work with the Ledger.

Q: Why are you coming to Beth Hillel?

A: Rabbi [Gary] Atkins contacted me, as he recognizes a growing need among the grandparenting community in his congregation. The question that came up is, How can we support them in their relationships with their children and grandchildren who are in interfaith families?

Sometimes it's a little safer to have outside rabbinic support for a discussion like this, so that the congregation's rabbi can step outside his or her usual role and listen, instead of having to be in charge of the discussion, in order to get a better idea of what the congregation needs and how to support it in the future.

I help open up a safe conversation that can be challenging, without disturbing the relationship between rabbi and congregation.

Q: Do interfaith issues affect all Jewish denominations? How so?

A: Interfaith issues exist in all Jewish denominations, less so in the Orthodox community, but only because they limit who can be a member, as do some Conservative synagogues. I've worked with Reform congregations and am setting up a conversation with a Reconstructionist rabbi and his congregation. Beth Hillel is the first Conservative synagogue I've been invited to, since starting my work with InterfaithFamily.com. The Reform and Reconstructionist communities were the first to begin looking at the issue, and are still experiencing growing pains. Conservative congregations are increasingly interfaith and have begun to open up more discussions around the topic.

The Jewish community is facing many new issues: How does a congregation define itself as Jewish when a growing minority of its members are not Jewish or were not raised Jewish? An interfaith presence challenges the language congregants speak to each other, challenges the style of celebration within the congregation, poses challenges to who gets to make decisions about the future of the community.

For a rabbi, the challenge is, How do you rabbi to a Jewish community that is interfaith? There are challenges on the logistical level. For example, you may be the only spiritual connection an interfaith couple has, and when a parent of the non-Jewish partner dies, you may be called on to do the funeral for someone not Jewish. What the non-Jewish partner wants may be different from his or her parents' wishes, and while the deceased parent doesn't know from Jewish, the interfaith couple needs the funeral and death-related rituals to be Jewish.

There are many educational challenges as well: How do teachers talk to students about Jewish identity and living when the kids return to homes that are either Jewish plus something else, or Jewish, but part of the parenting team doesn't have a Jewish background to support what the kids are learning at school?

We're finding that this is a really huge thing; it's grown so large and so fast that it's almost as if congregations and rabbis now have to be proactive, not reactive. In the Conservative community, some interfaith couples move to one of the Jewish movements where the non-Jewish partner is accepted in a fuller way. There are Conservative rabbis and congregations who are extremely welcoming to interfaith families. These synagogues recognize the value of those families, rather than just the challenge they pose.

Q: How are you and your work received in the greater Jewish community?

A: I'm in a very tricky place within my own movement: I've been called a "beloved teacher" in the Reform Jewish world, but I am also threatening because I'm a non-congregational rabbi and I promote support of interfaith couples. I'm not trying to make more interfaith families; my job, as I see it, is to support interfaith couples and families in connecting to Jewish. Some people like to make the distinction, and say I'm actually promoting interfaith relationships. That's like saying that teaching about condoms is promoting sexual activity. I believe that the more education we have, the better off we are.

I consider myself a Jewish evangelical preacher: I believe very fully that what we have is a message of value to the world, so why are we so insistent that the only people we will teach or engage with or celebrate with see themselves as solely having a Jewish identity? Why has the Jewish identity piece been so much the issue, and not Jewish learning? People are focused on the numbers of Jews and on who calls himself a Jew. Judaism itself is of value to the world. The more we can express that, the better the world will be.

Q: Why is interfaith work important to you?

A: From the beginning, I never actually saw interfaith issues in my own family as a problem. My father's brother and several of my parents' cousins married not Jewish, and some of the non-Jewish partners converted. So I was raised in an interfaith extended family.

I am a fifth-generation U.S. rabbi, and grew up with an intense rabbinic background, where no one excluded anyone from being family. My grandfather left the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinate to become a Reform rabbi. The rabbi at the Philadelphia temple where I was bar mitzvah was a pioneer in the interfaith wedding world.

I grew up completely embedded in the Reform movement: My mother was a teacher and was involved in synagogue leadership. So I was there all the time, at Sunday school and helping her; we went to services and had services at home. We were as observant as any family could be, with a liberal understanding of what that meant. But every time we opened a Jewish book or heard a song, it modeled the heterosexual family lifestyle. Because I'm gay, for all my life, I've been translating Judaism in a way that I could be included.

Part of my interest in interfaith work is making sure nobody else has to have that struggle. I do that by helping the Jewish community recognize that what we have to offer is so valuable to the larger world, that anybody who wants to come through the door should be welcome and included, not as an outsider who must do all the work to figure out how to be part of the community.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Cindy Mindell is a staff writer for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

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