This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.NJJewishNews.com .
All you had to do was look around the room at the conference of the Jewish Outreach Institute, held June 8-10 in Boston, to realize that, for better or worse, intermarriage is an idea whose time has come of age within the Jewish community. For the first time, among the 100 or so participants at a JOI conference were representatives from many Jewish federations and their agencies.
Whatever one's personal religious or philosophical views on the subject, the notion of extending welcome and support to intermarried families is an idea that must be taken seriously. JOI has been in the forefront of that effort since it was founded in 1988. Interfaithfamily.com is another independent national organization that welcomes and encourages interfaith families to make Jewish choices and the Jewish community to welcome interfaith families. To recognize the importance of outreach to our Jewish future, JOI inaugurated the Outreach Hall of Fame, which recognizes and honors those individuals who have moved American Jewry forward in creating a community more inclusive toward previously disenfranchised populations, especially intermarried families. It holds inductees up as examples to future generations of Jewish professionals and lay leaders to show how a warm and caring attitude is always the best policy. The hall of fame's aim is both simple and difficult: to create a community that will grow more and more inclusive of the intermarried who were often estranged from their families and previously disenfranchised from the community.
I am proud to be part of the hall's inaugural class of inductees. I was recognized for creating PATHWAYS, an innovative program offered by the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest that links the unengaged intermarried to Jewish opportunities across denominational and institutional lines. I was honored to be in the company of such visionaries as the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who as president of the Reform synagogue movement in 1978 opened the door to Jewish life for innumerable children of patrilineal descent. Also honored were Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who by her own example became an advocate on behalf of programs and outreach for the intermarried. Another inductee, Rabbi Steven Foster, created the Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me education program, which assists families to raise their children Jewishly and join synagogues--a model that has been replicated here in MetroWest as well as in other communities--in 1985 in Denver for intermarried families. Rosanne Levitt of the San Francisco JCC's "Interfaith Connection" was honored for developing one of the first such programs in the country and becoming a mentor and resource to countless communities.
Also honored were the late Dr. Egon Mayer and David Belin, who founded JOI and began to transform the Jewish community to become more inclusive. No one did more to further those aspirations than Egon. When he lost his battle with cancer at the end of January, many of us lost a mentor, friend, and advocate for the intermarried.
His legacy was the cornerstone of the June meeting. He respected the Jewish community, loved the Jewish people, and empathized with the struggle he found in so many of the intermarried couples he met through his research and his walks into all of our communities and their lives. When he came to MetroWest as keynote speaker for a conference called "All in the Jewish Family: A Community Forum on Intermarriage," Mayer did not leave after receiving his applause. He stayed and he listened to the people he met. He questioned and he witnessed. He had much to teach us, and to learn from us. He embraced the intermarried and welcomed them back into the Jewish world. He challenged us and helped us to create programs that would encourage and bring the intermarried back. He pressed us to go beyond our usual thinking and barriers.
As Kerry Olitzky, JOI's present director, reminded us, the Torah repeatedly entreats us to welcome the stranger. We who are committed to outreach have the opportunity to bring people from the periphery to the core. "We believe in the moral imperative of working with an inclusive Jewish community," said Olitzky. " Just caring is not enough."
Inductees have proven that a warm and caring attitude is always the best policy.