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Walking the Tightrope: Dilemmas a Rabbi Feels in Dealing with Interfaith Families

On Monday, my phone rings. A Jewish member of my congregation, who is in an interfaith marriage, has called to inform me his family is leaving the temple. It seems that our outreach programs (activities to support interfaith families and those interested in becoming Jewish) have been too aggressive for them. Our attempts to create a safe and welcoming environment for interfaith families feel like pressure to them. Our programs to address the needs of interfaith families place unwanted attention on their religious difference. They are uncomfortable and they are leaving.

On Wednesday, I am meeting with another interfaith couple from the congregation. In angry and hurt tones, the Jewish partner complains of our failure to reach out to her spouse. No one in the congregation (including the rabbi) has actively encouraged him to convert to Judaism. No one has recognized that he is ready to become a Jew, if only someone would ask him. Apparently, our failure to reach out more aggressively makes him feel unwelcome and unwanted by the Jewish community.

A rabbi who works with interfaith families walks a tightrope. Should I give more attention or less attention to the needs of interfaith families in my congregation? If I lean too far toward an active outreach effort, I may offend those who are sensitive to being identified as interfaith families. If I lean too far the other way, I may hurt those who feel that our lack of programming reflects a lack of concern, or worse, an implicit criticism. If I take the risk of asking non-Jewish partners whether they've ever thought about becoming Jewish, my inquiry may be received as a welcoming invitation or an offensive invasion of privacy.

A rabbi who works with interfaith families must become adept at giving what may be perceived as mixed messages. I want to say to non-Jewish partners: you are warmly welcome in our synagogue, exactly as you are. I am grateful for the compromises and sacrifices you have made by choosing to make your family's spiritual life in our community. You are a treasured member of our temple family, whether or not you are Jewish.

At the same time, I want to tell non-Jewish partners: if becoming Jewish ever seems like the right choice for you, I would consider it a privilege to help you explore that possibility. If I don't ask you, my silence does not reflect a lack of interest. It doesn't mean that I think you're not "good enough" to become Jewish. Rather, my silence grows out of my respect for the extraordinarily personal nature of such a decision. My silence reflects my fear lest you interpret my invitation to consider becoming Jewish as a statement that you are not welcome as you are.

A rabbi who reaches out to interfaith couples struggles to articulate many such mixed messages. How can I tell interfaith families: we are honored to have you among us but we feel the need to reserve certain roles in the life of our religious community for those who have made a formal, personal commitment to Judaism? How can I explain the awkward double standard that often accepts unobservant and uneducated Jews without condition while telling more committed and knowledgeable non-Jewish spouses that there may be some limits to their full participation in Jewish rituals or the leadership of our synagogue?

I have now worked with interfaith couples for a number of years. I know that my perception is not always penetrating enough to intuit which message a particular family needs to hear. For fear of alienating families or making the wrong choice, I sometimes err on the side of caution. I sometimes lack words that are sufficiently eloquent and sensitive to communicate the complexity and pain of this rabbinical balancing act. I sometimes unintentionally hurt the very people I am trying so hard to help. And I frequently require the support of interfaith families who help me find my way even as I try to help them find a place in Jewish life.

A rabbi who works with interfaith families walks a tightrope. But increasingly, I realize that interfaith families live on that same wire doing their own balancing acts. I continue to look for better ways to help these families understand my struggle. And I continue to listen as carefully and openly as I can, trying to help families with the issues that seem difficult for them. I begin to see the possibility of joining hands, of helping each other to achieve more balance and security (yes, rabbis need help, too). I begin to hope that we can find the courage to be open with each other and the patience to build understanding and trust (if not always agreement).

Though the rope sometimes wobbles beneath us, though we sometimes inadvertently throw each other off balance, I feel more and more certain we can find a way to reach our destination together in safety, fulfillment and joy.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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.
Rabbi Jonathan Kraus

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus is rabbi of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA.

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