In a continuing effort to encourage reader participation and stimulate discussions on interfaith issues, InterfaithFamily.com introduces the IFF Dialogue and Debate. From time to time we will feature an op-ed-style piece.
An important phenomenon is happening among intermarried Jewish parents. They increasingly define the religious identity of their family as Jewish. Yet the religious movements in the American Jewish community are failing to respond in an encouraging way to these families. Instead, they insist on promoting conversion and on maintaining boundaries and barriers to the inclusion of these families in Jewish religious life. As a result, they risk alienating, rather than supporting, intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews.
In many synagogues today, intermarried non-Jews are actively participating in raising their children as Jews, and many seek to have their religious and spiritual needs met in Judaism. The universal aspects of the Jewish religion are very appealing to them, as are the family-centered Shabbat--or Sabbath--and holiday observances, and Jewish ethical views. They do not practice any other religion. They attend Jewish religious services and feel comfortable joining in the prayer and song. They observe Shabbat and the holidays with their families. They supervise their children's religious school education. They join in the synagogue's other activities -social action, adult education, and more. They have chosen Judaism as the religion of their family. In discussions at my synagogue, one intermarried non-Jew recently said, "For a lot of us, this is the only place we worship, and we worship as a family here." Another said, "I was raised Catholic. I came here because we can worship here and be a Jewish family here. We couldn't have been a Christian family, but I could embrace much of what's here. At many times I've felt part of the 'us' here."
These people are living Jewishly themselves-without converting. Conversion rates in general are lower, the result of decreasing stigma surrounding intermarriage and decreasing parental and community pressure. Many are not willing to convert, for very personal reasons. Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group.
Despite these realities, the calls for promoting conversion are persistent and growing. The official position of the Conservative movement calls for opposition to intermarriage, followed by efforts to encourage conversion by the non-Jewish spouse if the efforts to oppose the intermarriage have failed. In the Fall 1999 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie's article is sub-titled "Let Us Not Be Afraid To Ask Our Intermarried Members To Convert." Gary Tobin's 1999 book, Opening the Gates, likewise advocates for promoting conversion.
What is the likely reaction to these calls for conversion from the actively participating non-Jewish parents who are not willing to convert? Many feel that conversion is simply not important or necessary for them. As one said, "I was raised Catholic. My wife and I went through a painstaking process in deciding to raise our children as Jews. I didn't want to convert, but would do what was necessary. I learned Hebrew, I joined the Brotherhood, to show my commitment and example. I think commitment through showing and doing is more important than conversion." Another said, "Judaism can be adopted in a process without conversion, which is an act. Many people grow into the Jewish community. They adopt Judaism as their form of worship. People are on different points on a continuum, it's hard to pinpoint where they are."
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects. Being made to feel different and unwelcome can hardly be conducive to the efforts of these parents to raise their children as Jews. As one parent said, "It's not easy to find the way. It took us a long time. Feeling 'part of' has been really important. Our family grew up here, felt together here. Being 'part of' and included is the most important aspect of the temple for us."
Many synagogues in the Reform movement are currently struggling to resolve questions surrounding the role of the non-Jew in ritual participation. Rabbi Yoffie wrote that "We all understand that those who have not converted cannot participate in certain rituals." The issue comes to a head when non-Jewish parents wish to have an aliyah at their child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah. At the Reform Movement's December 1999 biennial convention in Orlando, the vast majority of rabbis asked about this issue were categorically opposed to allowing non-Jews to have an aliyah. How could a non-Jew recite a prayer that thanks God for choosing "us" and giving "us" the Torah? How could a non-Jew have the highest honor that a Jew can have, being called to the Torah?
There's a simple answer - an intermarried non-Jew who has participated in raising a child as a Jew to the point of that child becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah could say, with complete integrity and authenticity, that his or her family is included among the "us" who were chosen and to whom the Torah was given. Moreover, such a parent arguably deserves the highest honor which the Jewish community can bestow. What can be harder for a parent to do than to give a child permission to have an identity different from that parent? Given the sacrifices involved, honor is exactly what these parents deserve.
Telling a non-Jewish parent that he or she cannot have an aliyah because he or she isn't included in the "us" is destructive and counter-productive. Telling them that it's fine for them to say the prayers in the pews, just not up on the bimah, or podium, receiving an honor reserved for Jews, isn't logical or convincing. They are left questioning whether they can authentically say all of the many Jewish prayers that refer to "us."
Intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are. They want to be comfortable in the synagogue. They want to feel united with their Jewish spouse, not divided, not unequal. They don't want the message given to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child at this critical life-cycle event to be that one of their parents isn't allowed to participate and be honored fully. Instead of encouraging such people to live Jewishly, maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah makes them feel excluded. "We are here because we thought we could pray together as a family. To say that my silence is mandated - even at the single moment of the aliyah - strikes at the reason why we are here." "I would feel put out if I was told, no matter how committed I was, that I couldn't participate fully. Do you mean to tell me that my Jewish brother-in-law, who is totally secular and whose only connection to Judaism is to have matzah ball soup at the seder at my house, could have an aliyah at my son's Bar Mitzvah, and I couldn't?" "I feel I've made a huge commitment in raising our children as Jews. Differentiation would feel punitive and exclusive. People need to understand what it would be like for the non-Jewish parent to be excluded at this moment despite all of the sacrifices he or she had made."
The movements are stuck on their policies that maintain boundaries because their concept of Jewish peoplehood excludes unconverted non-Jewish spouses. But that concept could be broadened so as to include them. Non-Jews have always had a recognized place within the Jewish community. We could start thinking of the Jewish people as a broader Jewish community, made up of both Jews and their non-Jewish partners. The theoretical foundation for that concept lies in the Torah itself, which refers to them as gerim toshavim --"strangers in your camp," or, in Everett Fox's translation, "sojourners who sojourn with you." Indeed, the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in the Reform liturgy suggests that the sojourners were included among the people who entered into God's covenant: "You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God... every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the sojourners who sojourn among you . . . to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day, in order to establish you henceforth as [a] people...." (Deut. 29:9-12). Elsewhere the Torah refers to kol adat b'nai yisrael -- "the entire community of the children of Israel." (Lev. 19:2)
The American Jewish community needs a religious movement that would allow intermarried and unconverted non-Jews to chose complete participation in Jewish life. In such a movement the Jewish people would mean a broader Jewish community made up of both Jews and the sojourners among us. Jews and sojourners could feel that Judaism is their religion, and that "member of the Jewish community" is their identity. This policy of "total inclusion" would eliminate the feelings of being different, and excluded, that inhibit their Jewish living and child raising. Instead, they would be encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews.
In such a movement, if a non-Jew were raising Jewish children, it would not make any difference whether or not that parent converts. Conversion would be an option for those who chose it, but parents would not be made to feel deficient, less welcome, or discouraged by too much emphasis on conversion. Interfaith families who had not even entered our doors would not stay away because they felt welcome only as potential converts. Those who have not and may never convert would get the message that they were welcomed and accepted just as they are. Active unconverted non-Jewish spouses would be allowed to choose to participate in all of our rituals. They would be considered part of the "us" entitled to join in our prayers. Feeling included would advance and reinforce their efforts to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, which should be the community's primary goal.