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We've Come a Long Way When It Comes to Outreach

November 23, 2009

Reprinted by permission of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent

Visit any Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform congregation on a Shabbat morning where there's a bat/bar mitzvah in an interfaith family, and observe who's participating, where and how.

Orange and purple flowersAre both parents sitting on the bimah? Are both parents reciting the blessings for their aliyah during the Torah reading? Are both sets of grandparents participating in the handing down of the Torah?

On any Shabbat morning, you can see incredible variations around these issues as rabbis and congregational leaders wrestle with how to respond to their intermarried families around the life-cycle events, and which leadership roles the partner of the other faith can take, if any, in the life of the congregation.

What has become perfectly clear is that more and more congregations are finding ways to embrace and engage their entire congregational family, including the intermarried among them.

This past weekend, some 50 congregations in the area, along with the Kaiserman JCC and Hillel, participated in Philadelphia's third annual Interfaith Family Shabbat weekend. Each marked it in its own way, but they all acknowledge the reality of the intermarriage phenomenon by reaching out to these couples and their extended families with open doors and open arms.

Forty years ago, the word "outreach" did not exist in this context. Outreach would not have been seen as a dream to create a Jewish tomorrow, but rather a nightmare describing the demise of Judaism.

What happened?

The 1960s and 1970s were mutational decades for America and the developed world. Well-established norms fell by the wayside. Ghettos of all sorts -- racial, psychosocial, social and economic -- were battered down. College students were in the vanguard of this social revolution. Social intermingling and interdating of students regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or cultural background erupted on an unprecedented scale.

The Jewish community viewed this social upheaval with alarm and dread. Jewish parents, leaders and their institutions reacted to interdating and intermarriage with anger and rejection. Parents and families sat shivah for their intermarried child. Jewish leaders and their institutions turned their backs and shut their doors. Tragically, these behaviors and attitudes by the Jewish community created a self-fulfilling prophecy; intermarried Jews and their offspring were lost to our community by these "excommunications."

At the same time, a growing number of Jewish parents whose children were intermarrying moved past that knee-jerk stage of rejection and began to welcome the loved ones of a different faith whom their children brought home. In turn, these transformed parents went to their rabbis, synagogues and institutions, and asked them to change their attitudes and behaviors for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

Initial responses were not positive. Nevertheless, "outreach" was born.

In contrast, consider the Philadelphia Jewish community today. Where is outreach not found?

Look at the transformations in the Reconstructionist and Reform movements in the past 30 years. Look at the Conservative movement as it looks for ways within its halachic grounding to welcome and embrace intermarried families, some of whose Jewish spouses grew up within and remain loyal to the movement's teachings.

And what about those intermarried couples not "native" to the Conservative movement who are drawn to its teachings. Can they enter through open doors? Can they participate in fashioning a Jewish future, too?

And what of our rabbis? To officiate or not to officiate goes to the heart of a rabbinical commitment to create a Jewish future. What does the rabbi think God wants him or her to do? What does the scope and sweep of Jewish history teach each rabbi about Jewish continuity and creating a Jewish future? Does the rabbi see a difference between preservation and perpetuation? Ultimately, either decision must be honored and respected.

When we look at Jewish history, we see the past as a stream of tomorrows that have passed into the present and are moving into the future. As a millennially young spiritual people, our DNA is to create a future in the petri dish of human history wherever we find ourselves. That is the empirical miracle of our existence.

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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Rabbi Mayer W. Selekman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom in Broomall, serves as vice president of InterFaithways.

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