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The Importance of Keruv

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June 29, 2010

Originally published on Dover Emet, A blog by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation of Washington, D.C.on September 21, 2009

I would like to teach us all a very important value in Jewish life known as Keruv. Keruv literally means 'to bring close,' 'to draw near.' Throughout our history, the word "keruv" has meant the endeavor to bring close all those among are people who are, for whatever reason, feeling far away from the community. Keruv is a beautiful Jewish value that is all about welcoming. It's the heart and soul of what has sustained us as a community for generations.

The Jewish value of Keruv goes a long way back in Judaism. It seems that many of the great biblical figures were also especially concerned with Keruv. And their lives and stories teach us much about how to draw other people Karov, close to Judaism. There was Aharon, the High Priest, the brother of Moses, for example. Our tradition tells us that he just had a magnificent talent for Keruv. When the Mishnah talks about Aharon, it says that he was Ohev Shalom v'Rodef Shalom, Oheiv et haBriot, umekarvan latorah: that he loved peace and pursued peace, that he loved all of God's creatures and brought them close--mekarvan (the same root as Keruv)--to Torah.

King David was known to inspire countless others with his deep faith and devotion to God, and his piety brought the Israelite nation Karov, close to God. And so what we learn from our biblical teachers is that Keruv, in its essence, is an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness: it's inherently an act of human beings reaching out to other human beings, and offering them the gift of Torah, of connection and of community; and any good Jewish community worth its salt engages in some kind of Keruv.

The idea has made it squarely into modern times: the notion of Keruv is what inspires the Chabad Lubavitch Jews with their "mitzvah mobiles" that you may have seen on street corners, where they ask you "are you Jewish" and offer you the chance to put on tefilin or wave a lulav and etrog.

And in progressive Judaism, Keruv has been around for a long time as well. In modern times, Keruv has become more and more associated with reaching out to unaffiliated Jews who do not belong to synagogues. And this is the idea behind so many introduction to Judaism classes and other adult education programs designed to offer a way in for Jews of all backgrounds that have become a staple of modern synagogue life.

In recent years, a whole new idea has made it into the world of Conservative Judaism: an idea that we wouldn't have dreamed of 50 years ago: to broadened the definition of Keruv to include outreach to intermarried Jews and blended families of Jews and non-Jews.

When I say that we wouldn't have dreamed of this 50 years ago, some of you understand very well what I mean, and others aren't so sure, I'll explain: remember the movie or the play Fiddler on the Roof? How Tevya, the kind-hearted dairy man, desperately tries to hold onto tradition as his daughters test his devotion to tradition:…his first daughter breaks convention by marrying for love and not through an arranged marriage; his second daughter marries a radical young man not from their community and leaves home; and finally, remember his third daughter Chavaleh? She falls in love with a non-Jewish boy.

At first, Tevya tries to dissuade her. He tells her, 'A bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together?' She responds, 'We don't see it that way.' When finally, they do marry: remember what Tevya says? He says, "If I bend the tradition that far, it will break!" and with that, Chavaleh becomes dead to him. It's a heart-rending moment as a family is torn apart, never to be reunited, as Tevya and his family go off to New York, and never see Chavaleh again. There are different, passionate reactions to this story. Some people who see the show may abhor Tevya's hardened response to his daughter. Others may feel his heartbreak. Still others may pity Chavaleh or perhaps shake their heads at her foolishness, or burn with anger on her behalf--but as we all know, there is not a dry eye in the audience at this moment.

Keruv is a powerful issue that is becoming all the more real and relevant to us, all the descendants of the Tevyas and Chavalehs a century later. In fact, Tevya's struggle has become all the more pronounced here in the New World.

There are so many ways that our precious Jewish heritage is assaulted by modern ways, by assimilation, by the fast pace of life in this new world, this world of technology and progress, of so many competing values and enticements to our children for how to live their lives. The Jewish community has struggled to preserve its rituals and traditions, its sense of community, its focus on Torah and Mitzvot when fewer and fewer Jewish people interested with each passing generation.

The black cloud of the Holocaust came and sealed the point that our very existence in the world is under threat by the nations of the world. We Jews, the remnant of Israel, learned in the years immediately after the Holocaust that we must "circle the wagons" and build every bulwark we can against assimilation and intermarriage. For decades, American rabbis would stand just in my position here now--on high holy day pulpits--and harangue against intermarriage and interdating: some even saying that any Jew who intermarries is finishing Hitler's work. Those were tough words. Heart-breaking words. Words of desperation that implied that some Jewish people were Hitler's accomplices because of whom they love. It is tragic that some rabbis took the rhetoric that far. And needless to say, many intermarried Jews and their families walked away from Judaism upon hearing such words and never looked back.

On the other hand, not all rabbis and Jewish leaders were that tactless and heartless. Most were simply passionate Jews who would do anything to protect our people and to see our precious heritage survive to another generation. I grew up hearing those messages. And I took them to heart. And to this moment ,I deeply appreciate and am guided by the loving intentions behind those sentiments.

I was very much influenced by the belief that every time we heard of another intermarriage, it was quite simply, the news that another branch on the Jewish family tree had withered and fallen off, and so we must nurture and water that tree to prevent more loss of our people to that withering.

And the demographic evidence in many ways supports that view: the latest information of the National Jewish Population Survey shows that a full third of Intermarried Jews have completely divorced themselves from Jewish life and the Jewish community. And so, the predominant attitude for years has been that if our sons or daughters plan to intermarry, we must do everything in our power to get the non-Jewish partner to convert, lest that couple and their future children be lost to us.

But after I was ordained from the Seminary and began to work in congregational life, I began to encounter something altogether unexpected. I began to meet children in religious school who had a non-Jewish parent, children with strong Jewish identities, who loved being Jewish, and who were encouraged to love their Jewishness by their non-Jewish parents! I began to meet non-Jews who were regular attendees of services. Shabbat regulars who were spouses of Jews, or even single people who just loved Conservative Judaism, but who weren't Jewish! And some of these people could even read Hebrew and follow along with the service! What was this phenomenon?!

I discussed the possibility of conversion with some of these individuals, and some of them "took the plunge" in conversion; but others simply weren't in that place in their lives, or had good personal reasons not to convert at all--and yet they came to shul. They supported their spouses and children whole-heartedly in their Jewish life. The Seminary quite simply didn't prepare me for this population, and yet, there they were.

As I got to know some of these individuals, I began to see how hard it was for some. Here they were, with so much love in their hearts for their Jewish family members and the Judaism that they cherished, and yet they got the feeling that they were merely "tolerated" by their family synagogue. They felt like second-class citizens, not really a part of the community.

Many of these non-Jewish individuals endured years of cold shoulders in other synagogues, or belonged to other synagogues that didn't count them as family members or list them in the directory along with their Jewish spouses. Here at Adas Israel, we're ahead of the game in that we treat everyone in the household as a member of the synagogue community, but many in our community still feel the hurt from decades of feeling on the outs from their family's synagogues. I began to look at things in new ways was when I started to read the literature on Keruv that is being collected by the Federation for Jewish Men's Club's, under the leadership of Rabbi Chuck Simon. You see, over at FJMC, they have been doing a lot of thinking about the results of the latest National Jewish Population Survey--especially the results about intermarriage in this country.

Here's how it breaks down: if you did not send your child to a Jewish day school, and if you did not send your child to a Jewish summer camp; if your child is not involved in Jewish youth groups,or any form of Hebrew High School; if you are not a regular attendee of synagogue services, then you statistically have at best about a 50-50 chance that your child will marry another Jew. Statistically, the more your child is involved in any or all of the activities I mentioned, then the chances of intermarriage decrease. If you are intermarried, or one spouse is a Jew-by-choice, then the statistical chance of intermarriage increases.

Now these are all just statistics. This formula doesn't necessarily apply to any one family. But this information can really give us pause to think: either we can use this information to shore up our resolve to fight against intermarriage tooth and nail, or we can do what the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs is spear-heading. We can face reality head on for what it is. The evidence speaks for itself. Decades of haranguing against intermarriage, decades of alienating Jews who fall in love with non-Jews, decades of circling the wagons simply hasn't worked. It just hasn't worked! Between 1979 and 1990, the intermarriage rate among American Jews jumped from 28% to 41%, and by 2000, the rate climbed to 46%.

The simple reality is that intermarriage is here to stay. It's a fact of life for modern American Jews. It's a force to be reckoned with. And it's not going to go away no matter how much some of us kick and scream. And what's more, synagogue affiliation in general is shrinking. The younger generation is intermarrying at high rates, and they are not participating in Jewish life. The folks over at FJMC are saying something that we desperately need to hear: the way we've been going hasn't worked. If we keep on this path, we're going to keep losing Jews. We need to rethink our approach. We need nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we do Keruv. We need to move beyond just "tolerating" non-Jews in our communities to actively welcoming intermarried families and go even beyond that--to a place of real acceptance of non-Jews in our midst.

Why? Because the face of the American Jewish community has changed whether we like it or not, and that face includes non-Jewish faces among half of our people. To shun Jews who have intermarried is to eventually cut ourselves off from half of our people. If our community is to survive into another generation, we must accept the reality that half of our children will marry non-Jews. We must understand that our children, by and large, are not actively trying to thumb their nose at their families or Judaism when they get engaged to non-Jews. No. We simply live in a heterogeneous, open society, where our children live and work with people from all backgrounds and creeds. Love just happens. We all know that.

We can do our best to impart to them a love of Judaism, and of the Jewish people. We can hope that they will find a Jewish spouse with whom they can joyfully share the traditions of our people with their children. But we have all come to live--as Tevya himself did--in a society where Jewish marriage is not a given. And we must accept that. And if intermarriage touches our family, as it has most of us here, then we must NOT shun our children, but we must embrace them with open arms. Because when we do, we keep a door open to our children and to their spouses, a door open to the richness of our Jewish life and heritage that we have been shutting to them for far too many years.

Keruv represents the beginning of a discussion about how we truly integrate our intermarried families into the fabric of Conservative Jewish life. Think about it. It's remarkable that any intermarried families have chosen to affiliate with a traditional-minded synagogue like ours, when there are other options in the Jewish world, where intermarriage is more easily integrated in other movements. But we have families who are here, who belong to our movement because they are intellectually and spiritually drawn to the wise middle ground of Jewish life that Conservative Judaism stands for. They are drawn to our tradition of balancing tradition and modernity.

We will need to find a way to balance who we are as the Conservative Movement with the needs of these families. What a tight-rope act that promises to be! On the one side, we have the needs of non-Jews more and more in our synagogues. But on the other side, we are halakhic, we respect Jewish law that obligates and permits only Jews to participate in Jewish ritual. Also, we proudly affirm that the center of Jewish life is in the home, and we celebrate as a community those Jews who have made a commitment to entirely embrace Judaism as their family identity.

That's quite a challenge to our intermarried families. And do you know what the Keruv experts are finding? That, in fact, our non-Jewish family members respect us all the more for proudly upholding our laws and ritual boundaries and communal standards.

Real integration of non-Jews into the fabric of our community means that we must not be afraid to challenge our non-Jewish members about their participation in synagogue life and in giving and in reaching out, about their own spiritual journeys, to learn from Judaism, to consider conversion if it's right for them. We must also respect their boundaries if they are not in a place where conversion is right for them.

At the same time, we must not be afraid to challenge ourselves, to take a look at our committees, to investigate what kinds of roles non-Jews can play in our committees while respecting the boundaries and standards of Conservative Judaism. We must take a look at our activities and our rituals, to investigate how we recognize non-Jewish family members while upholding the boundaries of our sacred practice. We must think about our membership, to look at how we can attract new families into our warm community, and into the challenge of Conservative Jewish life.

The great key to this critical paradigm shift in Conservative Jewish life is, as the Bratzlaver Rebbe said, "Lo Lefached Klal." Don't be Afraid! We will not be teaching our children in religious school that intermarriage is as desirable as Jewish marriage. On the contrary, we will teach about the Kedushah, the sanctity of a fully Jewish home life. Only now, we will be sensitive in our language and emphasize the joy of Jewish life in the home so that all families--Jewish and blended--can see that a journey of greater and greater Jewish home observance leads to rich rewards for families and communities.

Don't be afraid! A new paradigm of Jewish life is not a weakening of the bonds that have held us together. It is not a free-for-all with no limits or respect for what we have always been. It is an affirmation of our strength. We have nothing to fear. We proudly stand for a 3,000 year old heritage; a rich universe unto itself of learning, of community, of connection, of wisdom, of culture, of music, of thought, of joy that we are strong enough to share with all human beings. The more we proudly open up to the world and celebrate who we are, the more we lovingly allow others into our celebration, the more we will be strengthened.

You see, the beauty of Keruv, is that is NOT just for intermarrieds and their relatives, it's for us all. Like I said before, in its essence, Keruv is about Jews and Jewish life. It's about bringing us all Karov, close to one another. When we build a culture where we're all proud of who we are, where we joyfully welcome all into the celebration of our Jewish life and tradition, then we are all brought closer together. When you really take a good hard look at it, Keruv is a win-win proposal.

The whole Jewish world is waking up to the reality of non-Jews in the fabric of Jewish life, and Adas Israel, I am proud to say, is on the cutting edge of this wave. We are under the able guidance of our own Steve Lachter who is our Men's Club interface with the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, as well other amazing leaders in this field like Marion Usher, and members like Eyal Rosenstock (who is working with Gan families and other young intermarried families to link them together and with the greater community). There is a whole committee of committed members coming together who want to grow our Keruv initiative. Under their able leadership, we will be expanding our programming and hopefully reaching out to many more families in our shul and around the community. We will have a special Keruv Shabbat, discussion groups, speakers, and more (Information on Keruv is available in our new Lifelong Learning Catalogue, and will be forthcoming in our chronicle and other announcements.) We hope that you will get involved and lend your support to this ground-breaking effort.

We must face the future proudly. There are some extraordinary human beings, Jewish and non-Jewish who are poised to contribute magnificently to Jewish life in our synagogue, and across this country.

I wouldn't exactly say that we are in uncharted territory: in fact, the very message of openness and proud resolve goes as far back as Abraham himself, the first Jew--who was a Jew by choice in the very ultimate and best sense of the term! When Abraham set out for the Land of Israel from Haran, the Torah tells us that Abraham set out with Sarai Ishto, Sarai his wife, v'et Lot ben achiv, and Lot his nephew, v'et kol rechusham asher rachshu, and all their property that they acquired, v'et hanefesh asher asu, and the souls that they had made.

That's a very strange expression: the souls that they had made. What does it mean to "make" a soul? The Midrash explains, that Abraham and Sarah were very special people. Their tent was, in fact, open on all sides, and they lovingly accepted anyone who came their way into their tent. The rabbis explain, by welcoming all human beings in to our community, it gives them the opportunity to be created anew, and made part of our Jewish family.

The time has come for us to fulfill our destiny as the children of Abraham, and to ensure that our tent is open on all sides; to remember that all human beings are created, as the book of Genesis says, b'Tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, and thereby worthy of being welcomed into the joy, the simchah, the holiness, of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people--in any way that they can be. If they convert, then this is a joy, but if they don't, then they still have a meaningful place of honor and respect ba'asher hem sham--to paraphrase the book of Genesis--as they are--karov eileinu, close to us, and among our people, no longer pushed away.

In the months and years ahead, you'll be hearing more about our progress in the realm of Keruv. Our board, our ritual committee, our arms, will all be contemplating how we joyfully affirm who we are while ensuring that everyone has a place in the tent.

In the months and years ahead, may we all be blessed with the courage to approach our Jewish life with Chesed and Rachamim, with love and compassion, and may our hearts indeed be proud and strong and open to teach our children and our fellow community members about the joys and fulfillments of Jewish life. And may our community be known among the people of Israel as the Talmidav Shel Aharon Hakohen--the students, the disciples of Aharon the High Pirest: Ohev Shalom, v'rodef Shalom, Loving peace and wholeness, Oheiv et habriot umekarvan leTorah, loving all of God's creatures, and bringing them all to the wisdom, the joy of Torah. Amen.

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. Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. Hebrew for "repetition" (from the verb meaning "to study and review"), it refers to the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions ("Oral Torah"). Mishnah is the first post-biblical collection of Jewish legal materials, and the primary building block of the Talmud (the major collection of Jewish law), as interpreted by the rabbis. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. 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.
Hebrew word for a yellow citron, used ritually in the holiday of Sukkot. Yiddish for "my master," derived from the Hebrew word "rabbi," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. In some Orthodox communities, the title refers to the leader or founder of a particular hasidic movement (for example, the Lubavitcher Hasids refer to their rabbi as rebbe). Yiddish for "synagogue."
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation. He is a summa
cum laude graduate of Princeton University (1991) and received rabbinic ordination as well as an M.A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1998.

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