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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
There is perhaps no more important human drive than to find a home, for the "home" represents a sense of love, security, belonging, and meaning. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we like to say that interfaith families are like everyone else, only more so. Just like everyone else in the community, interfaith families seek a place--a home--where they can belong, where they can contribute meaningfully, when they feel like they can make a difference. However, the Jewish community doesn't always make it so easy for interfaith families to find a home there. Instead, in an attempt to protect their "core," the community often builds barriers--taking a lead from the classic rabbinic dictum to "build a fence around the Torah," forcing the intermarried to climb higher than most other families. And since the community has continued to build these fences, the barriers have often become even more difficult for anyone to climb over.
Perhaps we need to reconsider the way we build. Maybe these fences around the Torah need to be considered more like stadium seating where, for example, patrons are given an unobstructed view while watching a movie. Thus, they are all able to engage the experience on an equal footing, while at the same time, they are provided with different viewing options, depending on their personal tastes and visual abilities.
Ironically, when those persistent interfaith families find their place in the community, it is a better place in which to live. They both gain and give: enriching the community by providing it with diversity. They have also taught the Jewish community and its members much about love and fortitude, about respect and support, and about achievement and overcoming obstacles.
Often, interfaith families find it difficult to let go of any feelings of resentment toward the community that might have emerged during their wedding preparations. Another barrier--but this time it is self-imposed. When I meet with pre-marital couples, I often tell them that while the wedding might be of utmost concern to them at that point in their lives, because the ceremony is really only about fifteen minutes long they have to prepare--like we all do--for the long haul of living. And that means finding a community that is open and welcoming, something not always determinable by whether a particular rabbi is prepared to officiate at their wedding. For it is the community that people turn to for ongoing support as we face the challenges of daily living, particularly as an interfaith family.
Just as homeowners rarely buy the first property they see, it is understandable that those seeking a home in the Jewish community might "shop around." Perhaps related to the old expression "Two Jews, three opinions," there are myriad options for "community" within the larger Jewish population. The range between, for example, Secular Humanism and Hasidism is quite wide, with many different communities within. And like buying a home, it may take some persistence and may perhaps even involve some frustration along the way. But there is help!
Both JOI and InterfaithFamily.com try to connect people to local, welcoming Jewish communities. To push the homeowner analogy perhaps a bit too far, imagine us as your "broker" to a welcoming community. Feel free to contact us so we can help you in your search. Best of all: no commission!