Is the Jewish Community a Mean Girl?


Mean girls

“The organized Jewish community is nothing more than the mean girls from high school.”

What?! I think I literally stopped breathing for a moment. Could it be true? I knew this lovely person across from me believed what she was saying. So I wondered, “Could this community that brings me so much joy and comfort be unknowingly treating some individuals as though they are lesser than?”

Feeling compelled to learn the truth, I started asking around: Does the community ever look at you with eyes of judgment instead of acceptance; act unwelcoming to other’s differences; create distinctions and groupings—with some in and some out? Holy sh*t! Organized Jewish community can be just like the mean girls to those who don’t fit its idea of what normative participants should look like. And this realization now drives my work with interfaith couples and families.

Yes, it might stem from our own inner fears about our future, but the Jewish community can be the worst kind of mean kids. We can make others feel unaccepted, unimportant and unwelcome; and then we pretend it’s all in their minds.

Every day. Every year. We look at interfaith families and, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally, with both verbal and nonverbal ques, we question their presence, their legitimacy and their worth.

Since beginning my work with IFF a few months ago, I have heard several painstaking revelations from a large variety of individuals, some Jewish, some who love Jews and some who are raising Jews. Each of these souls sat with me and shared deep pain. This pain came from the words and actions of clergy, staff, lay leaders and other participants in the congregations, schools and organizations these families looked to for community. One told me, “I had never experienced discrimination until I tried to embed myself in the Jewish community.” And another said, “Whatever I do, whatever I say—it’s never enough. They’ll never accept me.”

Obviously, this is hard to hear. Some of you are probably thinking it doesn’t apply to you, or your congregation, your organization. If only that were true.

Even while trying to be welcoming, many Jewish institutions still make interfaith families feel as though they’re lacking. We embrace them, to a point. Welcome them in, but speak about how their choices are flawed or problematic. As one person told me, “Conditional welcoming is not welcoming.” Or another who told me that welcoming her, while subtly pushing conversion, made her feel like her congregation was saying she wasn’t welcome as she was. Or as she put it, “It’s like they said, go ahead and lose 10 pounds and then we’ll hang out with you.”

Or we institute a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy inviting everyone in, but offering unwritten rules that things such as Christmas trees should never be spoken about out loud. We say, just come: Everyone is welcome as you are, but then in an effort to not make distinctions between people we fail to provide proper instruction or explanation to the masses. As one mother told me, “It’s like I asked how to get to the kiddie pool and I was thrown into the deep end, with no life jacket.”

I have been blown away by the stories I’ve heard and the judgment some of our families and couples feel. And I am a rabbi who works for a Jewish organization. If people are interacting with me, they are trying. They are choosing to engage with Judaism and Jewish community enough that they’re at the dinner table with me.

Even a Jewish family, raising Jewish children, embracing Jewish community is accustomed to disrespectful comments and glances if they are intercultural, interracial or if one hasn’t formally converted to Judaism. Even though they are committed to Judaism in their home, they may receive strange looks and questions that imply we believe they are secretly turning their children away from Judaism. Let me clarify – they are not.

There are interfaith families in every congregation who are active Jewish community members and who, whether you know it or not, never converted. They are members of our religious school committee and regular service attendees. They are devoted to their family’s Jewish identity, even if they themselves are from different faith backgrounds. I fear we hurt these incredible souls the most, for they hear all of the unguarded and offhand comments which denigrate interfaith couples. As one person told me, “The part I don’t normally tell people is that it wasn’t a stranger who said it to me, it was a friend. A friend. I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t speak.”

When will these Jewish families feel like they’re not second-class citizens? Only when we stop treating them as such.

I get that this feels complicated and painful. I understand loving Judaism so much that you only want what’s best for her future. Here’s the thing—nothing excuses causing another pain. We need to love Judaism enough to know she will offer beautiful and wonderful lessons and rituals that will enrich people’s lives. That’s how Judaism will thrive through generations, not by shutting doors and creating barriers.

If we really want to be good Jews, we’ll remember to welcome our guests (hachnasat orchim), to prioritize love (ahavah) and respect (kavod), to offer respectful communication (shmirat halashon), to support creating peace in the home (shalom bayit) and loving our neighbors as ourselves (v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha).

May we always elevate the values of knowing a whole person (kaf zechut), of offering explanations and choosing our words wisely so as not to embarrass or leave anyone out (lo levayesh) and may we never gossip or insult (lo lashon hara), whether we believe they may hear us or not.

If we embrace who our tradition truly wants us to be, the members of the organized Jewish community will transform from mean girls to ambassadors. We will offer guidance, excitement, connection and true community. When we use our hearts for love, true welcome will flow forth.

About Rabbi Samantha Kahn

Rabbi Samantha Kahn is the director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area

4 thoughts on “Is the Jewish Community a Mean Girl?”

  • Thanks for sharing Carolyn. I’m so sorry you have experienced this hurt. I truly hope us speaking about it openly can help change the reality we live in.

  • Hi Danny,
    Thank you for your comment. It’s true that the experience of not feeling welcome, or not fitting in, is not isolated to interfaith families. Many Jewish people assert it for the reason they disassociate with the community. When I’m referring to the Jewish community in the blog I mean staff, members, clergy, and regular participants of Jewish organizations, such as congregations, Federations, JCCs, other Jewish nonprofits, etc.

    As far as what it means to raise your children with Judaism – I’d answer that it means incorporating Jewish values and experiences into the time and way you interact with and teach your children. IFF actually has a great email series that gives wonderful examples of how to do this. You should sign up for it if you are interested in learning more. 🙂

  • Sadly, yes! Even as a convert to Judaism I became aware that members of the synagogues we belonged to, and raised our three children in, were uncomfortable with who I was, and could not treat me as one of their own. I understood this, and did not reject them for it. I was secure enough in my own identity and in my husband’s acceptance. There always came a point, however, when they could not accept us as we are, could not understand our way of celebrating Judaism, that they became the classic “mean girls” you refer to. We had to leave two congregations when they became emotionally abusive, and felt justified by their own religiosity. We continue to practice our religion as a family and with the friends who do understand and share our values. Thank you so much for making this a conversation.

  • What, exactly, does “Jewish community” mean? I am the Jewish-by-heritage half of an interfaith couple, and — although I “embrace” my Jewish heritage — I, for a host of reasons, have never felt at home in any Jewish community — Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Reform, and (especially) Conservative — except my immediate family and at a non-religious kibbutz I lived on for a summer in high school. This feeling alienation long predates my relationship with my Japanese (American-born) wife. Several years ago, I consulted with an “interfaith-friendly” rabbi who asked, “Do you plan to raise your children Jewish?” My reply was “What does that mean, exactly?” The rabbi couldn’t explain it. I’m grateful for my family and friends who are supportive and understanding of my lifelong endeavor to better understand my Judaism.

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