Interfaith Marriage is Good for the Jews

By Karen Kushner

January 2005


This is part of a series of thought pieces by Karen Kushner. The articles express Kushner’s vision of the Jewish future based on the changing face of North American Judaism, and are an edited version of a keynote address she gave on October 25, 2004 to the National Association of Temple Administrators.

Story: a Catholic Understanding

Let me tell you a story about Fernando. This is the name of the Catholic Cuban husband of a Jewish woman in a Reform temple. He accompanies his wife and daughter regularly to Shabbat services, participates fully in all the family education classes while remaining a dutiful Catholic son. In a discussion about the 613 commandments, other parents sanction the common pattern of ignoring commandments that they find uncomfortable.

“It’s too difficult to keep kosher” says one mother.

“For me it is impossible to keep Shabbat and live in the modern world, I can’t even give up shopping on Shabbat,” says a father.

Fernando speaks in his heavily accented Cuban English. “I think if we drop one commandment because we don’t like it or it is too difficult, we should find another one that we can do to replace it, so there would always be 613.”

The room falls silent as the parents are floored by the commitment to Judaism behind these words… and their source.

You know the statistics: The National Jewish Population Study reports that half of young Jews, who marry, marry someone who is not Jewish.

If you have many members who are in interfaith marriages, consider for a minute that perhaps it is precisely because they are in interfaith marriages that this family is in your synagogue. Perhaps it is the partner, who is not Jewish, who has catalyzed the need for a family religion. Think about how this fact changes the Jewish synagogue world. We know that 30% of couples in interfaith marriages affiliate with a synagogue and 75% of conversionary households affiliate.

Ask yourself, ask any rabbi, cantor or educator about the ones who come to every event, who ask for more programs, who study with their kids at home, at the family education programs, and at adult education classes. Who is it that wants to learn every part of the liturgy so that they can sing along with the service?

Who is most interested in learning the details about the “low” holidays (as opposed to the High Holidays) of Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Purim, Passover and Shavuot?

This is what I see. The most active and most involved of congregants are frequently Jews-by-choice. They head committees, come regularly to services, and are not just present but emotionally involved in their Judaism. They sing loudly and joyously, they dance with the Torah without inhibition, they study seriously and ask great questions. They inspire us with their love of our tradition. I bet you see this too. Jews-by-choice are not taking from us; they are giving to us.

Story: Let the Joyous Lead Us

Last winter I sat on a beit din (rabbinic court) for a conversion for the first time. The gioret was a young woman who was engaged to a friend of my son. Her voice trembled as she softly answered our questions and then she went to ready herself for the mikvah. We waited in the hall outside the pool until she descended into the living waters. As her sponsoring rabbi asked her to recite the Sh’ma, I was startled, then moved to tears to hear her clear voice sing the Hebrew words declaring God’s unity.

Whenever I tell the story of the singing coming from the waters, I am as moved as I was on that day. It was her joy that moved me. That she sang the Sh’ma… with joy; to this New Jew, Judaism is a great gift and treasure. This fills me with hope. I want people like her to model Judaism for the next generation.

As my friend Rabbi Ed Feld says, Jews-by-choice are a gift from God to keep us from being too ethnocentric after the Holocaust AND I may add, to remind Jews of something that the American experience with all its freedoms has made us forget, we have the freedom to say yes to religion.

Legalizing the Common-Law Jews

Then there are the invisible ones, the “not yet Jews” or common-law Jews. Those who live Jewish lives through their children and partners but have not converted. These common-law-Jews who have been living Jewishly with partners for years do not need an Introduction to Judaism class to get them to convert. They are often very familiar with the holiday calendar and the holiday rituals. Because they care about religion and know its importance, they learn with their children, decorate their homes, prepare holiday meals and serve on committees.

When I ask them why they haven’t converted they respond humbly that they don’t know enough! They feel they should know Hebrew, have read theology, studied midrash. They think they are not fit for conversion because no one has asked them to convert. No one has invited them in. In our effort to not push, not pressure, we forget that these folks are from traditions that proselytize; they expect someone to encourage them in.

They will stay in this state of limbo forever without an invitation. Living according to the Jewish calendar, following Jewish traditions and observing Jewish rituals and assuming they don’t know enough.

They are ready, waiting for something to persuade them to make the conversion decision. Every synagogue has conversions and every one can provide that decision-making moment for someone who is hesitating by creating some special way of celebrating the conversions in your synagogue A New Jew needs acknowledgement through a public blessing, an aliyah to the Torah, an announcement in the bulletin, a chance to tell their story, all of the above! Add them to that bulletin board I talked about before. The point is to find a way to make each New Jew an inspiration for those who are hesitating.

Story: Balancing the Yahrzeit list

The day is long and our throats are dry. It is Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment in the synagogue in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where I used to daven (worship). The prayers are familiar in our mouths. Al Hayt, Avinu Malkenu, Shofar calls again and again.

We know that the last service before Ne’ilah (closing service) is the Memorial Service with the seemingly endless list of names of friends and neighbors, parents, partners and siblings. But first one moment of celebration, the reading of a list of the names of all the New Jews of the year. All those born, all those adopted and all who chose Judaism read together. The entire community comforted, joyous with each new name, new life for the community in the form of babies and Jews by choice.

Let me tell you a story about John.

Story: A Good Catholic

He grew up Catholic and studied with the Jesuits before concluding that the priesthood was not for him. At University he met Barbara and fell in love with her.

This is what he says about his love: “I fell in love with a Jew. At least in part what I was loving was her Jewishness, though I didn’t realize it yet. I came to understand later, that much of what I love about Barbara are qualities shared among many Jews.”

Together they raised her daughter into adulthood as a Jew.

This is what he says about those who, like him, live a Jewish life for years before they convert: “I think I’m the most typical kind of convert. I’m among the converts who somehow, sometime, find that they have settled into a community that they recognize and that recognizes them, a community that they appreciate, that they share values with, can raise children with—that allows them to spiritually breathe. This folding into the community is a slow and gentle process. Then one day you realize that the actual conversion, the turning, the t’shuvah, has happened long since.


About Karen Kushner

Karen Kushner is a consultant to, and past Chief Education Officer for, InterfaithFamily. She is known for the workshops, trainings and booklets of the Jewish Welcome Network, which provided outreach consultation and resource to synagogues, Jewish schools and agencies of all denominations and affiliations.