Outreach Yes… but Not at the Expense of Standards

By Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik


This article was first published in The Jewish Week of New York and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.TheJewishWeek.com.

Approximately ten years ago, a young woman born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Chinese father celebrated her bat mitzvah at The Forest Hills Jewish Center, the synagogue that I serve as rabbi. On the morning of the celebration, the father, in accordance with our congregational standard, was not allowed to play any role in the religious service itself.

All these years later, the young woman, now in her twenties, has recently told “her story” to a number of newspapers, this one included, and not so subtly accused me and my synagogue of racism. Claiming that she was made to feel “different” because of her mixed ethnic parentage, she says that the Jewish community alienated her, and was inexcusably unwelcoming.

The accusation hurts. On the most basic of levels, it’s simply untrue. An African-American Jew sits on our synagogue board, and is about to travel to Israel with me, for the second time. An Asian-American Jew recently brought our congregation to tears with her haunting rendition–in perfect Hebrew–of the twenty-third psalm at our memorial service on September 11. There are many more such examples. No, we’re not racist. Nor are we unwelcoming. If anything, I think quite the opposite is true.

What is true is that this young woman’s complaint is not really about racism at all. It’s about her needing to feel wanted and accepted for who and what she is. Reality is the perception of reality. In this case, our standard not only excluded her father, but, in retrospect, made her entire experience in our synagogue an unpleasant memory.

The issue of intermarriage pulls at us and at our hearts from every direction. The unprecedented openness of American society makes it an inescapable fact of life, and while intensive Jewish education, home life, and Israel experiences can better our odds, nothing provides a guarantee that our families won’t be touched, even in the most insulated communities. In the face of such a monumental challenge to our very survival, how is the synagogue to respond?

It is in this context that standards of participation by non-Jews need to be understood. This is not a halachic issue per se. There are plenty of extra-halachic ways to involve a non-Jewish parent in a bar-bat mitzvah ceremony. The more important question is, do we want to? And what message do we send when we do? Obviously, my former student would answer that question by saying that we should send an embracing message of acceptance. But that is exactly my point. Do we really want to send that message?

Painful though it is to say this, I think the answer to that question has to be no.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that the choices that we make have consequences. American society allows us to be who and what we want to be, no value judgment attached. God bless America. But religion is not value free. It never was, and it never will be. Religion is all about believing that some choices are better and more advisable than others, and that those choices are hallowed by tradition, whereas the others are not. Not every choice is OK. Choices do matter, and not only for us. We Jews are organically connected to the Jewish community, and, by covenantal relationship, to all the Jewish communities that have gone before us and are yet to follow. What we choose impacts our relationship to that covenantal community.

A Jew who chooses to marry out of the Jewish community is free to do so. The Torah itself makes it clear that we are endowed with free choice. But that choice has its consequences, and a synagogue must be allowed to draw a line somewhere in response. Welcoming non-Jewish family members into our sanctuaries but denying them participation in ritual practices should not be so hard to understand. Must a synagogue make everyone feel as if the decision to intermarry didn’t really have any consequences that couldn’t be “papered over” with a “little give” on all sides?

Congregational standards are, by definition, exclusive. No matter what the particular issue might be, they subjectively grant certain people entry, while denying it to others. Before adopting them as the governing principles of a religious community, its members and leaders must be sure that they reflect the community’s values and priorities.

Both personally and professionally, I struggle mightily with this issue. In a world of no guarantees, the possibility of intermarriage in our families lurks as a constant reminder of both the blessings and the challenge of American Jewish life. It pains me greatly that all these years after her bat mitzvah, my former student is still struggling with ambivalence about the Jewish community because our synagogue refused to give her father an honor on what was, for her, a very important morning. It should trouble me, and cause me to think further. I have. I think we made the right decision.


About Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, and co-chair of the Israel Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly.