If you’re taking the time to read this, you’re probably at least mildly interested in the dwindling number of people who identify themselves as Jewish, a topic that has so many Jews worried. As a community, we’ve tried to apply a number of haphazard patches to this problem, but an important fact remains that simply cannot be overlooked: When a Jewish person falls in love, it’s not always with another Jew.
This means that we in the Jewish community have a choice: A) We can act like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and sit shiva for our son or daughter (or for their Jewish identity and that of their future offspring) or B) We can be purposeful about how we welcome interfaith couples into our community.
At Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, the only choice is B.
As a whole, most Jewish communities are not doing a sufficient job of reaching out to interfaith couples. When a rabbi refuses to marry such a couple, it doesn’t cause them to break up. Instead, they simply find someone else — often a non-Jewish officiant — who will marry them. The couple and often their family are left feeling rejected and hurt, as if Judaism doesn’t want them.
At Beth Hatikvah, this topic is being put under the microscope. As a CBH member and head of the Spiritual Life Committee, I will lead a discussion on Friday evening, April 25, about breaking down Jewish fences.
Instead of making the field bigger and being welcoming, we push people away. Jews often act like we are members of an exclusive club, and we try to limit membership. But at the same time, many of our own sons and daughters don’t want to be part of our religion. It is mind-blowing to me that if an interfaith couple wants to get married and the non-Jewish member of that couple enthusiastically agrees that he or she will raise their children to be Jewish, it is still difficult to find a rabbi who will perform the ceremony.
CBH believes inclusion is the future of Judaism. Half our board members have spouses who are either Jews-by-choice or non-Jews, and all of their children are being raised Jewish. This is a progressive and enlightened community. We want Jews-by-choice as well non-Jewish spouses who are raising Jewish children to know that they are not just welcomed here; they are embraced.
As well as looking forward to a time when interfaith couples feel completely assured about their choice to raise Jewish children, CBH is looking back and finding guidance in Jewish history. At the dawn of Judaism, gentiles were welcomed into the community as equals. The biblical matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel — the wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — were all born gentile. The Torah states 36 times: “Treat the stranger that sojourns with you as one of you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If it was good enough for them, it is certainly good enough for us.
For more about the “Embracing the Interfaith” discussion, see Bethhatikvah.org.