Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is an annual opportunity to pause, reflect, and refocus. As individuals and as a people, we consider the events of the past year, celebrate our triumphs, and confront our failures.
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In the American Jewish community, the big story of the past year was the Pew Forum’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
Most read the Pew Report as portraying a shrinking community intermarrying into non-existence: over 70 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews who are married, are married to people of other backgrounds (I use the term “people of other backgrounds” wherever possible instead of “non-Jews,” following the suggestion of Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute). Intermarried families tend to have much lower rates of Jewish everything: engagement with Jewish practices, synagogue affiliation, and so on. And 83 percent of children from intermarried households will themselves marry someone of another background.
While that picture is grim for Jewish continuity, there’s another way of understanding the data. In this alternate reading, rising intermarriage and declining Jewish engagement among intermarried families are due less to intermarriage itself, and more to the work we in the Jewish community have yet to do in responding positively to the reality that Jews will marry people of other backgrounds.
For the past few decades, the organized Jewish community has, by and large, taken a hard-line: We not only actively encouraged in-marriage, but we also excluded intermarried couples.
Of course, the Jewish law, halakhah, has some rules about including people of other backgrounds in Jewish life. Rabbinic law, for instance, defines Jewishness as the result of having been born to a Jewish mother or formally converting to Judaism. The halakhic tradition, classically understood, does not allow a rabbi to officiate at a wedding between a Jew and someone of a different background. And there are certain Jewish rituals that, for quite understandable reasons, can only be performed by a Jew, like leading services and reciting the blessings over the Torah. Personally, I believe these distinctions remain both wise and fair.
But for decades, many synagogues went beyond these rules, barring those of different backgrounds from synagogue membership, refusing to list the names of spouses of different backgrounds in the directory, and preventing people of different backgrounds from the rituals of their families’ life-cycle celebrations.
These policies were not based in Torah, but were rather parts of a strategy devised to stop intermarriage. A generation of well-meaning leaders had hoped that if we put our feet down a little harder, Jews would stop intermarrying and/or their partners from different backgrounds would convert.
But this strategy failed for several reasons: It banked on forcing people to choose between their religion and their loved ones. Instead of choosing religion, they rejected and resented it for expecting them to make that choice. Similarly, the Jewish religion did not provide people of other backgrounds more of an incentive to convert. If anything, it showed them that Judaism was a cold and rigid faith. Who would want to sign up for that kind of religion?
Furthermore, the strategy neglected the fact that many Jews are brought back to Judaism through partners of different backgrounds, and also the fact that many intermarried couples, even ones in which one partner does not convert, go on to have vibrant Jewish households and raise committed Jewish children.
The narrative-shattering truth is that digging in our heels about intermarriage turned away, turned off, and lost countless Jews, potential Jews, and friends of our community.
But the power of Yom Kippur is that we can change our destiny. The ubiquity of intermarriage does not have to be cause for defense or despair. Instead, it can offer opportunities to help families of all types build households infused with a vibrant Jewish life and to bring more people into relationship with Torah and Jewish community. We can take hold of those opportunities if we open our hearts, arms, and doors to all who seek inclusion and involvement in Jewish life and community.
Synagogues can maximize ways for intermarried families to feel fully a part of and fully at home in our communities. Not only can this be done within the contours of Jewish law, this inclusive approach is deeply traditional.
The Torah holds up the model of Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people, who enthusiastically welcome three strangers into their home (Genesis 18). They hurry to meet their needs and make them comfortable. Only later do Abraham and Sarah realize that these three strangers are actually angels. The legacy of Abraham and Sarah is to be welcoming and embracing to any and all people who approach our tent.
And our tradition affirms that Torah and community is God’s loving gift for all who want it. As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish community, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9). Similarly, the prophet Isaiah envisions God saying, “My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Our synagogues, Isaiah taught, must be open to and inclusive of all who seek entry, regardless of background.
If we open ourselves to all who seek Jewish belonging, we can bring countless souls under the wings of the Divine Presence. And if we do that, then when we report the State of Our Selves in the Yom Kippurs to come, we will be able to proudly say: strong, flourishing and holy.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.