I met my husband 23 years ago, when we were both undergraduate students at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He was 19 and I was 21, and within about two weeks of dating, I knew I never wanted to be without him.
He was raised in a non-Jewish home, the child of spiritual, nature-loving Buddhists who once took the family on a vacation to an ashram. I’m the product of a mixed marriage – Jewish mother, lapsed Anglican father – and grew up with a strong sense of my Jewish heritage. I attended Sunday school, shul on the High Holidays and was close to my Jewish grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom lived into their 90s. As a family, we gathered for many Shabbat dinners and holiday meals.
My husband knew, from the beginning, that if we were to build a family together, it would be Jewish. I was explicit about it, but I didn’t need to be. He knew it by the klezmer music I inflicted upon him, the Bernard Malamud stories I read to him and the scenes I could quote, word-for-word, from Yentl. And if there was any doubt about the importance of Judaism in my life, 15 months after we started dating, I went to Israel for a year to study at a yeshiva.
We stayed in touch while I was away and my feelings for him only deepened. We got married at city hall a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was an affirmation of love in the face of horror. I’d say that marrying my husband was the best decision I ever made, but I don’t remember it as a decision, so much as a stroke of exceptional luck.
Before we had kids, I worried about how our intermarriage was going to work. Sometimes it worked great. One Hanukkah, for example, my husband bought me a beautiful tallit, after he heard me complain that I had never owned one of my own. We also travelled to Israel together and hosted Passover seders. Other times, it was less perfect. I sometimes felt lonely going to synagogue by myself and fasting solo on Yom Kippur can be awkward. My husband, a great believer in cosmopolitanism, was occasionally put off by some of Judaism’s exclusionary tendencies.
But once our kids arrived, none of that mattered. We had a shared project: raising Jewish children. Our son’s bris and our daughter’s naming ceremony were deeply meaningful for both of us. We now build our weeks around Shabbat dinner and are in agreement about Hebrew school, Jewish summer camp and bar mitzvah planning.
So what is Judaism to make of families like ours? Until recently, I assumed we were building our home on the margins of the Jewish community – living both inside and outside of it. I had made peace with that. After all, I’m a journalist and my husband is a writer, so being on the outside of things is our natural habitat. But lately, I’ve noticed a few gestures intended to include families like mine in the broader Jewish community and I have appreciated them deeply.
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and now serves at The Lab Shul in New York, is making a case for welcoming non-Jewish spouses into Judaism.
Using history and halakhah, Rabbi Lau-Lavie found rabbinic sources that identify a category of non-Jews who affiliate with the Jewish community, but do not convert – the ger toshav (resident foreigner) – and calls for the resurrection of the idea. In a 45-page manifesto, he renames ger toshav “Joy” – a Jew who is also a goy. It’s a generous, thoughtful document and I saw my husband in it instantly.
Likewise, last May, I was heartened to hear about a Jewish cemetery in Woodbridge, Ont., called Beit Olam, which is designed for interfaith families. It was created by Rabbi Yael Splansky of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, along with other innovative, big-hearted rabbis. So far, there is room for 200 plots, with space to expand.
I understand why Jewish leaders disapprove of intermarriage, discourage it and exclude non-Jewish spouses from communal life. Judaism has survived in the Diaspora for thousands of years by consciously and systematically segregating itself from non-Jewish cultures. Jews have retained their distinctness and preserved their religion and culture by eating different foods, observing a different Sabbath and following a different calendar.
I also understand the opposing view: that intermarriage, or cultural miscegenation, is inherently good – that cross pollination can suppress, even just temporarily, the worst aspects of tribalism. Author Michael Chabon passionately laid out that argument this past spring during a Hebrew Union College commencement speech that was widely circulated online, stirring up much controversy.
But neither opinion matters very much. Jews choose to marry non-Jews more often than not, regardless of what either camp says. As the oft-quoted 2013 Pew Research Center study revealed, over half of the American Jews who have married in recent years have non-Jewish spouses. The question that interests me is not what Jews should do, but how we should respond to what Jews are actually doing. Every leader of a Jewish organization – synagogue, day school, camp – must consciously consider how he or she is going to approach intermarried couples and families. Why? Because whatever is decided will not only affect the future of that particular organization, but of Judaism itself.
My husband and I know from experience how meaningful it is when Jewish community leaders embrace intermarried couples. I’ve seen how a welcoming rabbi who’s willing to include my mixed marriage in Jewish events and rituals can have a positive impact on our family’s Jewish life. Warmth and inclusion can be powerful tools. My son attends a magical summer camp that’s rich with Jewish and Zionist values and never alienates campers or their parents for not being Jewish enough. The culture of that camp is already having a tremendous impact on his Jewish identity.
Surely we want more “Joys” to help build and grow Judaism. To achieve that, we must deliberately extend a hand.