Not long ago I stood on the bimah beside a congregant and watched him smile as his daughter became a bat mitzvah. After the service, Alex (not his real name) shook my hand, his face still full of pride, and said, “Thanks for everything, rabbi. And for including me.”
It never gets old – seeing the pride on parents’ faces as their children take their place in shalshelet ha-kabbalah, the ancient chain of tradition. I love watching them kvell as their sons and daughters carry the Torah through the congregation. But Alex was different: he is not Jewish.
Alex is part of a growing number of non-Jewish men and women who are participating in synagogue life, raising Jewish children, and living Jewish family lives. They light candles and chant blessings; they drive carpools to and from Hebrew school, they attend services, sing Hebrew prayers, cook kosher recipes, and sometimes even answer their children’s Jewish questions. They are lovingly and committedly constructing the Jewish future, even though they themselves have chosen not to convert.
Jews are used to feeling threatened by intermarriage, worried that it signifies the impending demise of our people and our way of life. This is a very old, very ingrained way of thinking. And it is understandable: we have almost always been a minority. It stands to reason that the more we assimilate, the shakier our future may be. But it is not a straight line from intermarriage to assimilation, especially when intermarried couples are welcomed and included in synagogue life, met not with suspicion and reticence but with open arms, nonjudgmental language, and educational resources.
Viewing intermarried couples as a threat is not helping us, and may in fact be threatening the very future that we seek to ensure. Instead of merely tolerating (at best) intermarried families, we would be better served by seeing the opportunities they present as an integral part of the community. It’s time to recognize – both in word and in deed – that intermarried families who opt into Jewish community are Jewish families.
Three millenniums ago, the Torah already recognized that there was a group of people who lived among the Israelites and who followed Jewish practices, but who chose not to formally join the Jewish people. The biblical name for this group is Ger Toshav – the “resident stranger,” or “the one who lives among you.” There are laws about the Ger Toshav all over the Torah – you’re supposed to share tzedakah with them, you’re supposed to treat them with respect and you’re supposed to include them in communal life in various ways. While biblical society most definitely did differentiate between Jew and non-Jew, the Torah’s general approach to the Ger Toshav is to be welcoming and inclusive in ways that are ritually permissible.
We can all strive to live up to this ideal –to make our houses of worship into places where intermarried families are considered part of the fabric of the congregation, where the language is welcoming rather than threatening, where non-Jewish members of the community are invited to participate in communal and ritual life. Not necessarily in all ways, but in meaningful ways.
It is time to do away with the old ways of treating intermarried families. For the good of our community and our future, it is time to affirm the Jewish choices that our non-Jewish members make, to recognize and appreciate their significant contributions to our community. Let’s welcome intermarried families within our congregations, and embrace the opportunity to help them build Jewish lives.