When it comes to welcoming interfaith families, our struggle is to find the right balance between tradition and change, between Jewish practice and secular norms.
Through the years, our congregation has struggled to keep its balance. Weighing heavily on one side is the power of — and reverence for — Jewish tradition. Weighing down the other side are the innovations and values of the modern world. The fact that we are fully integrated into the society in which we live is a blessing.
Our struggle, therefore, is to find the right balance between tradition and change; between Jewish practice and modern, secular norms; between uniquely Jewish perspectives on one hand and viewpoints we share with the larger society on the other. Nowhere is the struggle more evident or more important than in the policies and approaches we take, as a synagogue, regarding intermarriage.
Half or more of Jews who marry in this country choose non-Jewish partners. This fact poses monumental challenges. Indeed, some bemoan this trend as an existential threat. At the same time, this new reality may present unprecedented opportunities to grow our Jewish community and to bring a new cohort into the fold of Jewish life.
If we reject those who intermarry, we risk losing their children and grandchildren, too. If we unconditionally embrace Jews and non-Jews together, we may gain members but compromise the uniquely Jewish features that define our practices and our people. And so, we strive for balance.
In our congregation, we have instituted changes that reflect our desire to be more open and welcoming to intermarried couples and families. A year ago, for example, after much deliberation, our members voted to begin inviting intermarried families who see themselves as Jewish to join our synagogue as full members. In the past, only the Jewish spouse was invited to join.
Also, last year, we agreed to print in bulletins marriage announcements of children of our members even when one partner of the new marriage is not Jewish. We concluded that for those members who celebrated the upcoming marriage as a simcha, we should, and must, share in their happiness.
These are the first of the changes that needed to be made. In order to move forward, the discussion continues.
A couple of weeks ago, following our Kabbalat Shabbat Friday evening services, we invited members to join us for a discussion regarding obstacles and opportunities that intermarriage places before us. I invited an intermarried couple from within our congregation to speak, followed by a parent of children who have intermarried.
Each shared their joys and sorrows. They shared the challenges they’ve faced and the solutions they’ve discovered that help them to maintain their balance as they embrace Jewish life while remaining connected to their non-Jewish family members and to the Christian world of the non-Jewish partner.
This Kabbalat Shabbat program was arranged in conjunction with a citywide effort spearheaded by an organization in our community known as “InterFaithways.” It is the purpose of this organization to encourage discussions throughout the community, to help us address more effectively, and embrace with greater sensitivity, intermarried families in our midst.
In addition, like many congregations, we hold ongoing discussions in the context of our synagogue’s Keruv/Outreach Committee. It meets during the year to generate specific suggestions for how we can welcome more graciously our intermarried families.
In response to our initiatives, there are always those who disagree. There are those who question a rabbi who embraces intermarried couples and families. I understand their objections. After all, if intermarriage represents the demise of the Jewish community, how can a rabbi, who represents Jewish tradition, acquiesce?
In response, I ask a question from the other direction: How can we not embrace families and children who, if properly engaged, may develop into our most committed and passionate supporters?
None of us knows what the future holds. We all wonder, even worry, about the next generation of Jews. Shall we witness rejuvenation and growth or stagnation and deterioration? We do not know. But what we do know is that doing nothing cannot be the answer. For that reason, in my synagogue, we have chosen to move forward, advancing with deliberation, purpose and consensus.
We move forward as we try to mediate between exclusivity and inclusivity. We move forward, ever so carefully trying to maintain and be faithful to the delicate balance between our sacred traditions and the modern world, which is ours to preserve.
Rabbi Neil S. Cooper leads Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.