What Interfaith Families Bring to Our Congregations

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Interfaith families bring a richness of customs and raise the level of mutal respect and open-mindedness in our synagogues, writes a reform rabbi.

With all the the bad news emanating from last year’s Pew Research Center report on American Jewry, there is something here that we ought not to miss, something that comprises a challenge and a promise of hope for our Jewish future. 
 
Despite soaring rates of intermarriage and decreasing rates of affiliation and Jewish knowledge, practice and belief, the survey revealed a significant increase in the total number of Jews in the United States. The survey cited an increase in the U.S. Jewish population from about 5.5 million Jews in 2000 to approximately 6.7 million today. That  increase of more than 20 percent is huge and totally unexpected. How did it happen? 
 
Partially it’s in the more expansive definition of who is a Jew employed by the study. Included in this 6.7 million figure are those who do not meet the Jewish legal definition of “who is a Jew”: a person born of a Jewish mother or formally converted to Judaism. A great many are children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who consider themselves Jewish — in other words, an interfaith family. 
 
So, in answer to the question, where did all these “extra” Jews come from, the answer, in large measure, seems to be: from a surprisingly high percentage of Jews whose parents intermarried in the 1970s and ’80s and who are now adults identifying chiefly or at least partly as Jews. This is astounding. 
 
For so long, we assumed that great numbers of those being raised in mixed homes were unlikely to identify as Jews. One popular line of thinking held that there was such stigma attached to being Jewish that, if they had a choice to be Christian or Jewish, they would not choose Judaism.
 
This survey calls all that into doubt. In fact, what it shows is a trend of young adults raised in non-Jewish or partly Jewish households opting in to Jewish life. 
 
That is not only amazing in and of itself, but it ought to make us completely revise our thinking about the place of intermarried families in Jewish life. It ought to make us reach out to them and draw them into the Jewish community in a wholehearted, genuine and enthusiastic way.
 
We can do so much for them and they can do so much for us and, it appears, they are just waiting to be asked. 
 
My congregation, Shir Ami in Newtown, like most liberal congregations, has a significant and growing population of interfaith families. From the first years of our existence, we made it a priority to reach out to these families, to invite them to be part of our congregational life.
 
We preached a message of inclusion, of welcome and of respect. In the last few years, with the change of this rabbi’s policy on officiating at interfaith weddings, I believe our message has been heard, understood and believed more than ever before. And the proof is in the greater numbers and greater participation of interfaith families in this congregation. 
 
What has this brought? 
 
First, it has caused fundamental changes in the lives of these individuals and families. We’ve provided them an entrée into Jewish life. We’ve woven them into the fabric of the Jewish community. We’ve helped them feel at home with Jewish worship, study and tikkun olam.
 
We’ve stood by their side as they observed key life cycle moments — brit and baby naming, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, wedding and funeral. 
 
To me it’s clear: this congregation — with its sincere welcome of interfaith families — has brought great richness into the lives of so many. 
 
But there is a flip side to this as well: These same interfaith families have brought so much to our congregational community. They’ve brought a richness of background, customs, insights and experiences. They’ve raised the level of tolerance, mutual respect and open-mindedness among us.
 
They’ve reminded us that there are many paths to God and truth, and that we would be wise to be open to them all. They’ve brought us a degree of enthusiasm and excitement about Jewish traditions and teachings that many of us who were born Jewish take for granted.
 
And they’ve brought us their children, many of whom have active, knowledgeable, committed Jewish lives — children who would have been lost to us had we not kept our doors open to them and their families. 
 
The contributions of interfaith families to this congregation are many, significant and real, and they are expanding all the time. They have enriched us, broadened us, shaped us, elevated us and taught us.
 
That is the essential message we need to communicate to the congregations throughout the Phila­delphia area celebrating Interfaith Family Shabbat. I want to thank God for these wonderful families.
 
I, for one, appreciate the special blessings they have brought us in the past, and I pray they may continue to do so for many, many years to come.
 
Rabbi Elliot Strom is rabbi emeritus of Shir Ami. This piece was adapted from a sermon he gave last year in conjunction with InterfaithFamily Shabbat. For a listing of this year’s events throughout November, go to: interfaithfamily.com/philadelphia

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