Ed Case does not think of himself as a pioneer in interfaith relations. In fact, he doesn’t much care for the description. Yet in the past two decades, he has blazed a trail to embrace interfaith families and bring their issues to the national Jewish stage. Case recently spoke to JewishBoston about what led him to transform his commitment to interfaith families into a passionate, abiding activism. His interfaith outreach began in earnest when he left the practice of law more than 20 years ago. “I was an unhappy lawyer and felt I wasn’t doing anything socially useful,” he said. “What I cared about outside of my family was engaging interfaith families Jewishly.”
Case’s unwavering commitment to those interfaith families is also personal. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Wendy, for 45 years. While he lays out his vision for interfaith inclusion in Judaism, he also writes about their interfaith love story in his new book, “Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future.” The book is published by Case’s new nonprofit organization, Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.
The journey to founding the Center began when Case earned a joint master’s degree in 1999 from Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program and the Heller School for Social Management and Policy. “I loved the program,” said Case. “I did a lot of independent studies about intermarriage. After graduation, I found there wasn’t much of a field for involving interfaith families in Jewish life, which is what I wanted to do. I was then introduced to Yosef Abramowitz, who was the founder of Jewish Family & Life (JFL).”
At JFL, Case ran the business side of the organization, which published internet magazines that included a book review, an interactive children’s website, a site focused on teens and, of greatest interest to him, a magazine for interfaith families. Case served as that magazine’s first publisher, which immediately filled his desire to work on interfaith family engagement, but he was keen to do more. “I wanted to provide services directly to families, as well as to synagogues and other Jewish organizations, and do advocacy work,” he said. “To do that, I founded the nonprofit entity InterfaithFamily in late 2001.”
Case acquired the URL InterfaithFamily.com from JFL and crafted a mission statement that he described as “wanting to empower people to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices. I thought it was more important for interfaith families to ‘do’ Jewish than for both partners to ‘be’ Jewish.” In his book, Case expands on those thoughts. As an example, he asserts that he does not find it problematic to expose children of interfaith parents who are being raised to identify with Judaism to the other faith traditions in their family. He feels strongly that families can be Jewish while respecting those other faith traditions.
That respect contributes to Case’s vision of radical Jewish inclusion. In the book, as well as in conversation, Case said he “doesn’t see the point of prohibiting a parent who is not Jewish from participating fully in a child’s bar or bat mitzvah. Part of the vision of radically inclusive Judaism is to fully include a partner from a different faith tradition who has been supportive of Judaism and living a Jewish life for his or her family. One does not have to be formally converted.” On another controversial issue, he asserted that baptism or ritual circumcision is not conclusive as to how a child will identify or engage religiously. With respect to conversion or birth ceremonies, he said, “I don’t think a rabbi or a family member should push someone to go where they don’t want to be.”
To that end, Case contended that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is a challenge to engaging interfaith families. “Prayers that mention the people of Israel can feel excluding to partners who are not Jewish,” he said. “It’s an obstacle for a person raised in another faith tradition. It says, ‘You’re not a part of the Jewish people, no matter how much you practice or observe.’ It’s a more inclusive phrase to say kol adat b’nei Yisrael—the entire community of the children of Israel. Community is a more welcoming term; the partners can feel part of the Jewish community even if they are not Jewish themselves.”
On a related point, in “Radical Inclusion” Case writes: “Anyone who wants to see more people more Jewishly engaged in any activity—learning, social justice, spirituality—must realize that getting interfaith couples and families involved is essential to reaching these goals.”
He advises rabbis to follow the example of his rabbi, Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in Newton. He cites Berry’s 2017 Rosh Hashanah sermon, in which she conjured the image of Jews and those who loved them standing together at Mount Sinai. Berry offered a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, in which she described “the Jewish people [as] a living Sefer Torah and each of us is one of its letters.” Berry added that somewhere embedded in the scrolls that were behind her in the ark was “the letter containing the story of an interfaith family. … When we leave people out or do not see those asking to be allowed in, we lose letters vital to the integrity of our Torah.”
In many respects, Berry’s words and her evocation of the Baal Shem Tov articulate the essence of radical Jewish inclusion. “My motivation,” noted Case, “is to have more people engaged in Jewish tradition. It’s beautiful and valuable, and it helps people live better lives. It ought to be perpetuated.”