A female, aged 29, her father Jewish, her mother not Jewish, said of her experience in college, “Some friends of mine that I met through a class were like, ‘Come to Hillel with us.’ And I was like, ‘No, I can’t, they won’t accept me there,’ and my friend said, ‘They will accept you.’ Between Birthright and actually going to Hillel and not being turned away and not having anyone question me about it, it just felt interesting and comfortable. I’m allowed to learn about this part of my heritage that I didn’t think I was allowed to.”[1]

What’s salient about this story is not the reality that Birthright and Hillel were welcoming and accepting, rather that this woman’s perception kept her from going to Hillel on her own. She even refused, when initially invited. Fear of rejection is a powerful deterrent to participation. Only through the persistent encouragement of a friend did she discover the reality that she was welcome at Hillel.

Shirat Hayam held a vote in August to suspend the by-law that currently designates non-Jewish member-spouses as non-voting members of the congregation and ineligible for board service. The vote was 90 in favor, 45 opposed and three abstentions. Because a two-thirds majority is required to pass the suspension, the motion failed to carry.

In the long run, this will be a blessing. Failure of the motion will allow our congregation the time to have a lengthier conversation about inclusion of interfaith families, their roles and rights within our congregation. I have asked Maria Samiljan, Bob Powell and Anne Selby to chair an Interfaith Leadership Task Force to guide this congregational conversation. In time, I am hopeful that we will reach decisions that reflect a clear and unambiguous expression of embrace of intermarried couples and non-Jewish spouses.

At present, the issue of board service is contentious. I know that there are people who feel hurt and those who feel misunderstood. I know that my actions and views have been applauded by some and offensive to others. At the same time, I know that there is a consensus of pride in the warmth and openness of our congregation. Moreover, a great many, including some opposed to board service by non-Jews, have expressed a genuine desire that Shirat Hayam do better by intermarried families.

The interfaith conversation encompasses three primary challenges: core values, demographics and perception.

  1. [Core values] What is Judaism? What is our Judaism? What will our Judaism be?
  2. [Demographics] Nearly three-quarters of millennial Jewish marriages are intermarriages. How will Shirat Hayam meet this new reality?
  3. [Perception] The basic sense amongst the Jewish community is that if you’re interfaith, you should go to a Reform synagogue. If this perception persists, how will interfaith families discover us as the congregation that delivers the most fulfilling spiritual experience and best childhood and teen education, while welcoming you and helping you to feel connected and enriched?

Today, interfaith families are underrepresented at Shirat Hayam. Nationally, 27 percent of married, self-identified Conservative Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.[2] Within Jewish Greater Boston, 47 percent of all married Jews are intermarried.[3] Shirat Hayam does not track intermarriage, but the estimate is that less than 10 percent of our households are intermarried. At the same time, like the 29-year-old woman’s encounter with Hillel, those who experience Shirat Hayam know that we are a great fit for all families.

Discussing intermarriage can be very difficult. Beyond the concern that we might say something insulting or that some may feel that the word is uttered with scorn, intermarriage portends to alter American Judaism radically. The sacred balance between peoplehood and religion that offers broad entry points into Jewish life, community and experience will be transformed. Change can be frightening.

The historian David Hollinger argues that America is becoming “post-ethnic.” While we may be experiencing a backlash to this trend, Hollinger describes “post-ethnic” as a time that “favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities…that incorporate people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.”[4]

Arguing that we live in an era that “favors voluntary over involuntary affiliation,” Hollinger could be describing today’s American Jewish community. Rates of high unaffiliation, intermarriage and assimilation testify that we can voluntarily drop our Jewishness. At the same time, whether inmarried or intermarried, those who remain connected have chosen voluntarily to affiliate. No longer do the norms of American society require religious membership, nor are the social clubs that excluded Jews so exclusive or central in American society.

This decline in ethnic Judaism, a pillar in the Judaism of peoplehood, will understandably be felt as a loss for many, especially those who lament the decline of other pillars of Judaism or haven’t found inspiration in the new expressions of Judaism, such as a renewed spirituality. Therefore, navigating this evolution requires sensitivity. Will Shirat Hayam become weakened by this trend or harness its energy for revitalization and growth? Our conversation in the coming months will shape our future.

We begin that conversation now, with a glance at our sources. The normative view within the Jewish textual tradition is unequivocally negative toward intermarriage.[5] This has long influenced thought and policies toward intermarriage which sought to prevent it. But this approach has surely been a failure. The intermarriage rate has been rising steadily from 35 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 2013.[6]

However, there is a minority view within Jewish thought that responded differently to intermarriage and inclusion. For instance, our sages had to confront the prohibition on marrying a Moabite (Deuteronomy 23:4) with the reality that Ruth, the heroine of her book and the progenitor of King David, was a Moabite. Some commentators resolve the problem of her foreignness by insisting that Ruth converted prior to marriage.[7] But the sages of the Talmud find a way to embrace Ruth, the outsider, by limiting the Torah’s marriage prohibition to male Moabites, not females.[8] At the very least, this shows that they wrestled with reality and found a way to open a door.

Perhaps the greatest biblical acceptance of outsiders comes from the prophet Isaiah, who says:

6 As for the foreigners
Who attach themselves to the Lord,
To minister to Him,
And to love the name of the Lord,
To be His servants—
All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it,
And who hold fast to My covenant—

7 I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on My altar;
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah wants to open up the Temple to all people. He believes that the God of Israel is open to all people. Most radically, he says:

As for the foreigners
Who attach themselves to the Lord,
To minister to Him

“To minister” is “a cultic term denoting the performance of sacred duties in the Temple, previously out of bounds to anyone but the Levites.”[9] For Isaiah, “Inclusion in the community…is not determined solely by ethnicity, but also by willingness to observe God’s commandments.”[10] A gentile who attaches himself to Hashem, keeps the Sabbath and holds fast to the covenant has demonstrated behaviors and beliefs that reflect the normative expectations of Israelites. By doing so, these foreigners earned the right to serve God in a similar capacity.

Today, in 2018, might an intermarried family’s gesture to affiliate, to call our community their community, to entrust us and our tradition with their most precious possession, their children, might this gesture on their part call upon us to respond by trusting them with newfound rights within our congregation?

In our own time, opportunity and blessing can also be found in the data. The choices of intermarried families are a source of hopefulness worthy of our embrace. On the North Shore, among Jewish families with children:

  • 20 percent are single parents
  • 30 percent are inmarried
  • 38 percent are intermarried raising Jewish children
  • Only 12 percent are intermarried not raising Jewish children

In prior generations, very few mixed-marriage parents chose to raise Jewish children. Now, not only do intermarried families want to raise Jewish children, but there is a higher percentage of intermarried families raising Jewish children than inmarried ones on the North Shore. Given the global history of anti-Semitism and our minority status, this turn toward Jewish identity and tradition should be celebrated. It is a clear statement that our wisdom and practice, with its focus on values, character, action, family, history, spiritual depth and embrace of seeking is attractive to intermarried couples. Once it seemed that many Jews who intermarried wanted a way “out”; now it seems that non-Jews who intermarry are looking for a way “in.”

The August vote was the beginning of the conversation. In the coming weeks and months our Interfaith Leadership Task Force will host a series of programs. We will examine intermarriage as a congregation and advance solutions to earn the reputation that we are an exceptional Jewish home for intermarried families. No longer will anyone assume, like the 29-year-old’s initial attitude toward Hillel, that “they won’t accept me there.”

In conclusion, we are in the midst of a massive demographic change in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. The foundations of Jewish peoplehood, which offer so many of us a gateway into Judaism, are being shaken. But, if we can get it right, if we can offer multiple rich pathways to Jewish life, if we can succeed in delivering the most fulfilling spiritual experience and the best childhood and teen education, and, if we can succeed for all – inmarried and intermarried families – in realizing the promise that every encounter with our congregation leaves you feeling welcome, connected and enriched, then our future is bright. We will be a light unto the nations, a light unto the Jewish people, and a light unto all who enter Shirat Hayam.

I wish all of you a year of happiness and health, of love and joy, of inner growth and friendships, a year of sweetness and contentment.

L’shana tova!

[1] https://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/pdfs/intermarriage/MillennialChildrenIntermarriage1.pdf, 28
[2] Pew Research Center 2013 Study of U.S. Jews, Feb. 20 – June 13, 2013: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics
[3] CJP, “2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study Overview and Highlights”
[4] Hollinger, D. A. (2006). Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: BasicBooks, 3
[5] E.g. Deuteronomy 7:3-4, Judges 14:3, Ezra 10:10-12, Avodah Zara 36b, Kiddushin 68b, Yevamot 23a
[6] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics
[7] Ibn Ezra, Ruth 1:2
[8] Yevamot 76b
[9] Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 449
[10] Ibid, 448-449

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