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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Jewish and Something Else:
Inviting the Non-Jew on a Jewish Journey

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie

President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
May 23, 2001

"Jewish and Something Else," the recently-released study of intermarried families by Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, provides a carefully researched, in-depth portrait of the religious and ethnic dynamics in interfaith households. Although many questions remain unanswered in the report, she has made a good beginning. I am grateful for her work, which in many ways reflects our own experience with the tens of thousands of interfaith families affiliated with Reform synagogues across North America.

I must take issue, however, with some of the widely reported conclusions that Dr. Fishman draws from her research.

Most troublesome is her statement that "the model of outreach and inclusiveness places the highest priority on expanding the size of the Jewish community, at all costs, even if that means inclusion of Christian observances, images, ideas and cultural attitudes."

Tens of thousands of interfaith couples and their children found a home in Judaism because of Reform Jewish Outreach programs that welcome them. I take great pride in the strength and vitality that so many who choose to live a Jewish life bring to our community. Reform Judaism offers a multiplicity of courses and programs throughout North America to draw people to Jewish life: Taste of Judaism and Introduction to Judaism classes open to the public, Opening Doors programs for interfaith couples, and First Steps programs for families who have not yet made a choice of religious identity for their children. These activities provide gateways for thousands of people every year. Many have gone on to embrace Judaism, some even to become rabbis, cantors, educators and lay leaders throughout our movement.

But "expanding the size of the community at all costs" is hardly our goal. Reform Judaism emphatically and unequivocally does not "include Christian observances, images, ideas and cultural attitudes." Through Reform Jewish Outreach, we embrace people, people who are on a journey, and invite them to make Jewish choices for themselves and their families.

It is hardly surprising that interfaith couples, including those who are raising Jewish children, choose to acknowledge non-Jewish grandparents' holidays. The conclusion to draw from this fact, however, is not that Jewish Outreach has failed, but that it is essential. Interfaith couples who reach out in search of Jewish life deserve to find a Jewish community ready to meet them at the door. Inviting families into a warm community that inspires, challenges and comforts, educating them in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mandate to repair a broken world, and including them in heartfelt communal prayer-all of this is what Outreach in the Reform Movement is about. How dare we not offer a way in?

The debate within the Jewish community about how best to respond to the challenge of a high rate of intermarriage is a healthy one. However, framing the debate, as Dr. Fishman does, as a choice between Outreach and inclusion on the one hand, and inreach and strengthening the commitment of the already engaged on the other is unhealthy, counterproductive, and not ultimately in keeping with Jewish tradition. We are not in a zero sum game. And the Reform movement will not abandon the tens of thousands of Jews who have intermarried but, together with their families, remain open to Jewish commitment and belief. We reject the view of the "Jewish Darwinists" who maintain that only the fittest Jews will survive. We affirm the importance of every Jew - and his or her partner - in keeping the Jewish people alive, and in maintaining Israel's covenant with God. Our commitment is to collective, and not selective, survival.

No one who is seriously concerned with the Jewish future favors intermarriage for its own sake. Jewish tradition forbids it and we continue to struggle against it in heartfelt conversations with our youth, including our committed young people raised in interfaith homes. On the other hand, decisions to welcome the stranger, Jew or non-Jew, and to be a light to the nations are not political "catch phrases" or something we fall into "by default," as Dr. Fishman states. They are deeply held religious values, fundamentally grounded in Jewish tradition from the time Abraham first welcomed strangers into his tent. Judaism will not be weakened or corrupted by being taught and shared with others. It will be preserved and revitalized, a goal that the Reform Movement shares with Dr. Fishman.


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