We Need a Religious Movement That Is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families

March 2000

An important phenomenon is happening among intermarried Jewish parents. They increasingly define the religious identity of their family as Jewish. Yet the religious movements in the American Jewish community are failing to respond in an encouraging way to these families. Instead, they insist on promoting conversion and on maintaining boundaries and barriers to the inclusion of these families in Jewish religious life. As a result, they risk alienating, rather than supporting, intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews.

In many synagogues today, intermarried non-Jews are actively participating in raising their children as Jews, and many seek to have their religious and spiritual needs met in Judaism. The universal aspects of the Jewish religion are very appealing to them, as are the family-centered Shabbat–or Sabbath–and holiday observances, and Jewish ethical views. They do not practice any other religion. They attend Jewish religious services and feel comfortable joining in the prayer and song. They observe Shabbat and the holidays with their families. They supervise their children’s religious school education. They join in the synagogue’s other activities -social action, adult education, and more. They have chosen Judaism as the religion of their family. In discussions at my synagogue, one intermarried non-Jew recently said, “For a lot of us, this is the only place we worship, and we worship as a family here.” Another said, “I was raised Catholic. I came here because we can worship here and be a Jewish family here. We couldn’t have been a Christian family, but I could embrace much of what’s here. At many times I’ve felt part of the ‘us’ here.”

These people are living Jewishly themselves-without converting. Conversion rates in general are lower, the result of decreasing stigma surrounding intermarriage and decreasing parental and community pressure. Many are not willing to convert, for very personal reasons. Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group.

Despite these realities, the calls for promoting conversion are persistent and growing. The official position of the Conservative movement calls for opposition to intermarriage, followed by efforts to encourage conversion by the non-Jewish spouse if the efforts to oppose the intermarriage have failed. In the Fall 1999 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s article is sub-titled “Let Us Not Be Afraid To Ask Our Intermarried Members To Convert.” Gary Tobin’s 1999 book, Opening the Gates, likewise advocates for promoting conversion.

What is the likely reaction to these calls for conversion from the actively participating non-Jewish parents who are not willing to convert? Many feel that conversion is simply not important or necessary for them. As one said, “I was raised Catholic. My wife and I went through a painstaking process in deciding to raise our children as Jews. I didn’t want to convert, but would do what was necessary. I learned Hebrew, I joined the Brotherhood, to show my commitment and example. I think commitment through showing and doing is more important than conversion.” Another said, “Judaism can be adopted in a process without conversion, which is an act. Many people grow into the Jewish community. They adopt Judaism as their form of worship. People are on different points on a continuum, it’s hard to pinpoint where they are.”

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects. Being made to feel different and unwelcome can hardly be conducive to the efforts of these parents to raise their children as Jews. As one parent said, “It’s not easy to find the way. It took us a long time. Feeling ‘part of’ has been really important. Our family grew up here, felt together here. Being ‘part of’ and included is the most important aspect of the temple for us.”

Many synagogues in the Reform movement are currently struggling to resolve questions surrounding the role of the non-Jew in ritual participation. Rabbi Yoffie wrote that “We all understand that those who have not converted cannot participate in certain rituals.” The issue comes to a head when non-Jewish parents wish to have an aliyah at their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. At the Reform Movement’s December 1999 biennial convention in Orlando, the vast majority of rabbis asked about this issue were categorically opposed to allowing non-Jews to have an aliyah. How could a non-Jew recite a prayer that thanks God for choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah? How could a non-Jew have the highest honor that a Jew can have, being called to the Torah?

There’s a simple answer – an intermarried non-Jew who has participated in raising a child as a Jew to the point of that child becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah could say, with complete integrity and authenticity, that his or her family is included among the “us” who were chosen and to whom the Torah was given. Moreover, such a parent arguably deserves the highest honor which the Jewish community can bestow. What can be harder for a parent to do than to give a child permission to have an identity different from that parent? Given the sacrifices involved, honor is exactly what these parents deserve.

Telling a non-Jewish parent that he or she cannot have an aliyah because he or she isn’t included in the “us” is destructive and counter-productive. Telling them that it’s fine for them to say the prayers in the pews, just not up on the bimah, or podium, receiving an honor reserved for Jews, isn’t logical or convincing. They are left questioning whether they can authentically say all of the many Jewish prayers that refer to “us.”

Intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are. They want to be comfortable in the synagogue. They want to feel united with their Jewish spouse, not divided, not unequal. They don’t want the message given to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child at this critical life-cycle event to be that one of their parents isn’t allowed to participate and be honored fully. Instead of encouraging such people to live Jewishly, maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah makes them feel excluded. “We are here because we thought we could pray together as a family. To say that my silence is mandated – even at the single moment of the aliyah – strikes at the reason why we are here.” “I would feel put out if I was told, no matter how committed I was, that I couldn’t participate fully. Do you mean to tell me that my Jewish brother-in-law, who is totally secular and whose only connection to Judaism is to have matzah ball soup at the seder at my house, could have an aliyah at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I couldn’t?” “I feel I’ve made a huge commitment in raising our children as Jews. Differentiation would feel punitive and exclusive. People need to understand what it would be like for the non-Jewish parent to be excluded at this moment despite all of the sacrifices he or she had made.”

The movements are stuck on their policies that maintain boundaries because their concept of Jewish peoplehood excludes unconverted non-Jewish spouses. But that concept could be broadened so as to include them. Non-Jews have always had a recognized place within the Jewish community. We could start thinking of the Jewish people as a broader Jewish community, made up of both Jews and their non-Jewish partners. The theoretical foundation for that concept lies in the Torah itself, which refers to them as gerim toshavim –“strangers in your camp,” or, in Everett Fox’s translation, “sojourners who sojourn with you.” Indeed, the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in the Reform liturgy suggests that the sojourners were included among the people who entered into God’s covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God… every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the sojourners who sojourn among you . . . to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day, in order to establish you henceforth as [a] people….” (Deut. 29:9-12). Elsewhere the Torah refers to kol adat b’nai yisrael — “the entire community of the children of Israel.” (Lev. 19:2)

The American Jewish community needs a religious movement that would allow intermarried and unconverted non-Jews to chose complete participation in Jewish life. In such a movement the Jewish people would mean a broader Jewish community made up of both Jews and the sojourners among us. Jews and sojourners could feel that Judaism is their religion, and that “member of the Jewish community” is their identity. This policy of “total inclusion” would eliminate the feelings of being different, and excluded, that inhibit their Jewish living and child raising. Instead, they would be encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews.

In such a movement, if a non-Jew were raising Jewish children, it would not make any difference whether or not that parent converts. Conversion would be an option for those who chose it, but parents would not be made to feel deficient, less welcome, or discouraged by too much emphasis on conversion. Interfaith families who had not even entered our doors would not stay away because they felt welcome only as potential converts. Those who have not and may never convert would get the message that they were welcomed and accepted just as they are. Active unconverted non-Jewish spouses would be allowed to choose to participate in all of our rituals. They would be considered part of the “us” entitled to join in our prayers. Feeling included would advance and reinforce their efforts to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, which should be the community’s primary goal.

Rabbi Carl Perkins’ response: Let Us Respect People for Who They Are: A Response to Ed Case
April 2000

It is difficult to object to Ed Case’s call for a religious movement that is “totally inclusive of intermarried Jewish families.” It seems just, reasonable and appealing, and it is clearly well meaning.

And yet, there are pieces of Ed’s argument that just don’t hold together. So although I agree with Ed’s overall objective of helping the Jewish community be open and welcoming, I would like to raise a few objections to his proposal.

Ed’s thesis, as I understand it, has two parts. The first is that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be appreciated and treated with great respect by the Jewish community. I agree. After all, they are playing a vital–and difficult –role in helping to maintain Jewish life. In some cases, this comes at great personal sacrifice, for they may be suppressing aspects of their own faith or their own religious identity. I applaud Ed’s efforts to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the need to reach out and to extend a welcome. All of us must join in helping fellow travelers among us feel at home.

And yet Ed goes further than this. Ed argues that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be considered full members of the Jewish people. This is the part that puzzles me. It isn’t as if the individuals who are the focus of Ed’s attention are unaware of the possibility of becoming Jewish. On the contrary, we are asked to assume that they have considered, and rejected, conversion to Judaism. The reasons, Ed suggests, could be personal: “Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group.” For whatever reason, these are folks who, according to Ed, are not ready to convert. They may ultimately be [ready to convert], but as of now, they are, by their own admission, not ready to become full members of the Jewish people–and they don’t consider themselves to be.

Ed, it seems to me, is asking us to ignore that fact. These are folks who for significant reasons have refrained from pursuing the obvious path to becoming full members of the Jewish people. And yet Ed is asking us to pretend that they haven’t made that choice.

I fail to see how that is respectful of these individuals and their integrity, maturity and sense of self. What permits us to disregard and devalue their inhibitions, their reservations, their self-definition as “not yet” Jewish? Should we ignore their hesitation? Should we act as if they have become Jewish when they themselves have made it clear that they don’t wish (at least not at this time) to take that momentous step? To do so strikes me as condescending and disrespectful.

Ed appears to find the Jewish community’s welcome too warm. He is embarrassed at the hospitality toward conversion shown within the liberal Jewish denominations: “It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects.” This is fascinating. I can understand how hostility to conversion could be construed as disrespectful to gentiles, but how can openness to conversion be considered offensive? I don’t know a single rabbi who would deem those who do not convert to be less valued, less worthy or deficient. But I also don’t know any who fail to recognize that someone who has converted has taken a profound, deliberate step worthy of respect.

One would need to deny the fundamental distinctiveness of a Jewish identity in order to suggest that conversion makes no difference in a person’s religious, spiritual or cultural life. Certainly those who’ve refrained from converting understand this difference quite well.

Ed argues that “intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are.” But pretending that non-Jews are Jews isn’t treating them, much less accepting them, as who they are.

I certainly agree with Ed that it is wrong to be unwelcoming to non-Jews (whether they are married to Jews or not). But I fail to see how respecting and accepting someone’s choice not to be Jewish is unwelcoming. On the contrary, it has been my experience that those who value their own personal reasons for refraining from pursuing conversion find it a relief not to be treated as if they are Jewish.

Ed’s goals are worthy. He wants intermarried non-Jews to be comfortable in the synagogue. He wants to encourage them to live Jewishly. He wants them to raise Jewish children. His notion seems to be that communal boundaries risk alienating intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews, and if only these barriers could be eliminated, intermarried and unconverted non-Jews would be “encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews.”

I don’t agree. Given the extraordinary openness to conversion within the liberal Jewish denominations, the true obstacle to the “complete participation in Jewish life” is not necessarily the Jewish community at all. No matter how energetically a community strives to promote a policy of “total inclusion,” it can never eliminate whatever feelings of being different may be generated from within an individual who has chosen not to be Jewish.

The Jewish community should treat all human beings with respect, including, of course, those who have married Jews and who are raising Jewish children. But let us demonstrate our feelings in ways that are truly respectful. Let us give people the right to choose to be who they wish to be. Let us accept people as they are, rather than pretend that they are who some of us might wish them to be.

Let’s Be Respectful By Being Totally Inclusive: A Response to Rabbi Carl Perkins

I admire and respect Rabbi Perkins very much, and feel honored that he chose to respond to my essay which argued for a policy of “total inclusion” of intermarried families in Jewish religious life. I especially appreciate Rabbi Perkins’ commitment to keruv (outreach) to intermarried families, and his agreement that intermarried non-Jews who are raising Jewish children should be welcomed and appreciated by the Jewish community. It’s also difficult to disagree with his proposition that we should “respect people for who they are” — and yet, we do have a very fundamental difference of opinion as to what such respect means.

In my essay, I identified a phenomenon which the religious movements have failed to address: intermarried non-Jewish spouses who actively participate in raising their children as Jews, who don’t practice another religion, who attend Jewish services and observe Jewish holidays — people who are “living Jewishly — without converting.” I argued that we need a religious movement that would allow and indeed encourage these people to completely participate in Jewish life.

I take issue with Rabbi Perkins when he says that my proposal involves “pretending: — “pretending” that people who have chosen not to convert haven’t made that choice, “pretending” that non-Jews are Jews, or “pretending” that they are who I “might wish them to be.” I’m not proposing that anyone “pretend” anything.

As Rabbi Perkins and I have discussed, there is a distinction between being Jewish and living Jewishly. My position is that the Jewish religious movements should encourage and allow intermarried non-Jews to live as Jewishly as those individuals choose to, whether or not they are or become Jewish. Rabbi Perkins seems more interested in whether people become Jewish, while I am more interested in having intermarried non-Jews live Jewishly than in whether such people should be considered “full members of the Jewish people.” I would allow them to act as if they were full members, yes, but that isn’t pretending anything if we’re up front about saying that we encourage and allow non-Jews to live Jewishly even if they aren’t or don’t become Jewish. The Jewish community will be better off the more Jewishly these people live, both for their own sakes and because their efforts to raise Jewish children will be all the more supported and encouraged.

Rabbi Perkins and I agree that people who seek to live Jewishly without being Jewish experience “feelings of being different.” But I disagree with Rabbi Perkins’ suggestion that since non-Jews are welcome to convert, the obstacles they face to complete participation in Jewish life come not from the Jewish community, but from those feelings of difference within the non-Jews themselves. That smacks to me of “blaming the victim.” The feelings of difference arise in large part because so much of Jewish liturgy emphasizes Jewish peoplehood and chosenness, and because the religious movements are restrictive about ritual participation by non-Jews, and because so many Jews convey attitudes that distinguish between negative “them” and positive “us,” and for other similar reasons. I argue that by changing the attitudes of the Jewish community, and by eliminating the religious movements’ boundaries and barriers to complete participation in Jewish life, the feelings of being different will be significantly reduced, which will encourage intermarried non-Jews to live more Jewishly – and that would be a very desirable result.

I don’t suggest that reducing barriers and boundaries will completely eliminate the feelings of being different that non-Jews experience. Indeed, I think that some people probably convert after years of living Jewishly because they are uncomfortable continuing to experience that dissonance and seek an inner harmony or unity instead – and I agree that conversion can make a profound difference in a person’s religious, spiritual and cultural life. Contrary to what Rabbi Perkins says, I’m not embarrassed that the liberal Jewish denominations welcome conversions, and I don’t consider it offensive to do so. But because conversion is not the answer for all, or even most, of our intermarried non-Jews, promoting conversion must be done very carefully, without making those intermarried non-Jews feel less valued – and that is a very hard thing to do.

Perhaps we come to our different positions because of the ways we frame the question. Rabbi Perkins emphasizes respecting a person’s choice not to become Jewish, but he interprets that choice as meaning that the person does not want to live Jewishly. This doesn’t acknowledge the phenomenon of intermarried non-Jews who can and do want to live Jewishly even if they don’t consider themselves to be Jewish. Perhaps we come to our different positions because of our experiences. Rabbi Perkins refers to his experience with people who have not converted and do not want to be treated as if they were Jewish; my experience is with people who want to feel unified with their Jewish families by participating fully in synagogue life and ritual.

In sum, my main concern is with the intermarried non-Jews who live with the dissonance, who are not ready or willing to convert, yet who seek to live Jewish lives, who define the religious identity of their families as Jewish, who seek to have their religious and spiritual needs met in Judaism. I submit that it would be completely respectful of these individuals, and their integrity, maturity, and sense of self, to encourage and allow them to live as Jewishly as they choose, without becoming Jewish. The religious movements’ insistence on promoting conversion, and on maintaining boundaries and barriers between what is allowed for those who are Jewish and those who are not, risks alienating the very individuals to whom we should be reaching out.