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Thanksgiving provides us the occasion to give thanks. While many of us think about thanking God for the bountiful harvest and the blessings that we enjoy with family and friends around us, perhaps it is time to think of other expressions of gratitude, as well. Of late, there has been a lot of conversation about how the Jewish community should be thanking those of other religious backgrounds who have cast their lot with the Jewish people and are raising Jewish children. The Jewish Outreach Institute has been at the forefront of this effort to celebrate these many unsung heroes of our generation. If you are part of an interfaith family that has chosen to raise Jewish children, we thank you for joining our community.
We have also been giving a great deal of thought to the question of why men and women of other religious backgrounds would choose to raise their children as Jews. As part of the Jewish community, we seldom think in that direction.
So at this time of giving thanks, this time of gathering with family and friends, the Jewish community may want to make sure that those parents have reason to express their thanks to the Jewish community, as well, for welcoming them in—beginning with those gathered around their own Thanksgiving tables. Consider this a prophetic directive of sorts for the community in this season. In other words, it may not yet be the case that all interfaith families have a reason to thank the Jewish community, but we envision such a day.
This prophetic approach has precedent in Judaism, where many statements in Jewish liturgy are written as descriptions of reality when, in fact, they are visions of what can be. Take the well-known and most controversial line toward the end of the so-called Grace after Meals (birkat hamazon)—an appropriate choice for Thanksgiving—”I have been young and I have been old, and I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor their offspring seeking bread.” Whether it is the perspective of the young or the old, it is not a description of the reality that we know. Rather, it is a vision of what can be. Similarly—a vision of what can be: interfaith families thanking the Jewish community and the Jewish community thanking them for casting their lot with the Jewish people.
So why would those of other religious backgrounds want to raise Jewish children—and therefore be thankful for the opportunity to do so? To begin with, it’s good for the kids. Why? Jewish culture is one in which children prosper. Through Jewish education, kids learn ethical behavior. They also learn about their own worth as individuals and as members of the community. Judaism responds to everyday living but offering context and meaning. Of course, Judaism and the Jewish community share many of these things in common with other religious communities. But there are also things very unique about Judaism for which we are thankful. Perhaps it is the encouraging of questions—the “wrestling” with the nature of Gd that gives the people of Israel our name—which allows room in our tent for those who are deeply spiritual and for those who aren’t.
Rabbi David Wolpe put it this way,
Judaism can teach us how to deepen our lives, to improve the world, to join with others who have the same lofty aims. Judaism can teach us spiritual and moral mindfulness, a way of living in this world that promotes joy inside of us and also encourages ethical action. But finally, the answer to why be Jewish must reside in the mystery of each seeking soul, trying to find its place with others and with God.
For adults as well, even those not born Jewish, the Jewish community can provide the most meaningful venue for searching “in the mystery of each seeking soul” for answers. So long as the seeker understands that Judaism’s encouragement to ask questions comes with the sometimes-frustrating, sometimes-wonderful tradition of answering questions with more questions! Judaism is both intellectual and spiritual. But it is certainly focused more on the here-and-now rather than the here-after. It is this amazing combination that we want to share even as we recognize that the Jewish community has to do a better job helping people access its treasure.
Judaism has a role to play which will determine the individual and the worldâ€™s destiny, binding individuals across time and space. For this we must also be thankful. Parents of other backgrounds are able to participate in a Jewish community whose tradition builds strong families, a community that balances individual freedom and communal responsibility, in a community that strives to make people happier and better.
The challenge is to discover what joining the community, what raising Jewish children, means for you—and then to express your thanks as a result. We recognize that it is not always easy for interfaith families to navigate the Jewish community and that the welcoming attitude we advocate is not yet universal. And connection itself is a fundamental human need. So we are working hard to make it easier for folks to join our community. In the meantime, perhaps we should all be thankful for the potential, for the opportunity, for the possibilities that can emerge as we create a Jewish community that provides meaning and welcoming to all who would join us.
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