Recently, the Huffington Post published an article in the ongoing narrative about the Jewish community’s uneasy relationship to people who have Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers. In this article by Rivka Cohen, she describes her experience of being treated as less than Jewish by classmates and rabbis when her mother’s conversion was called into question, As a Jewish professional with a non-Jewish mother, this article is deeply troubling to me, as it speaks to the miles that we as a community have yet to go.
In my time at the Jewish Outreach Institute, I have realized that there is a true paradigm shift happening in American Jewish culture. More and more synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions are reaching out and looking for ways to welcome and actively include interfaith families. These families are increasingly able to shape the Jewish community through their participation and leadership, and I am grateful to see this.
That being said, the offspring of interfaith couples still have tremendous hurdles to clear toward acceptance. As religious leaders work to integrate interfaith families, there is still the assumption that issues of dual heritage only apply to children in their religious school, and not to adult members. While the concept of a “Jewish family” is beginning to widen, the concept of a “Jewish leader,” ironically, has not. Intermarriage has been prevalent in the Jewish community for decades, and many young Jewish leaders such as myself now come from interfaith homes.
Setting aside the question of whether or not Cohen should have to convert, when the Jewish community treats someone who has a fully Jewish identity as a non-Jew, this behavior can only hurt and weaken our vibrancy and strength, as it is likely to drive that individual away from Judaism. We must remember that the children of interfaith homes will grow up, and deserve the same sensitivity and welcome that we as a community increasingly extend to their parents.
We at JOI are beginning a new initiative, called the Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program, to train lay leaders of all backgrounds to advocate for a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community, and to see ensure the future of the Jewish community is welcoming to all. For more information about how to join this initiative, please contact Hannah Morris at HMorris@JOI.org.