Adult Child of Intermarriage is a New Jewish Leader

An article in the Washington Jewish Week entitled “D.C.-area Jews among ‘New Jewish Leaders to Watch’discusses two local Washingtonians who attended the recent PLP conference in which I co-led a workshop and helped facilitate two other sessions. I was priveldged to meet one of these new leaders at the conference, Rachel Cohen, and hear her fascinating story, which is also revealed in this article:

The child of a Jewish father and a minister mother, Rachel Cohen grew up singing in her church choir and, until seven years ago, knowing virtually nothing about Judaism. Last week, she was named one of five “New Jewish Leaders to Watch” by the Professional Leaders Project, having started the group Shabbat Hoppin’ to introduce Jews without much Judaic background to Shabbat services. How did she come so far so fast? It was all because, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she learned about a free trip…the inaugural Taglit-Birthright Israel mission, and Cohen said that she “fell in love with the people, religion, tradition, country.” …

After her life-changing experience in Israel, Cohen, 29, returned to college, but found that while she immediately wanted to “make myself of service to the Jewish community,” she didn’t have the basic knowledge necessary to attend Shabbat services or study Torah—and no one was offering to teach her. But she kept in contact with Birthright, regularly calling to inquire if the organization had started an alumni program, and three years ago she was directed to the first PLP conference.

There, with so many top Jewish leaders and funders in attendance and many lamenting the issue of intermarriage, she told her story of being a child of intermarriage who couldn’t find a place in the Jewish community. “You didn’t lose me, but you’re going to if you don’t build more bridges to people like me,” she said, and “in that moment I became a Jewish leader.”

Rachel is living proof that the doors to the Jewish community must never be closed, especially to the adult children of intermarriage, and that we as a community must do much more to provided greater opportunities and entryways into Jewish life for those who would join us. At JOI, we’re thrilled to count Rachel among the “new Jewish leaders” and will do whatever we can to support her advocacy for greater inclusion.


  1. Paul you wrote once that we should first get people to raise their kids Jewish and worry about halachic considerations later. When is “later” ? Now this young lady is in college already and not halachically Jewish. Can we deal with it now?

    Will the JOI deal with it or refer her to someone who can?

    Comment by marc — November 19, 2007 @ 10:26 am

  2. Marc, I’m not sure what quote of mine you’re referring to but my issue is about differentiating between halachic boundaries versus organizational culture. How someone is welcomed when they cross the threshold of a Jewish institution shouldn’t be determined by their lineage or level of observance. If a person says she’s Jewish, I accept her as Jewish. If a newcomer wants to do something that requires them to be matrilineally Jewish at a Conservative or Orthodox prayer service, then it is a matter of someone sensitively explaining what is required in order for that to happen.

    But what I don’t understand about your “Can we deal with it now” question is the “we”. Who is the we? This patrilineal Jew may be perfectly content praying in a Reform or Reconstructionist setting (as are many matrilineal Jews) and then “we” don’t need to deal with anything at all.

    If by “we” you mean the half of North American Jewry that requires matrilineal Jewish descent before someone is counted in a minyan, for example, then that “we” has to “deal with it” only if and when approached by a patrilineal Jew who wants to participate, and then the way to deal with it is to welcome and explain sensitively.

    I think the larger question for that particular “we” is, how can we encourage patrilineal Jews to explore Conservative and/or Orthodox Judaism in a comfortable enough setting so that they can find a connection and value in it. THEN, if they actually are interested in participating, how can we help them meet the halachic requirements. While these situations arise occassionally, they’re pretty rare because this suggested welcoming attitude is usually not the one taken, and instead it becomes a matter of “we” “fixing” “you” so that “we” can now find “you” “acceptable”. That’s not an attitude that will draw many to you.

    Drawing people to a particular denomination is not part of JOI’s mission; nor is determining who’s a Jew. Both the Conservative and Orthodox movements have begun looking for ways to make that entry more accessible for interfaith families and their children, though it will still be a tough sell because attitudes are difficult to change among the “insiders,” and the messages of meaning (”why bother”) are not very well articulated to Jews on the periphery (in general, regardless of lineage).


    Comment by Paul Golin — November 19, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  3. I don’t buy that “no one was offering to teach her.” I’m in DC and know plenty of folks who’ve converted with neither parent being Jewish and there are tons of learning resources. Shuls, JCC classes, the Jewish Study Center. The question I’m struck by is how much outreach do we want to do to folks with one Jeiwsh parent and a minister mother? I think it’s great if they find their way to Judaism, but I don’t think it should be spoonfed and I don’t think non-halachic Jews should be sought out. Learning what it means to be Jewish should require some investment and some work, right?

    Comment by Anonamiss — November 19, 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  4. It does not surprise me at all that someone had difficulty finding their way into the Washington DC Jewish community; in fact, that was one of the key findings that emerged from JOI’s work with the community there a few years ago (see this article from your local Jewish paper) and it’s an important issue that the organized community there is rightfully addressing.

    While the community may feel warm and welcoming to those already on the inside, it is not necessarily a friendly and inviting place for those on the outside (which happens to be the vast majority of Jews). It is “hit or miss” as far as finding a Jewish organization that welcomes newcomers properly, not just in DC but throughout North America.

    Learning what it means to be Jewish of course requires “some investment and work,” nobody was complaining about that. This is about the unwelcoming culture of our community, not the requirements. And quite frankly, your question about “how much outreach do we want to do to folks with one Jewish parent and a minister mother” is typical of the ways our attitudes push people away. I suppose if you lived in Biblical times you wouldn’t want to do outreach to Moses’ children, because he married his local minister (Jethro’s) daughter.

    Bottom line here is, what is the spirit of our community? We have been charged to “Welcome the Stranger,” the mitzvah mentioned more times than any other in the Torah, and yet we regularly blow this opportunity by remaining a closed and insular community. If you have something you find beautiful and wonderful to share about your Judaism, why wouldn’t you?

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 19, 2007 @ 4:30 pm

  5. I think Paul, actually, we have been charged to “Welcome the Ger,” where ‘ger’ is defined as convert. it is a special mitzvah to welcome a halachic convert as a full-fledged Jew inp art b/c their ancenstors did not stand at mount Sinai and so they might not feel fully part of the community…also for the reasons you state, that the inclination on the iside might not be to welcome them the way we should.

    I agree that it is certainly good practice though to be a hospitable person to everyone, even a non Jew, within certain parameters of course. We are not welcoming them as Jews. We are welcoming them as non Jews who may want to learn from the example we are setting (being a light to the nations).

    Do you honestly believe we have been “charged” with anything? If so, how do you decide which mitzvot are binding on you and which are not?

    I see your point above that halachic ocnsiderations only come into play if the person seeks out conservative or orthodox settings, but even if they do not, isn’t it really an unfair trick to play on them to not tell them up front that fully 1/2 of American jews will not consider them Jewish if they have a non halachic conversion? I know a number of people who have had to go through 2 or 3 conversions until they reached a proper halachic standard.

    Comment by marc — November 20, 2007 @ 11:03 am

  6. Marc, we can get into semantics about ‘ger,’ which is alternately translated as convert or stranger. But whenever that particular commandment is translated — by authorities across denominations and centuries and of great wisdom — it is translated as stranger. (We must love the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt! It’s not that we were converts to the Egyptian religion…we were actual strangers.)

    If you believe that Jews are supposed to carry out the mitzvot or commandments, then yes, I believe we have been “charged” with doing so because it’s synonymous with “commanded.” It is your prerogative to not follow this mitzvah, of course, but if we’re talking about ways to welcome in more Jewish households that are not participating in the organized community, I think welcoming is better than excluding.

    Nobody is “tricking” patrilineal Jews about how 1/2 of American Jews feel about them. In fact, through anecdotal stories as well as in our study of Adult Children of Jewish Intermarriage (here) we found that EVERY SINGLE PATRILINEAL JEW of a certain age has been told, at one point or another, “Oh really, you’re mom’s not Jewish? Then you’re not really Jewish.”

    What a ruthless thing to say to a perfect stranger. I’d like to believe that most Jewishly-educated and involved people would have the sensitivity not to nullify someone’s identity the minute they meet them—even if they make a mental note not to count that person in a minyan.

    So yes, as I’ve said before, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements should do a better job explaining to their students why they accept patrilineal descent and why the other movements don’t. It should be a major part of their curriculum, because I happen to think the Reform Responsa on the issue is brilliant. And because partilineal Jews should have the amunition to argue the case—and recommend that the halacha be revisited by the more traditional movements, especially now that patrimony can be proven beyond doubt. Halacha has changed and continues to change; in pre-rabbinic times, Judaism was passed through the father not the mother.

    However, recognizing that a change to the understanding of halacha on this issue probably won’t happen anytime soon among the Orthodox, I also believe that the Conservative and Orthodox movements should do a better explaining to THEIR students why they do not accept patrilineal descent but that we shouldn’t nullify someone’s identity upon meeting them. Because even if you don’t accept them as halachic Jews, they have Jewish family members and they are certainly “potential” Jews and the only way we’re going to draw them in is to welcome them. Again, doesn’t mean they get a Torah honor Saturday morning, but they are kindred spirits not outcasts and treating them as such is, I believe, antithetical to Jewish teaching.

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 20, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  7. I have to disagree about DC not being open. Both Federation and GesherCity, cited in the article you reference, do a tremendous job of creating opportunities to participate in Jewish life of every sort. I didn’t know a single Jew in DC and didn’t feel I was missing anything for my first year here. When I wanted to get involved I did a Google search, found GesherCity, went to a happy hour, started building relationships. GesherCity sends out weekly email blasts with every kind of learning, eating, drinking, service, biking, prayer, hiking, etc. opportunity. Free tickets to every kind of High Holy Day service. And a lot of independent chavurot and minyans.
    Maybe DC wasn’t as full of Jewish life 5 years ago, before the gentrification took off and fewer people lived downtown, but there are definitely abundant oportunities now.
    You do have to make the initial investment of looking for oportunities (2 minutes on Google), but it’s a tremendous, open, diverse community.

    My query re: how much outreach we should do as a community may not have come across well. I warmly welcome anyone who’s interested in being part of the community or participating in Jewish life in any way, including those with no Jewish parentage. But does JOI believe in proselytizing? I honestly don’t know a lot about the organization and its work, but will take a look at the web site. I don’t think we need to resort to “recruitment.” I want everyone to feel welcome in our community and be able to find the paths to build their identity, but how much advertising do we do? I want folks to feel invited, but how do we literally extend the invitation? I don’t appreciate Jews for Jesus approaching me at the Metro or Jehovah’s Witnesses or salespeople coming to my door. I don’t want someone questioning choices I’ve already made about my religion. I would imagine that most minister’s daughters wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion. I hope I’m not “pushing away” Moses’s children, but I’m not going to bug them about lighting candles with me.

    And I suspect that the younger generation is even less keen on having the establishment bring them in than they are on finding independent groups.

    There is a world of difference between being welcoming and having paths to participation and proselytizing. I imagine JOI’s work falls somewhere in between. Is this a question you wrestle with?

    Comment by Anonamiss — November 20, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

  8. Anonamiss, thanks very much for clarifying your comments. I think it’s great that you were able to find your way into the Jewish community. Yes, many people do find their way in, and both GesherCity and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington played important roles in our recent National Conference that we held in DC specifically to highlight the good work that is being done in your community.

    That said, your experience does not necessarily translate to everyone. The federation did a demographic survey several years ago (I don’t think things have changed that drastically in 5 years!) and found that something like only 30% (I don’t have the exact number and can’t go digging right now) of Jews in Greater Washington DC feel a connection to the organized Jewish community. To their credit, the Jewish federation is determined to raise that percentage by 10 points over the next 10 years. It’s an ambitious goal that will still only get them to less than half of their Jews feeling a connection to the organized community. That challenge is one that many communities face, not just DC, but what’s unique about DC is they are taking real steps to address it.

    Let’s also not make this black-and-white. There are varying degrees of welcoming, it’s not either-or. We’re pushing for more welcoming on all fronts. We do not see this as prosletizing. We are not trying to get people who are a different religion to become Jewish. We see someone with one Jewish parent as Jewish, if they want to be, and we want to draw that person in. We see intermarried families as Jewish households, if they want to be, and we want to make sure our door is open to them. Finally, we see unengaged Jews as missing out on something that they might find of value, so we want to take what we love about Judaism and share it with them.

    Would you consider Chabad’s giant menorah-lighting on the Washington Mall prosletizing? We call that “outreach” and we see it as an opportunity to find unengaged Jews and attract them to the Jewish community. Likewise Jewish film festivals that take place in secular venues, or a Jewish author-reading in a Barnes & Noble. The point is to find the Jews, meet them, get to know them, and offer them some kind of meaningful event or program. We support GesherCity, for those who (like you) are willing to actively look for Jewish life. We also want to take Jewish life out to where people already are, to encourage them to participate.

    Also keep in mind that it might have taken you two minutes on Google because you felt relatively secure in your Jewish identity to walk into a Jewish organization. Someone who’s been told in the past “you’re not really Jewish” (see above) may not have that confidence. We want to get those people back!

    Thanks for your interest in JOI’s website,

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 20, 2007 @ 3:04 pm

  9. Paul, my recollection is that Rashi says “ger” is to be translated as “convert” every time it appears in the Torah except for two or three places where he points out that the context forces us to read it as “stranger” (such as the verse you quoted). Prior to the founding of the Reform movement 200 years ago, Jews were all one “denomination” and all held to this translation.

    Revisionist translations cannot change the meaning of the Torah, but they can pretend to.

    Comment by marc — November 28, 2007 @ 11:10 am

  10. So you’re saying Jews are excluded from being welcoming to non-Jews? Somehow, I doubt that’s Rashi’s meaning. But as I said, it’s your prerogative to carry out the mitzvot as you see fit, or not. There’s always text and interpretations to backup whichever you choose.

    As far as all Jews being one “denomination” 200 years ago, that is a wild oversimplification of history. When people have no choice, of course they’re all one thing. All Russians voted communist until 1989 too, it doesn’t mean they were all communists. There’s a reason so many Jews jumped at the chance for emancipation once it was offered. Thankfully, today there are multiple expressions of Jewish identity so that our only choice isn’t “all” or “nothing.”

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 28, 2007 @ 11:37 am

  11. Paul, I never said Jew were excluded from being welcoming to non-Jews. In fact, if you read post #5 I wrote,

    “I agree that it is certainly good practice though to be a hospitable person to everyone, even a non Jew, within certain parameters of course. We are not welcoming them as Jews. We are welcoming them as non Jews who may want to learn from the example we are setting (being a light to the nations).”

    The point is not that Jews should not be welcoming to others, it is that we are not treating them like JEWS or “potential Jews.” Non-Jews are in no need of “perfection” and have no need to convert to Judaism for their own sake. Rashi goes on to say that we should not oppress nonJewish monotheists who live amongst us, which is also important to remember when we are the majority, as in Israel, or in any setting.

    And no, it’s actually not my prerogative to carry out the mitzvot as I see fit. Actually, the opposite is true. If we as Jews are “charged” with carrying out mitzvot (your language, not mine), then they are binding upon us. Without some objective criteria to determine the content of those mitzvot, their binding nature becomes irrelevent. Only if they are not binding are we fit to do with them as we please. If they are binding, then there are limits to what is acceptable and what is not, notwithstanding the “spin” people are willing to put on them in order to justify doing as they please.

    If my statement about pre-Reform Judaism was a wild oversimplification, then your example of communist Russia was equally wild and simple. The truth about the pre-Reform world was that there were a few different traditions about how to practice observant Judaism, but all within the context of the authenticity of the written and oral law, which were unquestionably authoritative. If you left tradition in favor of European society you at least did not have the chutzpa to ask for the rabbi’s blessing to do so! (In truth you either converted or lived somewhere in between the 2 worlds.) Your example of communism, taken to its logical conclusion, means that every person should also be able to write their own Torahs that say what they want, and that we shoudl all be forced to admit that they are all holy documents…simply absurd.

    There are indeed multiple expressions of Jewish identity ad have been for millenia…litvak, sephardic, chasidic, and a multitude of local expressions as well. But what they all have in common, in fact what makes them all Jewish is the immutability of the TOrah, both oral and written…once you take that away, you have a prescription for the breakdown of Jewish communities, assimilation and it is only then that an organization like the JOI becomes comes into being. I only wished the JOI would be part of the solution to our community’s problems, rather than just trying to exacerbate the problem by “dubbing” more people Jews, encouraging intermarriage, or convincing non Jewish children that they need to be good Jews.

    Comment by marc — November 28, 2007 @ 4:09 pm

  12. My use of Communist Russia as an analogy for the pre-Haskalah Jewish community in Europe was about there being no choice. You either fled the community or were ruled by those who were in power: the religious authorities/rabbis in the case of most local Jewish communities. I’m sorry if you think liberal Jews have made life so complicated by challenging Orthodoxy, but I honestly believe that the Jewish enlightenment greatly strenghtened our community rather than weakened it and led to things like, for example, the creation of the State of Israel—something only a fringe group of Orthodox still complain about today but were almost universally against before the Holocaust.

    The idea that that the Torah is immutable is one that I doubt even a majority of Jews believed in the 1600s, but of course there were no demographers back then to tell us that for sure, so we can only discuss what exists today. What exists today is that the overwhelming majority of Jews — perhaps as high as 75% or more, and now I’m talking about born to Jewish mothers just so you can’t peg me for “dubbing” more Jews — would disagree with the statement that God handed Moses the complete Torah AND Talmud at Sinai, and that it is “immutable,” with no human editing or contribution.

    So again, it is your prerogative to do what you want, believe what you want… nulify 75% or more of World Jewry as blasphemous… but if you think the solution is convincing 3 of 4 Jews that their understanding of the world is wrong and you’ve got it right and they should be just like you, well, good luck with that. JOI is part of the solution, which is that there are multiple paths to God within the Jewish tradition (and not just within the Orthodox Jewish tradition) and for those who don’t connect religiously, there are still multiple additional paths to Jewish identity and community.

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 28, 2007 @ 4:50 pm

  13. I see you resort to inapplicable labels to make your points:

    “Blasphemous” - Trying to make me sound like a bible-thumping preacher will probably succeed in scaring most non-thinking readers of this blog into disregarding what I write. However, a critically thinking individual can read for him/herself and see that nowhere do I EVER insult reform or conservative Jews or any other more recent stream. I take issue with a dogma that has been spoon-fed to them, and which they feel forced to accept without question, and which I feel is harming the Jewish community as a whole and them individually. Much of the dogma of the JOI falls into this category.

    For example, that the Torah itself (we’ll leave the oral law to the side for now) was not revealed at Sinai or written by G-d. Anyone who examines the evidence for themselves objectively will see how obsurd this proposition is. If fact, early Reform theology to this affect was based upon long-discredited christian/protestant bible critics. I refer readers of this Blog to easy-to-read short books such as “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive”, written by Lawrence Kelemen, among many others.

    By the way, the Reform movement was completely against early Zionist movement in Europe b/c it was 100% at odds with their theology that Judism was ONLY a religion with no national affiliation whatsoever. The Reform movment (even in the US) also opposed the formation fo the State of Israel and denied funds for Jewish pioneers in Palestine until it became clear that a state would be formed with or without them. And for the record there is also a fringe, but rapidly growing of leftist Jews around the world who lament the formation fo the State of Israel and desire its demise…the result of 3 generations of failing to give our children a strong reason to be proud of their Jewish identity based upon tradition.

    Regarding the Talmud. It was written by human beings. The misha parts of it are handed down oral traditions which were from Sinai, but the explanations of those statements were achived through a mix of tradition and hard-headed reason…argumentation back and forth until the most truthfula nd defensible answer was set forth. And the Talmud only deals with hard cases. Easy cases, such as whether one can eat pork, are clear cut. It is the human editing of the Talmud which shows that we Jews also have a part to play in expounding upon the truths of the Torah. When our most learned rabbis engage in heated discourse trying to reach the truth that G-d intended for us in the hardest cases, then we too help “create” Torah for our generation. The Talmud is terse and difficult on purpose, to force future generations to struggle with it, but the authority to determine the halacha is left to the most learned, not those with the most money or influence, or who want to gain healdines or push the envelope as mush as they can, which would be a truly absurd way to run a religion. I refer you to the book “The Jewish Self” by Jeremy Kagan. This difficult philisophical work shows the connection between the rise of “reason” in the world (the Greeks), the decline of fanatical idolotry, and the related need to further develop and write down teh oral Torah during the same period in history as the Jews moved from a revelation-based society (prophecy and offerings) to a rabbinic one (detailed halacha).

    I don’t want to convince anyone that their view of the world is wrong and mine is right. All I want is for people to actually examine the evidence on both sides before making a judgment and then be able to back up their decisions with reason. Not everyone needs to be Orthodox or religious at all b/c everyone has a different upbringing and will only be open to so much, but it is just as true that not every non-Jew with some Jewish connection needs to be a Jew or that they need to be treated like a full Jewish member on Jewish synagogues and organizations. The more you dilute what little is left that is still Jewish in liberal Jewish institutions, the more you hasten their complete assimilation and dissappearance from Jewish history.

    According to you, i should be happy about this b/c then all the Jews left will be orthodox, but the opposite is true. I lament this possibility as tragic b/c they are Jews and I love each and every one of them. If their families disappear through intermarriage or assimilation then the whole Jewish people is weaker and we cannot simply replenish our numbers by counting more non-Jews in the minyan.

    Comment by marc — November 29, 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  14. Marc, I really don’t know what we’re arguing about then. Let’s put Zionism aside; yes, when it started there were only a minority of Jews of any denomination who bought into it (who we can today call visionaries), and even though they were almost all secular Jews, whatever, let’s move past that. I also think plenty of Jews have indeed examined “the evidence” and still don’t believe God wrote the Torah. But again, if you’re saying those Jews are still inside the community, let’s move on.

    The part that you’re saying now that I don’t follow is you statement that “not every non-Jew with some Jewish connection needs to be a Jew or that they need to be treated like a full Jewish member on Jewish synagogues and organizations. … we cannot simply replenish our numbers by counting more non-Jews in the minyan.”

    This is not just a distortion of what I’m saying, it’s the complete opposite. I never said count non-Jews in the minyan, in fact, if you read above, I specifically said don’t.

    What you’re doing is conflating synagogue culture with halacha, and that’s what I’ve been arguing against. But if you’re for it, then at least we’ve identified our disagreement — and I can “agree to disagree” and extricate myself from this time-consuming exercise. In other words, if you feel that building a “wall around the Torah” extends to things like synagogue membership or board voting rights or who can stand on the bimah (which, correct me if I’m wrong, is not covered in the Talmud), then that’s where we disagree.

    But if you are indeed concerned about “families disappearing through intermarriage,” you should understand that the seemingly arbitrary walls put up by the Jewish community contribute to that attrition. You should also understand that there are literally hundreds of thousands of interfaith families who have not left, and if you are indeed interested in “replenishing our numbers,” the best chance to do so demographically is by welcoming them in and embracing their children. Again, you are not hearing me argue against your understanding of halacha. Don’t invite them to lead your torah service. But I just don’t see how you’re welcome to them at the door should be any different than how you welcome a Jew at the door.

    And by the way, you’re mistaken when you talk about diluting “what little is left that is still Jewish in liberal Jewish institutions”. As you seem to be familiar with the early history of the Reform movement, you must surely agree that today the Reform movement is MORE engaged in Jewish ritual than ever before! Jews who grew up in “Classic Reform” congregations wouldn’t even recognize most Reform prayer services today because they have so much more ritual and Hebrew. Right? And yet, at the very same time, the Reform movement has embraced huge numbers of interfaith families over the last two decades. So what could possibly be driving this seemingly incongruous phenomenon? In part, it’s because interfaith families who bother walking through the doors of Jewish institutions are genuinely there for meaning and value, not as an attempt to “dilute” anything, and if you welcome them properly — as many Reform and Reconstructionist (and even some Conservative and Chabad) synagogues have — they actually contribute to the Jewish journey of all involved.

    Comment by Paul Golin — November 29, 2007 @ 1:27 pm

  15. Paul, at long last I see our differences of opinion narrowing down. I certainly agree with you that today’s Reform institutions evidence somewhat of a return to ritual and to Hebrew. I think this is a wonderful thing and, as I see it, a vindication of those who came down on early reformers for creating religion that would not last (if it held fast to its rejection of tradition). That this change has been driven both by the Reform rabbinate and by congregants is also encouraging, as Jewish souls are starting to wake up the beauty and truth of Judaism and Torah.

    I also agree with your statement about how we welcome an intermarried Jew at the door. I am the member of an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis ( that is outreach-oriented. Many coming through our doors did not start out Jewish, and many are currently intermarried and, in their desire to learn more about and grow within Jewish tradition, are now struggling with decisions they made long before they thought about exploring their heritage.

    I am glad to say that many of these intermarried couples wind up becoming completely shomer mitzvah, non-Jewish spouse and kids (if any) often undergo Orthodox conversions as well. But if they choose not to, they fully understand that, at some point, it will hinder remaining a full shul member, becoming a board member, etc. We treat them with respect and love, and they in turn respect our tradition, whether or not they ultimiately feel they can live up to its standards. Everything is done within the bounds of halacha, and no one is ever meant to feel unwelcome.

    Where I think we can agree to disagree is:
    1) Halachic issues - I feel it is a tragedy to label a non-halachic Jew as a Jew, thus making marriage between Jews a sticky topic in North America. We are so few in number to start with, but altering the definition of who is a Jew which the Reform movement officially did some decades ago in the US, I beleive has only exacerbated our differences. Since I cannot proselytize, but do want to share the beauty of Judaism with other Jews, I must now jump through hoops to find out if my friend or aquaintance is even halachically Jewish at all…an exercise I would rather not engage in. Also, unless I send my kids to all orthodox institutions until the teime they marry, I have to worry about lineage issues due to the reform ruling on patrilineal descent…I just think it was very damaging to Jewish unity in the U.S. and the gap is only getting wider.

    2. Appropriate synagoge roles and halacha. You are quite correct that there are probably scant halachic rulings on the roles of non-Jews in the synagogue until the 1700s. At that time, however, early reformers, before they officially broke from Orthodoxy, issued a number of halachic questions to leading rabbis of the time such as the Chasam Sofer. Many halachic responses were isseud indicating that non-Jews were not permitted to be part of a choir (all-male of course) in synagogue, and there may be later responsa dealing with synagogue leadership roles, or they may not be.

    The only point I’m making is that some synagogue decorum is halacha. And some would be if we asked a Torah authority. If our synagogue, which has some non-Jews in attendance, asked a leading Torah sage whether a non-Jew could stand at the bimah, take a leadership role, etc., the answer would probably be no, and then it would be part of the halacha. The Talmud, and most halachic authorities, only redact halacha in difficult cases, not easy ones…easy cases are just transmitted word of mouth. It may be that no one ever posed the question about whether a Catholic priest may be ordained in a synagogue and so there is no halachic ruling on it, but if they asked, would the Central reform Congregation here in St. Louis have then chosen not to go ahead and allow such a thing, as they did only to weeks ago? They would probably have done it anyway.

    It’s not that I am building my own fence around the Torah. It’s that this return to tradition has been prompted by the emptiness that resulted from 2 generations of spiritual void that comes with a lack of ritual and sense of real tradition. Tradtion makes people proud to be Jewish, and synagogue traditions are no exception. I think our synagogue strikes a nice balance that is welcoming and helps people along the converstion path, but never compromises our traditions in so doing. Some ultimately decide not to become Jewish, which is a fine choice, but they acme to a place wehre they had an opportunity to be so, but which also didn’t check tradition at the door (the very tradition Jews are yearning for in non-Orthodox circels today) in order to reach the non-Jew.

    Comment by marc — December 5, 2007 @ 1:39 pm

  16. I’m glad to learn about your welcoming congregation. We can’t agree on everything but it seems like we do agree on certain points.

    Comment by Paul Golin — December 5, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  17. Paul, I have to second Marc in that I have not been in an Orthodox congregation in the US that would be un-welcoming to any person that would come to it. I am not speaking only about “outreach” synagogues, but even the ones who are not there solely to help Jewish become more fervent/knowledgeable in their beliefs. Even in places where it is not the norm to have non-Jewish visitors, I don’t see what you seem to descibe as normal.

    I have brought intermarried families to these types of synagogues and they are welcomed, but Halacha (Jewish law) says that there is only so much that they can be involved in and be a part of. Our blessings begin with Baruch ata Hashem, ELOKEINU (our G-d) and continue BEMITZVOTAV VITZIVANU (with His commandments and commanded us — Jews). It sounds mean, but even our country (and most others) restrict certain opportunities to just their citizens.

    As a Jewish person of color, I have only felt uncomfortable in non-Orthodox synagogues with the people inside who assume I am not Jewish because I don’t “look Jewish”, whereas when I walk into an Orthodox synagogue, I am accepted easily because I am just like them — observant in the mitzvot.

    Comment by Yael — January 23, 2008 @ 12:19 am

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