‘Should We Welcome?’ Is the Wrong Question

Letters to the Editor

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
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Your February 4 editorial “Who Isn’t a Jew?” rightly identified the discrepancy between the Jewish community’s embrace of Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew and its ongoing discomfort welcoming intermarried and patrilineal Jews. But the editorial ends by suggesting that there is still a need to disprove the notion that “opening the tent too wide will cause it to collapse.” Really?

We work with thousands of Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders and haven’t heard serious debate on that issue in years; if anything, the biggest attitudinal shift we saw from 2000 to 2010 was the move away from “Should we welcome in?” to the quest to determine “How we can best welcome in?”

In case after case of “tent-opening,” our community has been strengthened and our numbers have grown. Chabad has exploded across the continent and changed the engagement paradigm in many communities. The Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent has enabled tens of thousands of Americans to self-identify as Jewish who otherwise would have been forced to find their spiritual homes elsewhere. The Boston Jewish community has experienced population growth by encouraging and supporting more than 60% of its intermarried households to raise Jewish children. And those are just some examples.

The only tents we’ve seen collapse are those communities that were unable to welcome and engage newcomers and previously disenfranchised Jews.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Executive Director
Jewish Outreach Institute
New York, N.Y.

Your editorial “Who Isn’t a Jew?” is spot on when it asks why wouldn’t the Jewish community claim someone like Gabrielle Giffords, a non-halachic but self-identifying Jew, as our own. But the editorial’s lament that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families is not necessarily true, as demonstrated by the Boston Jewish community’s 2005 demographic study, which found 60% of intermarried families in that city raising their children as Jews. Your lament is, however, self-fulfilling: Interfaith couples will not want to associate with a community that regards them as a likely cause of collapse.

There is a solution to the divide between the Orthodox and everyone else, too. It behooves everyone in the Jewish community to regard non-halachic but self-identifying Jews like Giffords as Jews for most purposes — like support for Israel, for example — and to address situations where halachic status matters only when they arise. For instance, an Orthodox Jew could choose to marry someone like Giffords if she had an Orthodox conversion and not otherwise.

Edmund Case
Newton, Mass.

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