There is a vibrant debate going on about how the Jewish community should treat interfaith couples and the children of intermarried families. I understand why the debate is a difficult one, and why major Jewish institutions wrestle with it.
On campus, however, the debate is largely over. At UCLA Hillel, we regularly serve students who come from intermarried households. Sometimes, a student comes to us with only the barest connection to our community — perhaps only one grandparent was Jewish. It’s not our role to decide whether that student is Jewish by a particular denomination’s standards; as a pluralistic institution, we will serve her as long as she wants to become part of our community in some way.
This is likely the future of Jewish life in North America. On campus, we have active participants with two Jewish parents, but just as many with only one. Step-parents, grandparents, and even friends might be their connection to Jewish life, learning or Israel. But each of these students has a unique and special story to share. And Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.
If these students seek Judaism and Jewish life, our community must serve them. And that is exactly what we do at Hillel. Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents. Trust me — I grew up in an interfaith family and the demographers probably wouldn’t have given me much of a chance. But here I am, a rabbi at Hillel. And my goal is to treat every student who engages with Hillel with an eye towards their potential, not their past, or their lineage.
Students who become part of our Hillel community get the message that there is no “right way” to be Jewish. They know that we accept everyone with open arms.
Weekly Shabbat dinners at Hillel at UCLA are rooted in a practice we call radical welcoming. Meals are free, and there is no requirement to attend services. Our goal is to ensure that the 200 students who attend feel comfortable and fully integrated, no matter what kind of backgrounds they have.
How do we build inclusive community? A recently awarded Intermarried Families Grant from the Jewish Funders Network helped us train nearly 100 student leaders to embrace students from intermarried backgrounds. Our goal is to make sure that students from interfaith households know that we care about them, we want to get to know them, and we want them to be part of Jewish life on campus. And we will track our progress throughout the school year.
Our Jewish Learning Fellowship is also a meaningful point of access to Jewish life for interfaith students. The fellowships bring together dozens of diverse Jewish students. Some discuss how our Jewish values inform our behavior. Others address how we should make our community more just, or how we can build a stronger relationship with, and understanding of, Israel. Interfaith participants report that the fellowships help them to take greater ownership over Jewish learning and their own Jewish identities.
We welcome students from interfaith families because they are an important and valued part of our community. And we welcome them because they are the future of our community.
A student from a Jewish-Latino family who finds a welcoming home at Hillel might graduate to be the next head of a Jewish federation. Someone with no Jewish educational background might be inspired by a presentation on Israeli water technology to one day go to Israel and help with its desalination efforts. A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.
If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we don’t make them welcome and included members of our campus community.
I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we don’t give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.