Interfaith Acceptance Has A PR Problem
Rebecca Ennen wrote in the Forward about her struggles in getting rabbis and fellow Jews to accept interfaith families. To Jewish leaders, she writes, “Do you think you can “welcome” us into synagogues, schools, and camps, while you talk openly about how our existence is a threat?”
I’m a rabbi, and let me say it clearly: I don’t think you’re a threat, Rebecca Ennen. I’m grateful to build the future of the Jewish people together with you, because the Judaism most precious to me has the finest most fertile soil, waiting for you to plant your seeds so we can till it together.
You see, those of us who accept interfaith families must have a PR problem. As a rabbi, I see myself and so many of my clergy colleagues as exceptionally welcoming, open and non-judgemental. The Judaism in which I was raised, Reform Judaism, has a bold vision for inclusivity enacted in 1978 by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, and more recently by Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ platform for “Audacious Hospitality.” Temple Israel of Boston, where I work, devotes tremendous resources to my position and portfolio: running the ever successful Riverway Project for folks in their 20s and 30s, teaching countless classes, officiating weddings, and naming babies in order to introduce as many people as possible to the depth and beauty that Judaism offers. When a recent Riverway newsletter got back an angry response: “this newsletter is more concerned with non-Jews than Jews,” I took it as a compliment.
There are hundreds of other rabbis and cantors like me — and I know a lot of clergy — who are endlessly gracious, welcoming, patient, creative and eager to do anything and everything they can to support a person who walks through our synagogues’ doors. They lead so many synagogues like Temple Israel of Boston whose populace is only enriched by the diversity of our community.
And yet, we are inundated with articles in every Jewish outlet, from Kveller’s parenting blog to the Forward, written by so many in our community sharing their painful experiences of rejection and isolation. This ostracization impacts every level of our community, from engaged leaders of Jewish communal organizations to the intentionally unaffiliated in our midst.
I observed it, too, when I staffed Boston’s inaugural Honeymoon Israel cohort in March 2017. On this journey to Israel for 21 committed couples of truly diverse backgrounds and a range of Jewish connection, so many shared in common stories of feeling unwelcome, judged, labeled, marginalized, unseen, and unheard. Amid so much rejection, many felt unclear if there was actually a space for them in the Jewish community where they could plant and grow roots. They felt loneliness; they were and are seeking real community where their whole selves can be welcomed on their own terms.
This sense of uprootedness came into full view one day on a walk in Yafo. In an open courtyard, suspended in midair, floats an orange tree, an art installation by Israeli artist Ran Morin. It immediately begged the questions: Where are its roots!? How is this tree alive? How could it be simultaneously rooted yet uprooted? And does it still bear fruit?
From hearing their stories, it was clear that many of these couples felt suspended in the air like that suspended-yet-rooted tree. They felt grounded in the strength of their partnerships, rooted in their intentional choices and ways of living, but disconnected and unable to even plant seeds in the broader context of a Jewish communal space that might hold them in complete acceptance.
But our PR problem endures. There are so many clergy and educators whose openness, grace, patience, and creativity know no bounds, who are at times compelled by compassion to compromise their spiritual authority to meet the demands of spiritual autonomy. Still so many in our Jewish orbit feel forced outside of our community. There are amends to be made and responsibility to be taken for the painful experience of rejection endured by so many whose identity is multifaceted in ways that Jewish communal norms have yet to acknowledge or welcome. And yet, many of those norms were created long before I was ordained, well before I was even born, and by leaders for whom I do have great respect.
As a rabbi, I see myself as a guarantor of Jewish living, a protector of our traditions and sacred texts. It seems my next professional venture is one of Jewish Public Relations. The message to all who hunger for a connection to Jewish living is this: the Judaism most precious to me has the finest, most fertile soil. It can nourish us to withstand drought and strong winds. There is spaciousness within it for your roots to grow with mine among the sacred flourishings of the Jewish people. It’s a rootedness of genuine acceptance, wholeness and love. And we tend the soil for one another.
Plant your roots with us. Grow tall with us. Your fruit is so sweet. And I’m so sorry for your pain.