High Holiday Sermons – Inclusive and Not-so-inclusive
Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brookly, gave an incredibly inclusive Rosh Hashanah sermon. In discussing parallels between religious issues dividing Israelis and dividing American Jews, she describes her congregation as “a prime example of the other liberal Judaism: the progressive, multiracial, interfaith, pluralistic, justice-focused, thriving Judaism.” I loved the sound of “interfaith” modifying “Judaism” along with “progressive, justice-focused” and all the other adjectives.
Rabbi Timoner eloquently describes interfaith family inclusion:
“We do not have one kind of look. We do not have one kind of name. We come from every race and myriad cultures. You may meet a white Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jew, a Black Jew, an Asian Jew, a Latino Jew, an Arab Jew, and no matter what we look like we might know a lot about Judaism or a little. We also include a lot of people who aren’t Jewish. The only thing you can assume – the only thing you should assume – is that every single person you meet at CBE belongs here exactly as much as you do.
Our community includes many intermarried families. Jews have been intermarrying forever. We’re the children of Moses AND Tsippora. We’re the children of Ruth the Moabite who was the ancestor of King David who is the ancestor of the messiah. Some of the most dedicated and outstanding Jewish teens of this community have been children of intermarried families. There is no such thing as a half-Jew. Jewish children of intermarriage are Jews, full stop. When we embrace the diverse families of our community, intermarriage makes us stronger.”
I was very disappointed in the Kol Nidre sermon of Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, which you can listen to here. I hate to disagree with Rabbi Buchdahl, I have been privileged to know and talk with her, and admire her greatly – she is deservedly one of America’s iconic, outstanding rabbis. And I loved the first part of the sermon, which criticizes how the Jewish community has for many years passed judgment on interfaith marriage as a negative. Rabbi Buchdahl nicely describes engaged partners from different faith backgrounds as not “b’nai yisrael,” children of Israel, but “bonei yisrael,” builders of Israel.
But the sermon veers badly off course, in my view, recommending renewed efforts to encourage those builders of Israel to convert. This is personal for the rabbi; she relates how her own mother was only welcomed as a guest, never asked if she were interested in converting.
Here are some of my questions for Rabbi Buchdahl: what do you say to those “bonei yisrael” who do not want to convert? That they can only be welcomed as a guest, whose presence is appreciated, but they can’t be included in Jewish communities – feel that they belong – unless they convert? Isn’t it necessarily passing judgment on partners from different faith backgrounds as second class, if they’re not worthy of being included without converting?
Just before Yom Kippur, Religion News Service ran “This Yom Kippur, she’ll pray inside the synagogue, he’ll secure it on the outside.” It’s a very positive story about the “growing ranks of intermarried synagogue members.” It says ,“the liberal Jewish movements have come a long way in welcoming non-Jewish spouses and encouraging their involvement” and that “religious intermarriage, which once carried a stigma, is now commonplace and is reshaping the contours of Jewish belief, practice and community.” It quotes Len Saxe of the Cohen Center as saying “The future of the Jewish people turns on whether we’re going to educate the children of one, as well as two, Jewish parents… That’s what’s happened in America, and it has led to an increase in the population.” I was pleased to see 18Doors prominently mentioned in the article.
The Detroit Jewish News ran a nice article about my friend Natalie Louise Shribman becoming the rabbi at local Reform Temple Kol Ami. Rabbi Shribman, whose mother isn’t Jewish, says “Throughout my career as a rabbi, I have been trying to find different ways to make interfaith families feel at home for both Jews and their non-Jewish partners.” Meanwhile, Allyson Zacharoff, who “grew up as the Jewish child of a happy interfaith marriage,” is the new rabbi at Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit NJ.
The URJ’s September 12 “Inside Leadership” email newsletter featured a blog post titled “Interfaith Inclusion in Our Communities.” I was told that a version had been available for several years and that there is a similar resource on the URJ’s website, “Interfaith Inclusion in Our Congregations & Communities.” These resources very cautiously address issues of terminology, as well as leadership roles and ritual participation by partners who are not Jewish. They do say that “the general trend has been expanding eligibility for leadership positions,” but that ritual participation is “usually determined by [clergy] working alongside lay leaders.”
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more bold leadership by the movement on these issues, and that there is little attention explicitly given to them. There probably is not bold leadership because, as exemplified by the different sermons of Rabbi Timoner and Rabbi Buchdahl, some rabbis recognize that full inclusion of unconverted partners is necessary, while others want them to convert. This may also be what stifles discussion; the URJ is celebrating its 150th anniversary in December, but it doesn’t appear from the information available on the event’s website that engaging interfaith families even will be a specific topic of discussion.
On the Conservative side, Daniel Stein, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, writes for the J that he wants to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Rabbi Stein says that in the Conservative congregations he’s served, interfaith couples “contribute in remarkable ways… their presence enriches our community.” Referring to the movement’s decline, he asks, “How much richer would our Conservative Jewish communities be if rabbis like me could seriously engage with couples at the outset of their marriage?” He concludes by saying that “non-Jews who love Jews … should be welcomed and loved as a vital part of a new Jewish future. Hopefully, the leadership of the Conservative movement will embrace the spirit of the moment before it is too late.”
The Religion News Service story about Yom Kippur focuses on one interfaith couple and welcoming changes that have been made at their Conservative synagogue, Beth Mayer, in Raleigh NC led by Rabbi Eric Solomon (who would like to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples if he could).
(In the August newsletter, I misspoke about the date of the “Can We Talk About Patrilineal Descent” program at the United Synagogue’s convention – it’s in December.)
My understanding is that local Jewish communities in Europe are highly organized and controlled by Orthodox authorities. This month there were two stories that indicated challenges to that hegemony and possible future liberalization.
“New synagogue in Dresden plans to operate outside of Germany’s Jewish mainstream” describes a new “egalitarian congregation” that has some 200 members and “is officially open to Jews and their non-Jewish partners – something that sets it apart from most synagogues in Germany.” The founder told JTA “We don’t need anyone’s authorization to be Jewish or to have our own community, and we don’t accept the Central Council as any authority about how Jewish life should look.”
Meanwhile in Calabria, in southern Italy, a Reconstructionist synagogue founded by Rabbi Barbara Aiello includes descendants of Sephardic Jews, who were forcibly converted to Christianity and are not halachically Jewish, and accepts same-sex and interfaith marriages. As a result, Orthodox communities do not recognize or include Rabbi Aiello’s community.
At our May 2023 Radical Inclusion program, UK Rabbi Guy Hall spoke compared the status of interfaith inclusion in the US and in Europe — watch here.
Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the senior rabbi of a major Los Angeles synagogue, Stephen Wise Temple, wrote “Big Tent Judaism” for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He argues that American Jews have a stake in and should be willing to fight for gender equality and inclusion in Israel.
Rabbi Zweiback cites a recent Haftorah portion in which “the prophet Isaiah invites us to imagine a more expansive Jewish community, one that makes room for every person: ‘Enlarge the site of your tent, Extend the size of your dwelling, Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm.’ (Is. 54:2).” He is proud that his synagogue community is committed to egalitarianism and LGBTQ+ inclusion, a big tent where there is “room for Jews of all beliefs, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and levels of observance,” in which “our whole community is included – along with our friends, allies, and beloved guests.”
This is a fine piece. I just wish that Rabbi Zweiback explicitly referred to interfaith couples, and in particular partners from different faith backgrounds, as being included in the tent – made to feel that they belong – and not just welcomed as “beloved guests.”
Also in the Media
Amy Beth Starr, whose husband is not Jewish, wrote very poignantly for Kveller about living in an area where there are very few Jews and sending her son to a Jewish summer day camp where she hoped he’d make some Jewish friends. While he loved the camp, sadly there weren’t many Jewish kids there and he didn’t make any Jewish friends.
My Google alert on interfaith couples picked up an entry on J Station X – a blog by a video gamer – titled “What Role Did a Rabbi Play in the Process” (I have no idea what game the entry is about). Part of the entry asked “Can a rabbi marry interfaith couples?” I thought the answer was very fair: “It depends on the rabbi and their denomination. Some rabbis are willing to officiate interfaith weddings, while others may have specific guidelines or restrictions.”
An article in a secular paper, the Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram, focused on the findings in recent demographic studies of Long Beach and of nearby Los Angeles that many Jews don’t feel a sense of belonging in their Jewish communities. While not about interfaith families in particular, the article notes that a vice president of the Long Beach federation said that “though she is part of an interfaith family, her children were welcomed into a local Jewish preschool with open arms.”