Welcoming Interfaith and Jews by Choice
This past Shabbat I sat on the bima during Shabbat Service as the Board of Trustees representative.During this service, a young man was being called to the Torah for the first time – he was the bar mitzvah boy. Sitting there, observing the family and friends of this young man, as well as the congregants who had gathered to worship, made me once again realize the beauty of belonging to a Reform shul. Why?Because of the richness of the people who are engaged in creating a Jewish community.
The young man celebrating his bar mitzvah was a mensch. He read Torah beautifully, gave an insightful d’var Torah, was respectful and excited to claim his place in the Jewish community.His mother is Jewish, his father isn’t.When they stood next to him on the bima to read the parents blessing, his father casually put his hand on his son’s shoulder in a loving and affirming manner.This family has been involved in the congregation for many years, modeling the joy of Jewish living, with a proud non-Jewish father who supported his son completely.
I’ve seen so many lifecycle celebrations where the parent wasn’t born Jewish and has affirmed and encouraged their child’s Jewish upbringing and identity.Even more importantly, the welcoming embrace of the congregation in including these families as an integral part of our community has created opportunities for the entire congregations to explore what it means to be a Jew and live a Jewish life.
With the recent observance of Shavuot, there have been several articles that claim a new understanding of the connection to Shavuot and conversion and the importance of welcoming the ger, the stranger.The Story of Ruth, which is read at Shavuot,is the story of a woman who converted to Judaism, whose descendants include King David and the messiah. Sometimes she is considered the first convert to Judaism, sometimes Abraham is, but either way, it seems that those who convert to Judaism have auspicious ancestry.
I find it interesting that this is considered new territory and want to ask “Where have you been?”. The Reform Movement, through the programmatic offerings of the Union for Reform Judaism, has been encouraging a connection to Ruth and conversion for over twenty years. It’s part of our worship and study guides for Tikun l’eil Shavuot, it’s part of our Torah Study guide for Outreach programming.The Rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College study Ruth when they study conversion.
But it’s more than just programmatic offerings.The Reform Movement, and Reform synagogues,have heeded the prophetic words of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l to open our doors to welcome those interested in living a Jewish life.He first recommended we engage in these effortsto encourage conversion in 1979, and was affirmed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at a URJ Biennial in 2005.Welcoming those whoare Jews-by-choice to our congregational community is a mitzvah that enriches the lives of those new to Judaism.Even more, it enriches the congregational community that embraces them.And our congregations do embrace them! As they are embraced, each new Jew-by-choice in turn enriches and challenges those born Jewish to explore how they live a fulfilling Jewish life.
Today, when we know that welcoming interfaith families is sometimes a step towards conversion, we understand why so many non-Jews make the decision to convert to Judaism after being welcomed as an important part of our congregational community.
Spotlight on Diversity: This June, the URJ highlights a variety of resources to help congregations welcome and support diverse members. Learn more on our website.