Having a conversation with the non-Jewish spouse
by Rabbi Brian I. Michaelson
It was Yom Kippur morning. I had just sat down after doing the blessing of the non-Jewish spouse and introducing the Haftarah portion. As I sat, I kept thinking about the fact that we have done the blessing of the non-Jewish spouse for a number of years and I know that it was appreciated, but what else were we doing for them? It was then that the idea came to me that I should set up some kind of meeting with the non-Jewish spouses who are part of the congregation. This was the moment when “Three Evenings with the Rabbi” was born.
I decided to invite thirty of the non-Jewish spouses for three evenings of dialogue and discussion. Probably the most controversial decision was to invite only them and not their Jewish spouses with them. I wanted to create a safe place where people could talk and ask questions about Judaism and the way it is practiced (or not practiced) by their spouse and family. I did not want anyone to feel inhibited about asking questions or sharing anything they were struggling with the group. I worried that the presence of the Jewish partners might cause fear or intimidate this open dialogue. As it turned out, I was right.
In the end, about twenty of the spouses joined me for, at least, two of the three evening sessions that I held. The program was very open ended starting with some sort of opening reflection and question for the group and then the opportunity to talk and share ideas and frustrations with which they were dealing.
What happened after the three sessions was even more interesting. Some of the families started getting together and I noticed that the families who had been invited started to attend services more regularly and as a complete family. They were calling or contacting me to follow up on things we discussed in class and to let me know what was going on in their lives. Without intending it, for many of them, I had become their “rabbi,” because we now had a relationship and a better understanding of each other. They began to feel that this congregation could be their home as much as it was for the rest of their family. I have since repeated the program, and I am getting ready to do it for a third time, with similar results.
I was amazed that such a small act could transform someone’s perception. It reminded me that everything we do matters.
Rabbi Brian I. Michaelson is the rabbi of Reform Congregation Oheb Shalom in Reading, PA. Reform Congregation Oheb Shalom won a Belin Award for “Three Evenings with a Rabbi”.