The Conversation We Should Have…

I knew a woman whose husband was having trouble getting work. He was offered a position quite far from home, but times were tough so they took their two sons and moved. The family did well, the boys grew and married, and life moved forward. Unfortunately, the husband became ill and died. Shortly after that, the sons were involved in a terrible accident in which they perished. And my friend was left a widow, as were her two daughters-in-law.

My friend decided to move back to her family’s hometown, where she still had relatives. She had a good relationship with both her daughters-in-law, even though they weren’t Jewish, and bid them goodbye. One of the daughters returned to live with her parents and restart her life. The other daughter-in-law insisted on moving back to her hometown with my friend, eventually marrying another man in the family and raising children.

Does this sound familiar?

The story of Naomi and Ruth is often seen through the prism of conversion; Ruth is often considered the first Jew by Choice. It’s valuable to remember that before Ruth converted to Judaism with her most famous affirmation “your people will be my people, your God will be my God” (Book of Ruth 1:16), she was the non-Jewish wife of a Jewish man. She was half of an interfaith marriage.

I often wonder how Naomi and Ruth’s relationship grew into such a loving, caring relationship. How did the conversation start? Why did Ruth find a home with Naomi and God, rather than return to her family? I think it’s fair to say that Naomi welcomed Ruth and treated her with kindness and respect.

We have many Ruths in our Jewish communities today. Interfaith marriage is a fact of life in 21st century North America. We live in a free and open society where Jews socialize with people from all demographic groups. And we know that people fall in love with those with whom they work and socialize. Many non-Jews marry Jews and join our Jewish community, and raise their children as Jews.

We’ve also discovered, through many years of conversation, that the impact of the ‘first welcomes’ offered from the extended Jewish family significantly affects the interfaith couple’s decisions for many years about practicing Judaism.

So, I would suggest that we change the conversation about intermarriage to one of Why Be Jewish? Let’s encourage an exploration with our children and our Jewish community about what being Jewish actually means to each one of us. Let’s get beyond a superficial brisket-and-Seinfeld conversation, and have an in-depth, honest exploration about what Judaism and living a Jewish life really mean. Let’s focus on the opportunity and gift of using our thousands of years of history and teachings as a way of making Jewish choices that frame our lives and make a difference in the world. Let’s acknowledge that for each of us, part of belonging to the Jewish people is the challenge of finding our place in the covenant.

We know from experience that two Jews who marry are more likely than intermarried couples to raise their children as Jews. I’ve often heard from non-Jewish spouses who were interested in raising Jewish children but were rebuffed by their Jewish in-laws because they themselves weren’t Jewish. We know that given the right nourishment, interfaith couples raise Jewish children who are connected to Judaism and live joyous Jewish lives. We see the successful products of those interfaith families—they are our rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish professionals, and active congregational leaders.

When a conversation begins with a welcome, it is easier to develop a relationship. When our sense of Jewish identity is an affirmation, it makes a statement. What would happen if we embraced these non-Jewish men and women the way Naomi embraced Ruth? How would it enrich our Jewish lives if we were able to affirm Jewish identity in the same way that Naomi was able to share it with Ruth? How many more Ruths would we welcome into our Jewish communities?

Join me at the URJ Schindler Program for Interfaith Fellows, where we will learn about welcoming interfaith couples and families, embracing them into our communities and engaging them in Jewish living.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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Vicky Farhi

About Vicky Farhi

Vicky Farhi is the co-director of the URJ’s Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice.

19 Responses to “The Conversation We Should Have…”

  1. avatar
    Howard Kantrowitz Reply May 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Actually, not a comment. A request. Can I use your article for our Temple newsletter?
    I have always viewed the story of Ruth as the first documented conversion to Judaism.
    Your view as a mixed marraige is intriguing; especially in our Temple which has a very high percentage of mixed families.

  2. Vicky Farhi

    Hi Howard,
    Thanks for your note. I’m happy to share this article with your Temple newsletter. And excited that you want to share the message of welcome with them!

  3. avatar

    It would also make it nicer if the conversion process was easier. I look at other faiths and it is easy…with us, it is long and expensive. As my husband has pointed out over the years, if someone wants to be a Christian…they simply start saying that they are one and start living along those lines. They study as they grow in their newly chosen faith. They may have to make a declaration before their church and attend a few classes for a brief period of time…but nothing as involved as becoming a Jew.

  4. avatar

    The “first welcome” often begins with a conversation about getting married. This is also ofter the “first unwelcome” when the couple is told that we won’t marry you but after you do get married, “we will welcome you with open arms!”

    The Reform movement needs to develop a way to engage the potential new Jewish families by saying “yes we will be a partner from the beginning – yes the Rabbi (and Cantor) will marry you in the synagogue”. Interfaith marriage ceremonies performed by our Rabbis can and should be a true and positive beginning if it is based on developing a genuine relationship with the Rabbi and the synagogue.

    We must stop avoiding proverbial “elephant in the room”. The upcoming generations have many alternative paths via news ways of communicating and we won’t get a second chance to get them in the door.

    • Larry Kaufman

      As a lay person who has watched several rabbis struggle with their own positions on officiating at weddings where one of the couple is not Jewish, I remind Mr. Levin to recognize that the Reform movement has no way to dictate the religious decisions or practices of its clergy or of its congregations. I justify in my own mind my rabbi’s recent decision to preside over such ceremonies as a redefinition of the officiant’s role — formerly to conduct a religious rite, now to facilitate the creation of a Jewish home. But I do not criticize any rabbi or cantor whose conscience and reading of Jewish law says no.

      And I remind Leah that Ruth did not just say to Naomi, Your God will be my God, but also, Your people will be my people. Becoming and being Jewish involves more than does becoming and being Christian; as the saying goes, siz shver tzu zein a Yid,, it’s hard to be a Jew; and although that saying is usually used in a different context, it’s relevant here too.

      Meanwhile, we also need to remind ourselves that Ruth’s religion was apparently not a factor to her or her husband, and that her conversion took place after she had lived for several years in a Jewish home. So,Leah, it wasn’t a quickie, and since it involved a geographic relocation, it wasn’t easy!

      • avatar

        That is my point…in my opinion, we make it a lot harder for people to convert than it needs to be 🙂

  5. avatar

    As someone who converted in the Reform Movement, I would like to throw in my two cents on the conversion process. I think making the process “easier” in the way Leah suggests would be the wrong way to go about it. Professing your faith is enough in Christianity, because faith is all that is required of Christians in the first place. Judaism is about so much more (and one could argue that Judaism is not about faith at all). Judaism is not just about accepting religious beliefs, but accepting a peoplehood, culture, and a new identity. The decision to convert should be well thought out and the fact that the conversion process is hard and long reflects the time and effort that a potential convert should put into the decision.
    If you want to make the conversion process “easier” for potential converts, be open to talking to us about Judaism. We are curious and often don’t know where to direct our questions. We don’t start with the Rabbi; we start asking questions of friends, professors, and the internet first. So don’t make the process shorter, make the initial questions painless.

    • avatar

      Erin, you take a very mainstream, accepted, and valid view of Judaism, Jewishness, and conversion, but it is really not a Reform view. While of course there exist complicated ethno-cultural dimensions to Jewish identity, among other baggage, it is PRIMARILY a religious commitment. It is still quite different from simply making a profession of faith as in Christianity, because of the covenantal nature and immense ethical implications. The best way to put it is that Judaism is about faith, but also SO MUCH MORE, as you said above. One may well choose to concentrate primarily or exclusively on the “so much more”, and still be a good Jew, so to speak, but the historic Reform position has been that the main thrust at the core of all of it is to live in covenantal relationship with God and feel oneself a participant in the ongoing story.

      Because of the sense of “taking on the yoke” of the Covenant and a vigorous Jewish commitment, there are probably more similarities with conversion to Christianity than many would be comfortable with. It is also debatable that faith is “all that is required” of Christians–like us, they seem bound to ethical behavior and a modicum of ritual observance. If you read some of the historic Reform liturgies for a conversion service, you will see that the recitation of the Shema by the convert in front of the open Ark, as the ultimate declaration of Jewish faith and commitment, was seen to be the “moment” that the actual conversion took place. It is a very moving idea, really, but also one that challenges the efforts among many contemporary Reform Jews to minimize the importance of Judaism as a religion.

  6. Larry Kaufman

    Jordan, if there is such a thing as a Reform view of conversion, it would be as expressed in the Reform Shulchan Aruch, Mark Washofsky’s Jewish Living, A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice. In such phrases as “accept the obligations of Judaism,” “chooses Judaism as well as the Jewish people,” and especially, “a sincere affirmation of Jewish faith, a desire to to live fully as a Jew, and a willing acceptance of Jewish destiny,” Washofsky seems to be validating Erin’s position as authentically Reform.

    Nor do I see contemporary Reform Jews minimizing the importance of Judaism as a religion; we see the religion of Judaism as one factor within the package of being Jewish. One can accept being Jewish without accepting religion, but one cannot accept the religion of Judaism without accepting its peoplehood aspects.

    • avatar
      Jordan Friedman Reply May 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      Washofsky’s book is decent, though I believe it borders on departing from the spirit of what makes a Reform faith commitment distinct from what is offered by other streams. That being said, “accepting the obligations of Judaism”, and a “sincere affirmation of Jewish faith, a desire to to live fully as a Jew, and “a willing acceptance of Jewish destiny” do capture what I believe is the essence of conversion to Reform Judaism (or B’nai Mitzvah/Confirmation, for that matter).

      As for your last statement, “One can accept being Jewish without accepting religion, but one cannot accept the religion of Judaism without accepting its peoplehood aspects.”–I find that to be so shockingly wrong and toxic on its face that I have a hard time believing that you believe it yourself. I suppose it really depends on how you conceptualize and define “its peoplehood aspects”. My guess is that you don’t mean “peoplehood” in the purely spiritual sense, but rather in a mainly ethno-cultural sense. Assuming that context for your last sentence quoted above, then all Reform conversions before about 1960 would have to be pronounced invalid, rendering many Jews today no longer Jews. Here is my teacher Jay Brickman’s response to that:

      “If one who has no feelings for the Jewish religion is entitled to be called a Jew, why is there not a like place in the Jewish apparatus for those who believe in the religion but have little or no feeling for Jewish national identity?”

      There used to be such a place in the big tent of organized Judaism–it was called Reform. The denomination that now uses that name is no friendly place for such people, which is a shame. I hope that changes one day.

  7. avatar

    It seems to me that a Jew w/o Judaism is not nearly as much a contradiction and unwarrented compartmentalization as is a commitment to Judaism as a religion/faith w/o Jewish national identity.When we gather together in a group/minyan and recite “anu” and yisrael in virtually every tfillah what could that mean w/o a feeling for Jewish national identity? What then is the meaning of “us” in our Reform religious gatherings? It’s been said in various ways that Judaism needs the Jewish people as much as the Jewish people
    need(s) Judaism.

    • avatar

      “When we gather together in a group/minyan and recite “anu” and yisrael in virtually every tfillah what could that mean w/o a feeling for Jewish national identity? What then is the meaning of “us” in our Reform religious gatherings?”

      Surely, defining Jewish community as primarily a spiritual and religious, rather than ethnic, cultural, or “national” entity does not preclude a sense of “us”. Otherwise, people in other religions which aren’t historically tied to one nationality or ethnicity would be unable to have a sense of community–clearly that’s preposterous. The Jewish people need Judaism, but Judaism only needs the Jewish People insofar as “Jewish People” refers to people who practice Judaism. What is so heretical about that? If everyone adopted that worldview, the Jewish People as we know it would continue to exist, arguably in better health than ever before.

    • avatar

      Interesting question, Rabbi. I can tell you as a convert that one of the initial hurdles I had to overcome in connecting with Judaism was the constant “anu”/”yisrael”/”l’dor vador” language – How would I fit without a familial connection? The overarching idea that we are all connected to God and each other through a common heritage is a powerful message and one that I think is essential to Judaism. I think the trick is to think of it as a spiritual connection, while still hanging onto the essence of that real generational connection. Even born-Jews walk that line between spiritual and generational through the idea that we were all (all Jews throughout time) standing at Sinai. We build a sense of “us” through this inextricable mixture of spirituality and peoplehood. It can be a difficult concept to grasp and manage, but I think it is worth wrestling with.

      • avatar

        That is a brilliant way of putting it, Erin! It is very important to stress that the emergence of a “post-ethnic” Judaism would necessarily include the critical mass of born Jews with the “generational connection”, as well as current Jews-by-choice–it’s just that there would also be more to the picture. Nobody is advocating the abolition of the “transmissibility” of Jewishness from parents to children. We need to get people to understand that the “historic” Jewish People would in no way be threatened by a reclamation of the Classical Reform notion of Judaism as primarily a spiritual path.

        • avatar

          Friedman is right, that the historic Jewish people would in no way be threatened by a reclamation of the Classical Reform notion of Judaism as primarily a spiritual path. You can’t threaten history. It is over.

          What would be of concern is not the historic Jewish people but the future Jewish people. People might still be spiritually Jewish, but they would only people, not part of a people. The new Judaism would be as envisioned by those fin-de-siecle prophets — spiritual, rational, intellectual, with all enlightened people gathering at the top of God’s mountain, their swords beaten into plowshares, and all that other good stuff. The merit of that position has been clearly demonstrated by the remarkable growth of Classical Reform, all the way from a puny 500 congregations before Hitler to an impressive dozen now.

          To those who got lost somewhere between Sinai and now, but who have found their way back, remember first that Ruth’s affirmation to Naomi was not just that your God will be my God, but first, that your people will be my people. What Ruth didn’t know was that her commitment would be rewarded by her progeny becoming leaders of her new people, though it might take a while.

          Fortunately, Erin understands that the mixture of spirituality and peoplehood is inextricable, and worth wrestling with rather than shoving the tough part to the sidelines.

          • avatar
            Jordan Friedman June 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm

            Apikoos, I think you know full well that my reference to the “historic Jewish People” meant “the critical mass of people who are Jewish by birth”, and the entire Jewish People AS DEFINED BY the Peoplehood model. What I was trying to say (and again, I think you already knew) was that we don’t have to GET RID OF Peoplehood to do what I believe must be done. Rather, we must define Peoplehood as the SPIRITUAL bond of the Covenant stretching (metaphorically) all the way back to Sinai. That spiritual bond can be forged by accident of birth to Jewish parents (in which case it might well be broken later), or it can be forged later in life by conversion to Judaism. I certainly hope that no thinking Jew would entertain the traditional notion that anyone who converts “always had a Jewish soul” and simply “returned” to the fold. It is axiomatic that people can and do undergo religious transitions in life, formerly being COMPLETELY one thing, and then TRANSITIONING to being something else FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. To suggest otherwise is unsustainably determinist.

            Any careful reading of my writing on this topic would betray that neither I nor the early Reformers completely rejected Jewish Peoplehood, and that the radical vision of Classical Reform does not conflict with the goal of the preservation of the Jewish People.

            As to the disgustingly ignorant, sarcastic, and malicious comment about the number of CR congregations now compared to before the Holocaust, anyone with a modicum of familiarity with Jewish texts and tradition knows that the tiny remnant of a once-mighty group is often a righteous and prophetic one. Thank God, then, that some of us have the courage to be the universalistic voice crying out in the wilderness of insularity.

  8. avatar

    Jordan, for once it seemed like we almost kind of half agreed on something. But I am one of those people who believes in the concept of a Jewish soul. In fact, that concept is central to my Jewish identity. Finding Judaism felt like finding a religious home and a spiritual family, like I belonged here all along. Yes, it was a transition to something new and completely different from what I was raised in, but that is where (to get back to the original post) I think born-Jews could be more open to helping potential converts figure it out.

    • avatar

      Erin, I don’t want you to feel that your feelings of “coming home” are invalidated by my disdain for the concept of “Jewish souls coming home”. It may well be that you formed early in life the set of preferences and sensibilities that caused you to feel instantly at home in a Jewish setting, and not in your birth faith. That could have been set up to happen many years before you seriously looked into converting. However, it is impossible that when you were born you were somehow “always destined” to one day become Jewish. Other things could have happened in your life to make you never become Jewish. But they didn’t and we’re very, very glad to have you! 🙂 I’m only saying that there are other, much better explanations for why people convert than saying that their souls were Jewish long before they actually became Jewish.

      That being said, I can’t possibly have a problem with the concept of a “Jewish soul”. The souls of Jewish people, born or by choice, are Jewish. We just disagree on the point at which the soul of a convert becomes Jewish–you say it happens at birth, and I think it happens at some point during the conversion process. Of course, it is foolish to think it’s an instantaneous thing–I would say that the transformation is gradual.

      I am with you, though, insofar as we both are concerned that the common allergy to “proselytization” prevents the Jewish community from offering help to spiritual seekers in “discerning” whether or not Judaism is right for them. I am borrowing the term “path discernment” from Catholic intellectual discourse, but that is exactly the word that describes what we are talking about.

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