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