The Times, They Have A’Changed: Welcoming Interfaith Families into Jewish Life

by Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein

I grew up in the 1960s. In those days, Jewish parents very strongly urged their kids to date only Jews. When any of my friends chose otherwise, there was tension at home (this is an understatement!) As far as marriage went, there was no question. Jews married Jews. Period.

Bob Dylan (formerly Robert Zimmerman) was the icon of our era. His song said it all: “The times…they are a-changin’”

And so the old norms altered – and I mean for real. Jews began to date people from other backgrounds to a greater degree than had ever been experienced in the American Jewish community. Many of those dating relationships flowered into love and, eventually, into marriage.

For a long time, a not-so-subtle message was delivered to these interfaith families: “You have violated our community standard. Do not darken the doors of our synagogue. You are not welcome here.”

I remember well when Rabbi Alex Schindler, of blessed memory, who was the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, threw down the gauntlet on this issue. He challenged the American Jewish community, reminding us that these interfaith couples and families are our children and our grandchildren.

We had a choice: Keep the doors closed with our own families locked out or open the doors wide and welcome them in. Using today’s language, the right answer was obvious: Duh! And thus, the concept of congregational outreach was born.

Who exactly benefits by making people feel unwelcome? No one! The reality was – and now certainly is – that people marry those they love. They create families. The question simply is this: “Do we want them as part of our community or not?”

Though the answer now is so clear, a generation ago it took some work to convince our people that opening the door wide was the right way to go. As time went on, more and more individuals realized the wisdom of this approach. Welcoming everyone into our community was a win-win situation. The individuals and families found spiritual fulfillment living Jewish lives, and congregations realized that these “newcomers” strengthened them. A trickle became a flood – and we are thankful to God for this.

As one who has been intimately involved in the work of outreach for decades, I sometimes forget that, even today, not everyone is aware of the sea of change that has occurred. There are still folks who think that interfaith couples and families need to go elsewhere. It is, therefore, imperative that each of us loudly and proudly proclaims: “The Jewish community welcomes you and the synagogue embraces you.”

Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein is the co-chair of the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis’ joint Commission on Outreach, Membership and Caring Community.

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5 Responses to “The Times, They Have A’Changed: Welcoming Interfaith Families into Jewish Life”

  1. avatar

    Thank you, Rabbi, for this great post. As a former president and current active member of my URJ congregation, I can’t help but wonder how we can loudly proclaim this welcome when we refuse to marry interfaith couples. (I realize each Reform congregation and each rabbi have their own policies.) The CCAR leaves each rabbi to choose whether s/he will perform interfaith marriages yet our movement is open to these families participating after the wedding. Do you have insight on when this hypocrisy might end? And how do we reconcile this dissonance in the meanwhile?

    I know this is touchy stuff…your story of Rabbi Schindler is inspiring on this grey Hanukkah morning. Thanks again.

    • Larry Kaufman

      I strenuously object to the characterization of a congregation welcoming interfaith couples, even though the rabbi does not officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies, as hypocrisy.

      Aside from not meeting the dictionary definition of the word, the practice is totally consistent with a number of Jewish values, albeit reflective of institutional ambivalence and inconsistency.

      What would be hypocritical would be for a rabbi to encourage a non-Jew to enter into a contract according to the laws of Moses and Israel when that non-Jew does not accept the laws of Moses and Israel. Or for a rabbi who believes that his or her role is to facilitate kedushin , the joining in a sacred relationship of a Jewish couple, to distort or abort a deeply held credo in the interest of expediency.

      The honest Reform rabbi who has chosen, in many instances after years on the other side of the issue, to officiate at weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew, has redefined the role of the rabbi vis a vis weddings from uniting Jewish couples in marriage to the creation of Jewish homes and Jewish families.

      Asking for insight on when the classic definition of the rabbi’s role in officiating at weddings will cease to be an option for Reform rabbis is both a fatuous question, an implied restriction on the autonomy of the rabbi (autonomy being a principle Reform Judaism holds dear for every Jew, but which Ms. Weishaar apparently feels rabbis should be exempted from), and reflects ignorance of the statistics, showing a sweeping increase throughout the movement in the number of Reform rabbis who have changed their positions on this complex issue.

  2. avatar

    I am married to a non-Jew big deal I love him for who he is and he loves and respects me so I am not too worried! Although my Rabbi probably would want my husband to convert to Judaism. I love him for who he is and would not want him any other way I go with my own heart and I attend most Friday night services. Lets just live and let live!

  3. avatar
    Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein Reply December 11, 2012 at 3:20 am

    A person who believes that a Canadian who is a legal resident of the United States but chooses not to become an American citizen should be made to feel at home here but should not be allowed to vote in American elections is no hypocrite. Similarly, a rabbi who feels that a non-Jew who chooses not to become a Jew should be welcomed into the Jewish community but not given the ritual rights of a Jew ought not be termed a hypocrite.

  4. avatar

    Is it a “fatuous” question to ask if girls will become bat mitzvah, or women ordained as rabbis, or gays and lesbians welcomed into our synagogues, or the prayer book include the matriarchs and use gender neutral language?

    I appreciate Rabbi Einstein’s reminder about the sea change and the outreach and welcoming that has become part of our tradition for interfaith couples.

    I understand too that for many Jewish families today we have not gone far enough. And maybe this is really the challenge that we must now address. While changes often start at the grassroots, we may be better served if there can be another sea change that helps couples marry in the comfort and welcoming of our synagogues by the people who nurtured and taught at least one member of the couple as a child.

    Larry Kaufman has explained why that hasn’t been and when it is what changes. Maybe we need to work together to figure out a way to enable that change. And maybe through that change we will not diminish, but enhance the engagement of our young people and their families.

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