It may be risky to publicly admit that I’m thinking of someone this Valentine’s Day in addition to my lovely wife. But I am, and his name is Yair Netanyahu.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Yair. If the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indeed found love, as reported, that’s a blessing, something to be celebrated, particularly on a holiday about celebrating love. So let me be the first — and based on everything I’ve read, the only — voice from the Jewish community to wish Yair and his girlfriend mazel tov, if it gets serious.
Not only does it not matter to me that the young woman in question is not Jewish, I think this footnote to Jewish history represents a lovely learning opportunity. And while I’m sorry for Yair that his love life has become our teachable moment, I imagine there are also some perks to being the Prime Minister’s son. He’ll just have to take the bad with the good.
It matters how we welcome people, and there are no do-overs when it comes to first impressions. If the Jews are a “large extended family,” as we sometimes claim we are, our family just failed spectacularly at the commandment to “welcome the stranger,” or in emulating Naomi, the embracing mother-in-law of the Biblical Ruth, ancestress of the Messiah. Yair Netanyahu did not flee his people to live in Norway.
Sandra Leikanger, a 25-year-old Norwegian woman, came to Israel to study and, according to at least one account, is from a pro-Israel evangelical family with an older sister who lives in Israel and converted to Judaism. The first impression for Sandra should have been, “Welcome! You came here for a reason, we want to help you explore what’s so great about the Jewish state and being connected to the Jewish people.”
Instead, she’s mostly been met with xenophobic vitriol from the right and indifference or bemusement from the left. An Israeli anti-intermarriage organization wrote, “Bibi's son has found a gentile! His father is proud of him and gives legitimacy to the assimilation and destruction of the Jewish people.”
Every day here in the US, Jewish parents meet their non-Jewish future sons- and daughters-in-law for the first time, and their initial reaction will color the relationship for years to come. The best reaction is the simplest, to open your heart and home. “Welcome! If my son or daughter loves you, I will try to see what they see in you.” Period. As time goes on, and trust builds, the sharing of Jewish traditions may ensue. But I’ve met too many Jewish grandparents who are madly in love with their grandkids, have come to love their non-Jewish sons- or daughters-in-law and yet still haven’t fully recovered the trust they lost that first day when they tried to explain how this marriage is “finishing Hitler’s job.”
Parents can’t prevent interfaith relationships. Nobody can. For decades now, a small cottage industry within the organized Jewish community has assured us that if non-Orthodox parents just follow a few simple steps — Jewish day school, summer camps, Israel trips — our kids will marry other Jews. This is despite the regular occurrence of parents with one child who in-marries and one who intermarries. What did the same parents do so right with one kid and so wrong with the other? Such split-sibling scenarios have played out even in households where one parent is a rabbi. How much more Jewish could a household be than having a parent who’s a rabbi? Oh wait, I know! How about a parent who’s the Prime Minister of Israel!
Folks with in-married kids: Don’t be smug; it wasn’t you who caused that. And folks with intermarried kids: Don’t feel ashamed; it wasn’t you either. There are dozens of major societal forces at work, almost none of which are controlled by anyone in the organized Jewish community (which is why our sociologists and demographers don’t bother studying them). What we must focus on today is not prevention or retention but inclusion and expansion.
Maybe besides taking the opportunity on Valentine’s Day to thank those we already love, we can also ask ourselves who else in our midst might appreciate more love from the community.
Paul Golin is co-author of "How to Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself" and the Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Follow him on Twitter @paulgolin