Glancing around the lobby recently, just as Religious School was dismissed, I took note of who was gathered to pick up their children. Some mothers, some fathers, some grandparents – this was not surprising. What was surprising was that many of the parents present were the non-Jewish parent of an interfaith household. These non-Jewish parents were responsible for bringing their Jewish children to and from Religious School on a weekly basis. And, thus, these non-Jewish parents were ensuring the formation of their children’s Jewish identity. They are raising Jewish children, and building a Jewish home.
My congregation, in truth, is not that different from most Reform congregations today – approximately 30 percent of our member households identify as interfaith (where either the mother or the father is not Jewish), yet they have chosen to raise their children in a Jewish community. Anecdotally, I have noticed that it is often the non-Jewish parent who insists on raising the children actively Jewish – he or she organizes family holiday observances at home, makes sure to bring the kids to services, and makes religious education a priority. I have heard many mothers proudly describe their very first batch of latkes, and I have heard many fathers beam as they discuss their involvement in building the temple’s sukkah. They are active, involved, and committed members of our community. Yet, because they are not Jewish, we often forget to note their significant contribution.
Since 2005, when URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie encouraged Reform congregations to focus even more on acknowledging the contributions of interfaith families in our congregations, new traditions and rituals have sprung up. As Rabbi Yoffie said in his Biennial address that year, “These spouses are heroes–yes, heroes–of Jewish life. While maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, and sometimes continuing to practice their religion, they take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse. And very often they do all of this without recognition from either their Jewish family or their synagogue.”
The Torah repeatedly reminded us to honor and respect the Ger Toshav, the gentile who dwelled among the Israelites. These were people who chose to settle within our communities and to travel with us on our journeys. They were afforded special rights and recognitions in our communities, even in Biblical times. If this was encouraged in the Torah, how much more must we continue to offer special recognition to the same people today? There are so many who marry into Jewish families and commit themselves to creating a thriving, nourishing Jewish household. A number of these folks who feel fully embraced and at home within Judaism may even take the next step and convert.
A professor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion recently noted that, in her estimation, approximately half of all current rabbinical students are products of interfaith families. This means that, not only are the non-Jewish parents contributing to a Jewish household, but they are raising future rabbis! This statistic stunned me, and I think that it will be fascinating to see the ways in which this trend impacts the future face of Reform Judaism.
Most recently, some congregations have begun to include an annual “Blessing of the Non-Jewish Parent” in their worship services. In this way, we take the efforts of these admirable folks and raise them up to something sacred. Rabbi Janet Marder wrote such a blessing, an excerpt of which I share here:
“You are the moms and dads who drive the Hebrew school carpool and bring the refreshments to Shabbaton. You help explain to your kids why it’s important to get up on Sunday morning and to learn to be a Jew. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home. You learn to make kugel and latkes; you try to like gefilte fish; you learn to put on a Seder; you learn to put up a Sukkah. You join your spouse at the Shabbat table – maybe you even set that Shabbat table and make it beautiful.
“You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language. You stand on the bima and pass the Torah to your children on the day of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and tell them how proud you are and how much you love them, and how glad you are to see them grow into young Jewish men and women.
“I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
May all who wish to find a home in our communities feel warmly welcomed. May they find a greater sense of peace, friendship, family, and wholeness. And may we acknowledge and appreciate all those who add their voices and efforts in creating the future of Jewish life and peoplehood. We are blessed by their presence.