As the partner who is not Jewish, raising a Jewish family in the Chicago area, I have often felt like a guest within the Jewish community. But the fact is, I have chosen to be a part of this group for better or for worse.
Less than 24 hours before my children were to attend Hebrew school, our synagogue was vandalized. The perpetrator was caught in the act of breaking windows at the synagogue. He wrote hateful messages on the door of the building. I know that this man is very unstable. I know that while he told his mother he wanted to kill Jews, he was not sane enough to carry out his plan. That said, had he chosen to do this just 24 hours later my children would have been in the building and I would have been at Starbucks getting coffee. One of the windows he broke is in my baby girl’s classroom.
I recently walked into my children’s public school and found a religiously insensitive display. I worked with the administration to have the offensive parts removed, but the response from the other parents was not one of support. I was called names that ranged from filthy Jew to unpatriotic (it was a Veteran’s Day display) to hater. I was called out for removing the bibles from the display (the reason they were there was to represent the faith that sustains veterans). When I pointed out that a Christian bible did not sustain my Jewish veteran father-in-law, I was told I was wrong.
The Jewish community works with the public schools to ensure that they are aware of the Jewish holidays so that they can make appropriate scheduling decisions. We try to educate teachers and administrators about religious tolerance. We work with interfaith groups to ensure that all people regardless of race, religion or social status are all treated with respect. The synagogue leadership works hard to ensure the safety of our congregants during services and during religious school. Yet, I can never escape the fact that the hatred toward Jews that some people hold is powerful and scary.
So where do you go to fit in? Synagogue, right? That is where you find your people. But when you are in an interfaith family and especially if you are the spouse that is not Jewish, there can also be hatred inside the Jewish community.
I feel like an island. In the eyes of the anti-Semites of the world, I cast my lot with the Jewish people 18 years ago when I married a Jew and started a Jewish family. In the eyes of the Jewish community there is a lot of hand wringing about the status of interfaith couples. What to do about the problem of intermarried couples? The subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle current of isolation that I have felt as an intermarried couple is significant. I always know I am not quite as equal as the in-married couples. I am struck by double standard of inclusion as I watch my Jewish community fight against intolerance in the outside world. Do as we say, not as we do.
It is a struggle to find Jewish clergy that will marry interfaith couples. We battle for inclusion when it comes time for naming our children. It is a challenge to participate in the religious life of many synagogues if you aren’t Jewish. When interfaith families attempt to access Judaism, we are often turned away.
Interfaith families that are raising Jewish children make a choice every single day that Judaism is important to us and our families. Our family chooses Judaism. We go out of our way to make sure that our children identify as Jewish. Hebrew school, holidays, everything is just that much more important to us because we recognize that it isn’t just going to happen; we have to make it happen. We do all of this with the headwind of minimal to no support.
As a spouse that isn’t Jewish, you learn often it is best to keep your mouth shut and not share your status. You never know who might not be happy about your situation. A very good friend of mine reminded me that I am a guest in their house, and that I should try to not cause problems. I am left to wonder, do we want interfaith families to feel like guests or like full participants in Jewish life? Does the Jewish community want to hide their religion, to pass as simply American? Does it feel good to hide part of yourself to avoid conflict? Why is it important for Jews to be accepted in the broader context of the world, when they aren’t willing to accept everyone who lands on their doorstep?
It is my belief that religion is about behaving well and treating other people with kindness, compassion and love. It is very hard for me to reconcile the conflict within the Jewish community about who is and is not considered Jewish. While I understand the halachah (Jewish law) on the topic, I often wonder, is that more important than kindness, compassion and love?
When a family decides that they want to create a Jewish home, as a member of the Jewish community I challenge you to say “YES!” to that family. This means to stop worrying about who is and is not Jewish and let everyone participate in the way they feel is appropriate and meaningful. Encourage people to lead fulfilling Jewish lives. What are you going to do today to support and encourage the interfaith families within your local community?