Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.
How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way? While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.
As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.
Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.
These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.
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Only this Jewish woman – this devoted, active, works-in-the Jewish community Jewish woman! – would meet and marry a man named Christian from “Body of Christ” (Corpus Christi!), TX!
In all seriousness, one of the realities of growing up and living in the South is that there are fewer Jews here. If there are fewer Jews, it’s not surprising that within the Jewish community here, there are many interfaith families and Jewish families that include non-Jews. But, what is the difference between interfaith families, and Jewish families that include non-Jews?
Though each family has its own identity, I do see a distinction. An interfaith marriage (or family) consists of two adults who each have their own faith, and maintain these separate faiths, bringing both faiths into the family. A Jewish marriage that includes a non-Jew can be shared between a Jew and a non-Jew, if the non-Jewish partner has no particular faith preference or faith expression, and their shared home is simply Jewish.
I think whatever you decide about who you will marry, how you will structure your lives, how you will celebrate holidays, involve yourselves in the Jewish community, and raise children – these are some of the most important decisions you will make. And they’re all decisions that should be made BEFORE you walk down the aisle! Frankly, a Jew marrying another Jew coming from a different religious observance background has to make some of the same decisions as a Jew marrying a non-Jew. Will you keep a kosher home? Will your son have a bris, or not? Will your kids go to Jewish Day School, or not? Will your family attend services on a regular basis, or not? Will Friday night dinner be a family Shabbat event, or not?
For all couples, the list is long, and the most important thing is to know where you both stand before you say yes! When it comes to the unique conversations around religious observance, interfaith, shared, or one-Jewish-partner-one-not, the resources at Jewish Outreach Institute are truly wonderful and inclusive of all. I would recommend that anyone look to JOI, or Interfaithfamily.com, for guidance and support.
My fiancé and I are to be married on the Saturday night before Passover, and we could not be more excited! Along the planning process we have spoken to the Rabbi and the Cantor, reserved a Chuppah, ordered Kippot with our names on them, and have assembled all the rest of the ingredients that make up a Jewish wedding – including, of course, our Ketubah.
When it came to the Ketubah, we did face a dilemma: Chris doesn’t have a Hebrew name. Actually, to be honest, I was not given an official one at birth myself; however, I adopted the name Hannah because it is the closest to Ann in Hebrew. Just for the heck of it I looked up the Hebrew equivalent of his name and, drum roll please… it’s Mashiach! Yeah, that was NOT happening. After we picked ourselves off the floor from laughing, we chose to phonetically spell out his name in Hebrew, Kuf, Reish, Yud, Samech (KRIS), and fill in the blank that way.
What are your thoughts on Jewish weddings, and what makes a Jewish marriage?
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?