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Jews and Fellow Travelers: Appreciating the Gifts of Non-Jewish Partners

(Originally published in the Spring 2005 edition of Reconstructionism Today)

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m participating in my congregation’s “Torah of Money” class. A cross-section of our members are gathered for the last of a series of classes based on a JRF curriculum designed to help congregations use a values-based decision-making process to address issues of dues, fundraising, and finances in general. The man to my left, Larry, a practicing Lutheran who is married to a member of our board’s executive committee, tells the group about how his church deals with membership and dues. It’s information that strengthens the conversation. At several points in our class, he has aided the process by offering insights from his faith tradition.

At a critical juncture, our synagogue’s new building steering committee finds itself in need of some new leadership. When John is asked to join and assume the chair, people get very excited. His organizational skills and fresh energy are exactly what the committee needs. A non-Jew who beamed at his daughter’s bat mitzvah last year, John accepts the invitation.

A board meeting has gone quite late on a Thursday night. I listen intently to Alex, one of our youngest board members, as he quietly makes an observation. I’m struck by our good fortune at having his presence, since Alex left organized Jewish life as a young adult and had not intended to explore it anew—that is, until his non-Jewish wife, Cheryl, took an interest in Judaism and led Alex back into synagogue life and, ultimately, into a formal leadership role.

These are three examples of the gifts that non-Jewish partners sometimes bring to Jewish life—examples that I have personally witnessed since I became the second rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon just two years ago. Having myself married a non-Jew who brought similar gifts to the Jewish community (she is now a Jew-by-choice), I worry that our current communal messages about intermarriage (by which I mean both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships) may be damaging our chances to respond to intermarriage in healthy and productive ways.

Therefore, when I was asked to participate in a workshop at the 2004 JRF convention in Portland that would examine intermarriage from a perspective of appreciation, I readily said yes. The other three panelists were Jewish or non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages who are deeply involved in synagogue life. Our goal was to challenge the framework of costs that the Jewish community typically applies to discussions of intermarriage: “How many Jews down the line will it cost us?”

Because of this framework of costs, the Jewish discussion of intermarriage is confined to a “debate” between those who argue for less tolerance of intermarriage and more inreach to “truly committed” (that is, non-intermarried) Jews and those who argue for more outreach to the intermarried to maximize their involvement in synagogue life. Both sides approach intermarriage as an unfortunate reality to be mitigated by increased shunning or strategic welcoming. The idea that intermarriage may produce some benefits for the Jewish community is rarely, if ever, included in the discussion.

In planning our panel, we made an effort to find a new name for non-Jews who are part of our Jewish community—a name that would express the complexity of their place as insider-outsiders. The term we came up with was “Fellow Travelers.” (Because this term was used during the McCarthy era to describe Communist sympathizers, we briefly considered searching further, but given the half century that has passed since that usage, we felt that the name was worth redeeming.) Fellow Travelers are non-Jews who, because of ties of love and friendship, are part of our Jewish community but are not necessarily end route to becoming Jews-by-choice. They accompany the Jewish community on its journey.

Intermarriage is similar to other complex phenomena influencing Jewish life since the Emancipation of the 19th century, when Jews became free citizens of open, modern societies. These phenomena include the birth of liberal movements, the introduction of feminism and gender equality, and the development of modern Biblical scholarship, which challenged the traditional belief that the Torah was literally revealed by God. As Reconstructionists, we tend to view these phenomena as factors in the ongoing evolution of Jewish civilization, and we usually seek healthy adaptations to their influence. We may strategize to minimize the costs of that influence, but we also identify the benefits and look for ways to turn them into sources of growth and new direction in Jewish life.

Our panel sought to encourage the Reconstructionist community to approach intermarriage in a similar way. We highlighted the benefits that intermarriage creates for our people, and argued for considering them alongside the costs. These benefits include:

  • Fellow Travelers bring valuable “outside” perspectives and resources to bear on questions facing synagogues and Jewish organizations.
  • Fellow Travelers give our synagogues money and time. (I’ve never seen any Jewish demographic attempt to measure these concrete contributions, nor have I heard of organized synagogue efforts to thank these people.)
  • Fellow Travelers, thanks to their lack of “baggage” vis-à-vis Jewish identification, sometimes persuade reluctant Jews to affiliate with a synagogue or provide their children with a Jewish education. I have heard many anecdotes about a non-Jewish parent being more enthusiastic than a Jewish parent in supporting a child towards b’nai mitzvah.
  • Children growing up in intermarried households often learn that cultural sensitivity and tolerance of difference are wholesome family values.
  • Fellow Travelers are sometimes able to see and appreciate things about Jewish life that born Jews take for granted or don’t notice.
  • When Fellow Travelers make visible contributions of time, money, or love to Jewish communities, they provide an experience of validation and love to those Jews who, still living in the shadow of the Shoah, may find it hard to trust the non-Jewish world.
  • Sometimes Fellow Travelers are valuable bridges between Jewish and other religious or cultural communities in North America.
  • Fellow Travelers are increasing the percentage of Americans who have a Jewish relative, and are thus partly responsible for an increase in Jewish literacy among Americans in general, and an increase in the acceptance of Jews in America. Jews are safer and have more allies as a result. Recently, Dr. Gary A. Tobin and Dr. Sid Groeneman of the Institute for Jewish Community Research released a demographic study of the American Jewish population that measured a category of people they called “connected non-Jews.” In their foreword to the study, the authors wrote that new attitudes and strategies regarding the potential “connected non-Jews” represent for Jewish growth need to be considered. (To read the entire study, visit jewishresearch.org/PDFs/PopulationReport.pdf)
  • Last and possibly most important, Fellow Travelers are non-Jewish people who are giving deep love and commitment to a Jewish person. Few things in life are as precious or affirming. This may be the most profound, and yet the most unacknowledged, gift of all.

Obviously, the cost that most worries Jews is that intermarriage is a significant factor in Jewish population stagnation and decline. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) sparked a flurry of anxiety over this when it famously reported a 52 percent Jewish intermarriage rate (a number later revised downward). Ten years later, the 2000 NJPS added fuel to worries when it reported that only a third of children in intermarried households are being raised as Jews. However, a recent study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR) expressed concerns about the way that Jews were counted in the NJPS and estimated a significantly larger American Jewish population.

Because of disagreements among population experts, the Jewish community is unable to be certain about the actual Jewish population costs of intermarriage. If, in fact, the Jewish population is growing, perhaps there is no net cost at all. Or perhaps intermarriage’s cost to Jewish population statistics will only be felt if the Jewish community fails to learn how to be more inclusive. Or perhaps intermarriage will always create costs to Jewish population size, no matter how the Jewish community responds. It’s hard to say.

Certainly some percentage of the children of intermarriages will be raised in other faith traditions — but those numbers may be strongly influenced by the Jewish community’s policies and attitudes. Are negative attitudes from family members, rabbis, and other Jewish sources generating a feeling of being shunned, despite the recent efforts of many congregations to be more welcoming? Are young adults finding the priorities of the mainstream Jewish community irrelevant prior to marriage? Are traditional barriers to conversion, including the reluctance to promote Judaism more widely in the “open marketplace” of religion, working against Jewish population growth? These are the kinds of valuable questions that arise when we examine intermarriage as complex phenomenon rather than simply using the framework of costs.

At times I wonder if Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage are based solely on anxiety about Jewish population size, or is xenophobia also playing a role? If a population survey twenty years from now were to report that intermarriage is actually helping to expand the Jewish population, would the widespread negative attitudes towards it disappear? Unfortunately, the Jewish community has permitted its anxiety about population issues to overwhelm discussion of such matters. Worse, there seems to be no room for acknowledging the benefits of intermarriage. This absence subjects supportive and contributing Fellow Travelers to painful feelings of invisibility or shunning. As one of our JRF lay leaders, Esther Miller, put it, “There’s a wealth of involvement by non-Jewish partners that we don’t really honor, and that some people are very uncomfortable even acknowledging.”

As a result, Jewish communities rarely think creatively about how best to put to use the gifts of Fellow Travelers. Perhaps we could consciously identify the skills sets, cultural strengths, and useful outside perspectives that these members of our communities bring, and identify how best to invite their contributions to the most advantage for Jewish communal life— but this idea, as far as I know, has been utterly unexamined.

In fact, Fellow Travelers are regularly excluded from task forces and committees that study questions related to intermarriage. This leads to the continued invisibility of their contributions; to lost opportunities for Jews on the “conservative” side of the intermarriage debate to hear about how their attitudes affect actual, rather than theoretical, people; to lost opportunities for Fellow Travelers to hear about the personal Jewish fears and concerns of members of their synagogues; and to lost opportunities for bridge-building and collaborative problem-solving. I find it particularly stunning that the Jewish community doesn’t seem to have considered that Fellow Travelers who live in our families and communities might actually want to help us address issues of Jewish continuity and might bring new ideas or insights to that discussion.

The Torah practically knocks us over the head in its treatment of intermarriage as a complex phenomenon that includes benefits. The prime example is Moses himself. He marries Tzipporah, daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest, and both play integral roles in making Moses’ Jewish journey possible. Jethro pays homage to Moses’ religion, but the text does not state that he abandoned his own religion. Nor does the Torah say that Moses’ wife converted to Judaism. Tzipporah and Jethro are our great mythic Fellow Travelers.

Tzipporah helps Moses fulfill his destiny in a mysterious passage dealing with a circumcision (Exodus 4: 24-26). She also, presumably, makes a gift of her love, devotion, encouragement, and support to the greatest prophet of our entire tradition. Jethro, seeing Moses struggling to resolve all the disputes among the Israelites, tells him how to set up a system of courts (Exodus 18: 13-24). The first Jewish judiciary system comes from a non-Jew who joined a Jewish family through his daughter’s intermarriage.

I’m not suggesting that the Bible speaks in only positive terms about intermarriages. The multi-vocal Torah and the rabbinic tradition include negative texts about intermarriage. In many cases, the rabbis “eliminated” apparent intermarriages in the Torah. The rabbinic imagination used midrash to give Moses a Jewish wife, in some cases a Jewish father-in-law, and even a Jewish adopted mother (the Pharaoh’s daughter)—all through conversion. In the purely Biblical account, however, our greatest leader was raised by a non-Jewish mother, intermarried, and then sought counsel from his non-Jewish father-in-law. Although “Moses the Intermarrier” is an image we never hear brought up in contemporary discussions of how to approach intermarriage, perhaps its time has come.

The best spirit of Reconstructionism asks us to explore values from Jewish tradition and from contemporary American civilization in an effort to reconstruct Judaism successfully for our times. There is a great faith at the heart of Reconstructionism—a faith both in God and in the creative potential of Judaism to yield up fruitful reconstructions in response even to the most radical changes in circumstances. Bringing that faith to the topic of intermarriage is precisely the kind of undertaking for which Reconstructionism is designed. How, then, can Reconstructionists begin to shift the discussion about intermarriage to reflect its complexity and not simply its costs?

First, when inaugurating a discussion of intermarriage, communities can chart as many perceived benefits and costs as possible, so that the topic of intermarriage is understood, from the outset, to be complex.

Another step is to ask the question, “When is Judaism happening within the community?” rather than only asking, “Who is Jewish?”—an exercise that I call “looking at Jewish content over status.” This question can help a community focus on maximizing the quality and quantity of its Jewish activity rather than focusing mainly on who is engaged in that activity.

Third, synagogues would do well to include some Fellow Travelers on committees or task forces that discuss intermarriage and status issues—whether or not the community judges it appropriate for Fellow Travelers to be allowed to vote on recommendations or policies. The insights that Fellow Travelers offer are bound to be extremely valuable, and the exchange between Fellow Travelers and Jews working in the service of the health of their community is likely to be rewarding for all. Fellow Travelers are also likely to feel genuinely appreciated simply by virtue of being asked to be present for the discussion.

A fourth recommendation is for synagogues to find ways publicly to honor Fellow Travelers as Fellow Travelers, and express appreciation for the gifts they bring.

Fifth, congregations might consider innovations that acknowledge the gray territory between the black and white categories of Jew and non-Jew. At the synagogue I now serve, one pioneering rabbi, the late Myron Kinberg, introduced the category of the ger toshav to describe a non-Jewish member of a Jewish community who makes commitments to Jewish life that fall short of conversion. The fact of large-scale intermarriage summons our Reconstructionist communities to seek out similar creative adaptations.

The creativity that flows from full-bodied exploration of the challenges of intermarriage can be remarkable. An example of that creativity occurred when our JRF panelists came up with the new name, “Fellow Travelers,” for non-Jews who are part of our communities. One of the things I love about this term is that it conveys complexity and a good measure of mystery— aspects of intermarriage that are real and yet ignored by the framework of costs.

“Fellow Travelers” is a term that acknowledges being part of the group while also being other than the group. It expresses the ties of love and friendship that have led non-Jewish people to join in on the Jewish journey in some way. It evokes the connection these people have made to the mythic Jewish journey through the wilderness towards an ideal society, and it suggests that there are some important supporting roles for these people to play in that mythic drama. “Fellow Travelers” is an example of new language that doesn’t define non-Jewish members of Jewish communities negatively, nor does it brand them as utter outsiders. At the same time, it preserves a sense of Jewish identity distinction. If the term errs on the side of appreciation, it is challenging the fear and negation that other terms offer us. “Fellow Travelers” conveys an attitude of excitement about the road ahead that we Jews will walk with the accompaniment—and at times the substantial support—of those who have taken their own personal risks to join our journey.

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