My younger daughter, Deborah, married her non-Jewish husband, Aaron, on a Sunday afternoon between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Their chuppah combined family treasures: white cloth that had been Aaron’s grandfather’s pastoral robe and colorful scarves that had once belonged to my late grandmother. Family members held it over the couple while Jewish and non-Jewish family and friends witnessed the modified Jewish wedding. Later, as the sun went down, Deborah chanted the holiday blessings that welcomed Sukkot.
Some may read this as a story of Jewish assimilation, but it is not. Rather than being an example of how Jews are losing their identity, it shows how non-Jews can enter Jewish life and, in the process, enrich Jewish families and communities.
Incorporating non-Jews into Jewish life is nothing new for me. In 1980, I married Dave. He is neither Jewish nor religious, but his constant support helped nurture our Jewish family and contributed to our Jewish community.
He is not the only one. In my doctoral research on b’nai mitzvah in the Bay Area, I found that intermarried families accounted for between 40 and 70 percent of member families in Reform synagogues in the Bay Area, while in Conservative synagogues, they comprise around 15 percent. Non-Jewish mothers and fathers participate in community life and help make Jewish life happen at home. In many communities, that participation is taken for granted.
But not always. For some, intermarriage remains the primary threat to the Jewish people. After all, statistics do show that intermarried families are less engaged in Jewish life than are in-married families. Yet statistics only capture moments in time and can miss new models of behavior or misinterpret the meaning of individual’s actions.
The mantra that intermarriage is the instrument of Jewish dilution and assimilation assumes that assimilation goes only one way and that Jews who hang out with non-Jews become less Jewish. That is not always the case. Non-Jews often become more Jewish as a result of hanging out with Jews or even encourage Jews to become more Jewish. Jewish families and communities that actively incorporate non-Jews into their midst present a model for intentional Jewish living that can strengthen Judaism for the present and future generations.
This does not mean that boundaries between Jews and non-Jews vanish. Mitzvot that are particular to Jews do not suddenly become open to non-Jews, nor do (most) non-Jews expect them to vanish. Rather, non-Jews play the role of knowledgeable supporters, as in the case of one father I interviewed who regularly attended Shabbat morning services before his daughter’s bat mitzvah to ensure that he would know what to do and not disgrace her. Though he did not expect to participate as a Jew, he surely was the proud father of a bat mitzvah.
Deborah and Aaron’s relationship is an example of how non-Jews integrate into Jewish life. Rather than telling my daughters to marry Jews, a statement that would have been profoundly disrespectful to their father, I told them to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish children. That was the path Deborah followed, as did her sister before her.
When Aaron met Deborah, he equated religion with conservative Christianity; his previous exposure to Judaism had been Borscht Belt comedy. As the relationship developed, Aaron attended seders and Purim spiels, Shabbat dinners and b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. He learned to appreciate serious liberal Judaism, from matzah balls to different styles of conducting a seder. He loved the fact that Judaism encourages questioning. And his questions — sometimes naive, sometimes profound — showed us where Judaism was opaque or arcane, where “common” knowledge led to misunderstandings and where we had missed the mark. His knowledge of Judaism deepened, and so did ours.
Non-Jews also do the work of making Judaism happen. Recently, as a non-Jewish mother and I cleaned out the synagogue’s refrigerator, our conversation turned to her family. She explained that she encouraged Jewish practice in a family that had been largely secular, reclaiming Judaism for her children. She is not alone: Non-Jewish parents shlep their Jewish children to religious school, make sure the Hebrew homework is done, and set-up and cleanup after programs.
I have seen this happen in my own family. When our daughter Miranda threw a preteen fit over Hebrew homework, having her non-Jewish father tell her to shape up meant a great deal more than having her Jewish mother do so. Miranda’s husband Daniel finds meaning in Jewish rituals marking time and space, and so he now reminds her to bring out the Havdalah set to mark Shabbat’s end.
These examples do not contradict the dire statistics. Rather they demonstrate the power of what happens when a family commits to making a Jewish home — whether one or both partners are Jewish. They point to the power of communities into which non-Jews are welcomed and their gifts of the heart accepted. These examples may not (yet) be the norm, but they are a path to a thriving Jewish future.