by Rabbi Elias Lieberman
Like many congregations within the Reform Movement, our community of 310 households has many interfaith families. Some 65% of the children in our education program have a parent who is not a Jew. In every case, however, these interfaith couples have made a decision to raise their children as Jews and have turned to our synagogue to help them in that process. In the 22 years that I’ve been privileged to serve as rabbi of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation, I have witnessed firsthand a generation raised by interfaith parents come of age with strong Jewish identities.
While each family is unique, the common thread that binds them is an appreciation, on the part of the non-Jewish parent, for the beauty and power of Jewish tradition. Through the years some of these parents have made their own commitments and have become Jews; others remain within the orbit of this Jewish community and have come to regard themselves as gerei toshav, the beautiful phrase from the Torah which connotes someone who has linked his/her destiny to that of the Jewish people.
When it comes time in the life of these families to celebrate their child’s becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, both parents are invited to hold and pass the sefer Torah to their child, symbolizing the commitments they have both made to raise a Jewish child.
In the course of our Shabbat and holy day services there are a number of opportunities for participation. We do, however, reserve for recitation by Jews only prayer language that is Jewishly self-referential – prayers that refer to our tradition’s assertion that we have been “chosen” and “commanded” with respect to the fulfillment of mitzvot. It is for this reason that we only allow Jews to recite the b’rachot before and after the reading of Torah. We do invite the non-Jewish parent to stand alongside his/her partner at that moment.
Because this is such an emotional high point in a service, especially when we are celebrating the coming of age of a young Jew, I have long been troubled by the passive role that the non-Jewish partner must accept while Torah is read. It is for this reason that I created, this past summer, a statement that we now offer to the non-Jewish partner of a Jew who has been given a Torah aliyah. It reads as follows:
For those of us linked to Jews whom we love, and through them, to a tradition we value, it is a privilege to stand here today.
Here, beside the person who links me to this sacred community, I affirm my role in this congregation and my appreciation for the opportunity to partake of its sacred rhythms.
The congregation first heard this affirmation at Rosh HaShanah, and it was a profoundly moving moment not only for the person who spoke those words but for our entire community.
Not every non-Jew in our congregation will opt to speak these words. But the incorporation of this statement into our worship reflects a deep commitment to welcoming, and integrating into the life of our community, Jews and their partners who come from different faith traditions.
Rabbi Elias Lieberman serves Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, MA.