The December Dinner Party Conversation

by Rabbi Frederick Reeves

There is a conversation I have frequently at this time of the year. It can happen anytime I find myself at a party that has people who are not members of my synagogue and I find that, through friends and my wife’s work colleagues, December brings on a fair number of just such parties. Invariably, small talk is made, and then comes the question: “So, what do you do?” After I reply that I am a rabbi, I get all kinds of remarks. Jews tell me about how spiritual they are even though they never go to a synagogue. Passionate Christians tell me about how involved they are in their church. Secular people tell me that I do not “look like a rabbi.” Interfaith couples tell me about the terrible experiences that turned them off of synagogue life.

By and large, these interfaith couples begin talking about their experiences in the same spirit that the others are talking about their topics. We are making small talk, after all; nothing of consequence is supposed to be talked about while hors d’oeuvres are being passed. But when I hear the stories about how unwelcoming synagogues have been and see clearly the pain that was caused, the fixer in me wants to undo the damage. I want to ask questions about what happened, I want to understand their pain, and I want to assure the couple that such a thing would never happen in my synagogue. I generally either end up talking to such a couple for the whole evening, or we all realize that the couple is not at an emotional place where they wish to talk about this right now, and we avoid each other through the rest of the evening. It depends on which way the couple wants to go.

When it comes to welcoming interfaith families, following someone’s lead is an important skill that we have put into practice here at The Temple in Atlanta, GA. There is not a one-method-fits-all when it comes to welcoming. There are some families that need their difference acknowledged, and there are other families that are very happy fitting right in. However, I have yet to meet a family that did not like to be thanked, and we owe a great debt of thanks to the partner who is something other than Jewish in the family. Because that person decided to support a spouse experiencing Jewish life, their family is enlivened with Judaism. Because that person decided to participate in synagogue life, our community is enriched. Because that person decided to raise a child differently than s/he was raised, the future of the Jewish people is greater. Just as we were taught to thank people for our Hanukkah gifts, so too should we thank these people for the gifts they have given our community.

There are powerful ways to show this gratitude. Rabbi Janet Marder is famous for having done so in a High Holy Day sermon, and many of us have followed her lead. In so doing, we have been able to thank people and raise the consciousness of this gratitude amongst the rest of the congregation as well. For myself, I have found that the most emotionally resonant thanks come in one-on-one conversations – in the quiet moment with the family before going onto the bimah at a bat mitzvah, in a counseling session with a couple struggling with creating balance in their family holiday celebrations, or even in between bite-fulls of bagel after a brit milah. At these moments, we eschew small talk and cement loving bonds which unite the community together. When these couples go to holiday parties, instead of talking about their pain, they will talk about how welcome they feel. Or the weather.

Rabbi Frederick Reeves serves The Temple in Atlanta, GA.