The Times, They Have A’Changed: Welcoming Interfaith Families into Jewish Life

by Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein

I grew up in the 1960s. In those days, Jewish parents very strongly urged their kids to date only Jews. When any of my friends chose otherwise, there was tension at home (this is an understatement!) As far as marriage went, there was no question. Jews married Jews. Period.

Bob Dylan (formerly Robert Zimmerman) was the icon of our era. His song said it all: “The times…they are a-changin’”

And so the old norms altered – and I mean for real. Jews began to date people from other backgrounds to a greater degree than had ever been experienced in the American Jewish community. Many of those dating relationships flowered into love and, eventually, into marriage.

For a long time, a not-so-subtle message was delivered to these interfaith families: “You have violated our community standard. Do not darken the doors of our synagogue. You are not welcome here.”

I remember well when Rabbi Alex Schindler, of blessed memory, who was the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, threw down the gauntlet on this issue. He challenged the American Jewish community, reminding us that these interfaith couples and families are our children and our grandchildren.

We had a choice: Keep the doors closed with our own families locked out or open the doors wide and welcome them in. Using today’s language, the right answer was obvious: Duh! And thus, the concept of congregational outreach was born.

Who exactly benefits by making people feel unwelcome? No one! The reality was – and now certainly is – that people marry those they love. They create families. The question simply is this: “Do we want them as part of our community or not?”

Though the answer now is so clear, a generation ago it took some work to convince our people that opening the door wide was the right way to go. As time went on, more and more individuals realized the wisdom of this approach. Welcoming everyone into our community was a win-win situation. The individuals and families found spiritual fulfillment living Jewish lives, and congregations realized that these “newcomers” strengthened them. A trickle became a flood – and we are thankful to God for this.

As one who has been intimately involved in the work of outreach for decades, I sometimes forget that, even today, not everyone is aware of the sea of change that has occurred. There are still folks who think that interfaith couples and families need to go elsewhere. It is, therefore, imperative that each of us loudly and proudly proclaims: “The Jewish community welcomes you and the synagogue embraces you.”

Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein is the co-chair of the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis’ joint Commission on Outreach, Membership and Caring Community.