I have learned a great deal more about the Jewish community as a rabbi in the field than I ever learned in rabbinical school or from books and academic papers. Authors of population surveys and sociological studies try to convince us that interfaith marriage is the number one threat to the Jewish community. I have read and heard Jewish leaders claim that Jews who marry non-Jews are completing the extermination of the Jewish people begun by Hitler.
This kind of rhetoric is very painful to many families in our community, and personally to me. Many people are surprised to learn that I, a rabbi, come from an interfaith family. To me, it is not at all odd. Before my father became a Jew, he wholeheartedly supported my mother's desire to raise their children as Jews. He came to synagogue with us during the Holy Days; he celebrated Chanukah and even learned how to lead our Passover Seder.
My non-Jewish grandparents celebrated every Jewish festival and lifecycle event with us, in addition to making Christmas and Easter dinners on their farm.
In fact, I distinctly remember my non-Jewish grandparent's tears at my Bat Mitzvah. My grandfather was proud of me for certain. But in recent years, he confided in me that his tears were also tears of shame over the fact that his father, my great-grandfather, was a member of the KKK in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Sure, he kept that secret from all of our family over the years because he was ashamed, but he also hid it because he supported and honestly loved the Jewish culture my mother brought into his life.
My story is not really unique. The Jewish community is made up of many families with non-Jewish partners and relatives who support and nurture Judaism in their homes for the sake of their children.The festival of Shavuot is just within reach. During it we read the book of Ruth celebrating this woman who entered into the Jewish life of her mother-in-law. Many of us are familiar with the well-known verse, "Where you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people" (Ruth 1:16). This Shavuot, I want to offer praise and point out to those of us who take it for granted the amazing and selfless contributions of these non-Jewish parents, relatives and friends in the Jewish community.
I don't have any statistics. I don't keep a rough count. In many cases I don't even realize it until the month preceding the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But I do want to commend the very significant number of non-Jewish parents who are the driving forces in their children's Jewish education and involvement. It is such a gift for non-Jewish parents to raise Jewish children for their spouses and in-laws, as well as for the Jewish community.
There's one mom I can think of who used to drive her son to religious school, tutoring, and rehearsals. She did all the research of Hebrew names of family members for the honor of aliyah, reciting the Torah blessings. She helped pick out the tallit. She came to me. Her son needed encouragement to stick with his commitment and his faith.
And there's a dad I am thinking about who happens to be an actively observant Catholics as well as a regular Friday night service goer, Torah study participant, and member of our adult B'nai Mitzvah class. Now he will not become a bar mitzvah, so to speak. He is not Jewish. So why all the classes? Why struggle with the Hebrew? He is serving as a role model for his Jewish son, demonstrating to his son the important of continued Jewish learning, and validating the authenticity of his son's Jewish faith.
There are a hundred other similar stories I could share about the precious gifts of spirit non-Jewish family members add to our effort to create a community of Jewish learning and living. Each and every one of them is an individual like Ruth who takes the risk of living as a stranger among us. It is true that we consider the story of Ruth to be an early example of a conversion to Judaism. But I don't know if it is true that she converted in the manner we talk of conversion today. We don't see her studying and sitting before a bet din in the biblical account. We see her joining her mother in law, celebrating her holidays, relating to her God, and casting her lot with the Jewish people. How is this different from the non-Jewish parents who do the same today? And how horrible must they feel when we use their marriages as the scapegoat of our diminishing numbers when the truth is that Jewish apathy is the root of our self-destruction?
I applaud and personally thank all of the non-Jewish moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles who strengthen us with their enthusiasm and support. I know that sometimes it must feel like they are the strangers in our midst. I just hope they remember that, to us, they are family. Amen.