By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Adam Bronfman
By gathering each year to listen to the story of Passover we re-experience our enslavement and eventual emancipation. Reminded where we come from, our motivation is renewed to fight for liberation and redemption for all. It’s one of the reasons why “social justice” is such a high priority for so many Jews. As we work to combat grave global social justice issues, we must also address the issues of social equity and full inclusion still unresolved within our own Jewish community.
Vast numbers of individuals in intermarried households self-identify as part of the Jewish community, yet they are still without a voice or official acceptance as members. At Passover, as we commemorate our own freedom from disenfranchisement, how are we also ensuring that all who wish to be a part of the Jewish community are included, as congregants, members, and even leaders?
The Torah tells us that we left Egypt as a “mixed multitude,” and that all who were at Sinai experienced God’s presence. We learn that Moses received wise counsel from his father-in-law Jethro, who was a Midianite priest. And that it was not Moses but his non-Jewish wife Zipporah who took into her own hands, quite literally, the task of circumcising their sons.
Today, we know of many intermarried households where the partner who is not Jewish is an equal contributor in raising Jewish children. In many cases it is that partner who has the greatest influence over their children’s Jewish identities. Yet it is not difficult to imagine that if Moses and Zipporah were alive today, some synagogue administrator would be sitting them down to explain why their household of four can have an individual membership because only Moses can join, and that only Moses’ name will appear on temple mailings to their home.
One of the ways full inclusion in the Jewish community is determined is through synagogue membership. Today, family members who are not Jewish, adult children of intermarriage and others are too often officially excluded as members of our congregations. They are welcomed into our homes as flesh and blood during our Passover seders, but a different standard is used by our communal institutions—and that is why many families opt out of formal affiliation with the community. Just as we create welcoming places in our homes for all our friends and family who would join us, we should be inspired to do the same in our communal institutions.
While certain barriers to ritual participation are rooted in halacha (Jewish law) and are therefore limited to those who are commanded to partake, many ritual and communal policies are matters of organizational culture, not law. For the sake of this fast-growing group of dynamic contributors to our community, we must question our communal institution’s policies. Which are deemed necessary by legal tradition? Which maintain antiquated traditions intended to keep some “inside” and others “out”?
Just a decade or two ago, few synagogues permitted parents who were not Jewish to stand on the bima during their own children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Today, many synagogues allow it—and the foundations of Jewish civilization did not crumble. Still, while standing on that bima today many congregations forbid these parents from participating in passing the Torah to their children. Apparently, touching our sacred scroll goes too far, or sets a “bad example.” After all, what have these individuals ever done for the Jewish people, other than give up passing on their own family’s faith tradition to raise their children as Jews (not to mention countless hours of preparation and synagogue involvement, and thousands of dollars in dues and tuition)?
The notion of “building a wall around the Torah”- long the excuse for these kinds of exclusionary rules- needs to be constantly revisited. Its goal, in the past, was to protect the vitality of Judaism. In today’s world, however, the Jewish demographics have shifted dramatically. There are a growing number of Jews from less traditional backgrounds who are clamoring to find meaning in Judaism and to fully integrate themselves into the Jewish community. As this population expands, constructing walls which exclude them will eventually push more people away than it welcomes in. This defeats the original purpose of these walls, and runs counter to the spirit of our community. Our institutions have to change their perception of what being “Jewish” looks like, and adapt to serve the needs of the evolving Jewish community.
As our community grows ever more diverse, we have the opportunity to revise our policies and officially include as active contributors all who have been traditionally disenfranchised: intermarried families, gays and lesbians, non-Ashkenazi Jews, single parents, older-adult singles, those with special needs, and many others. This Passover we can renew our commitment to social justice and liberation by creating policies that include and officially empower all. (Adam Bronfman is the managing director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.)
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