by sue fishkoff
During Yom Kippur services this year, Rabbi Larry Raphael of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel will invite his non-Jewish congregants up to the pulpit and thank them for casting their lot with the Jewish people.
Using a blessing ceremony written two years ago by Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, he’ll tell them, “You are the moms and dads who drive the children to Hebrew school. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home.”
Offering his “deepest gratitude” for those who are raising their children as Jews — 26 percent of the parents of his religious school students — he will ask the rest of the congregation to rise and say the blessing that begins, “May God bless you and keep you.”
Last Yom Kippur, the first time Raphael did this, 50 people came forward. The congregation was “in tears,” says its executive director, Nancy Drapin.
As intermarriage rates continue to rise, and more intermarried families join congregations, increasing numbers of non-Orthodox rabbis are looking for ways to acknowledge the non-Jews in their midst.
While Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis tend to be more low-key about it, Reform rabbis like Marder and Raphael have come up with a wide variety of ways to express gratitude ranging from festive meals to public ceremonies.
Many chose to do their honoring during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur services, both because of the prestige conveyed by those special days, and because that’s when most of their congregation show up. Marder did her first public blessing on Yom Kippur morning in 2004.
“I’d encountered so many families through the bar and bat mitzvah process where the non-Jewish partner had been so dedicated,” she says. “I thought it was important to make a public acknowledgment.”
She was concerned that some people would not want to be singled out. But the ceremony, which took place in front of thousands of people, turned out to be “a far more moving and powerful experience” than she’d expected.
In November 2005, at the Reform movement’s biennial, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members publicly, especially non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, even as he also urged greater emphasis on conversion.[...]
Rabbi Moshe Edelman, leadership development director for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says he hasn’t heard of Conservative rabbis publicly thanking the non-Jews in their congregations.
Conservative outreach has deepened in other ways this year, he notes. Camp Ramah, the movement’s summer camp, has begun admitting pre-bar and bat mitzvah-age children of non-Jewish mothers, and the executive vice president of USCJ, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, urged the same policy this year at Conservative religious schools.
But these changes are aimed at bringing intermarried families closer to the community in order to encourage conversion. That’s quite different than honoring non-Jewish parents who don’t convert.