My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no if anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We don’t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years, he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.
Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest ‘no one can tell me what to do’ was his girlfriend, Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshiped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that included cannabis and ‘shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.
When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad exercised. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a non-Jewish significant other was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.
According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, “in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.” While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that “we don’t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.” We do know, he says, that “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.” Or at least, so he said in 2009. http://goo.gl/oHnmWs
Nearly all of the country’s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with non-Jewish partners. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate. http://goo.gl/8vUEWQ
But as Bob Dylan adjures, “the times they are a’changing.” The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denomination’s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “We believe that the only strategy that will work in today’s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that actually welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.
And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision. http://goo.gl/U9U35I
But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinity’s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial Lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that “… at some point… inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations — and history suggests that it will — then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.”
It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage “our religious, moral and spiritual leadership” beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, “For those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58% of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.”
Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.
The genuine threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation relevant. More important than soccer practice, ski trips, or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews, a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. That’s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.
It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But it’s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisner’s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cry – that has led them over the cliff.
As Tevye said to Golda, “It’s a new world.” That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lot’s wife.
|There are several Jewish laws surrounding how to build a sukkah and where you can build it. The walls of the sukkah have to be sturdy enough to stand up against normal weather conditions. You can get away with three walls. You can put the walls up and then leave them standing forever. The walls of a sukkah can be made of any material, provided that they are sturdy enough that they do not move in a normal wind. You can use wood or fiberglass panels, waterproof fabrics attached to a metal frame, etc. You can also use pre-existing walls (i.e., the exterior walls of your home, patio or garage) as one or more of the sukkah walls. http://goo.gl/DoKHel
The most important part of a sukkah building contractor’s plan is the roof; it must be made of s’chach. What exactly is S’chach? A good question! I used to think that it was Hebrew for the stuff I would collect with my youth group buddies along the shoulders of Route 91 in Middletown (which I believe was actually bamboo – the state highway guy gave us half an hour to do it and disappear…). It is, officially, anything that grew from the ground and has been detached, is not edible, and was not manufactured to be a utensil (such as a wooden ladder or shovel handle). Thick, roof-like slats, and tied bundles of foliage cannot be used. You can’t use branches with leaves as s’chach with leaves that will shrivel as they dry out. You can use evergreen tree branches because they don’t shrivel and die.
Temple Beth Avodah uses corn stalks that, as you can see from the laws, is perfectly fine as s’chach… But, if there’s corn on the stalk as opposed to Indian corn that is only ornamental, you must remove the corn from the stalk, because – yes, it’s edible.
The truth about s’chach is that it’s not fit to make a roof at all. Sure it must be thick enough to provide shade from a hot Sukkot sun (which sounds nice as today’s chill enters our collective bones). But if you cover the top of the sukkah too well, then you’re messing with the dominant theme of the holiday.
After Yom Kippur, which is all about being indoors and focusing on our individual shortcomings and fasting and, in general, feeling deeply immersed in internal space, the first thing we do is drive the first nail to build the sukkah. And Sukkot is all about bursting out of the internal! It’s about harvest and the sweat of collecting the Fall harvest. It’s all about relating to our ancestors who wandered in the wilderness and had no permanent place to call home for a long time. It’s all about the glory of the Universe and the fact that we have been given a new year in which to find our best selves.
But… and here’s the rest of the theme of Sukkot: the roof and therefore, the sukkah itself is impermanent. And so are we. We look up at the stars and celebrate the beauty of the world. And through the very same spaces between the s’chach we can get rained on. This life is filled with awe and majesty and beauty, and it’s filled with sweat and sadness and pain. It’s never either/or; it’s always both/and.
The sukkah reminds us that it’s up to us to appreciate every blessing that comes our way, whether we deserve it or not. Life can be precarious and mysterious. We can just sit in the rain and moan. Or we can look up through the s’chach and give thanks for this crazy world and our chaotic, fabulous lives.