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"Outreach: The Next Generation" Discussion and Study Guide

A. Overview

Reform Judaism magazine Winter 2007 issue

This “Focus” symposium, “Outreach: The Next Generation,” examines aspects of interfaith marriage and child-raising through the experiences of six individuals: Lucas McMahon and his non-Jewish father, Tim; Rachel Flynn and her non-Jewish father, John, who later became a Jew; Joelle Berman and her non-Jewish mother, Beverly.  The “Focus” also includes seminal statements by two presidents of the Union for Reform Judaism who have played key roles in the thirty-year history of the Outreach revolution.

This Guide provides summaries and discussion topics for each personal reflection and concludes with two “Big Ideas” to consider.

1. "Presidential Calls for Outreach"

About fifty years ago, increasing numbers of Jews began to marry non-Jews.  These couples were, by and large, ignored by synagogues; and many of their children were raised in either no religion or the religion of the (usually) Christian mother. In 1978, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) then-President, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, responded to what was termed “the continuity crisis” by urging Reform synagogues to “do everything possible to draw the non-Jewish spouse of mixed marriage into Jewish life….perhaps [then] they themselves will initiate the process of conversion.  At the very least, we will dramatically increase the probability that the children of such marriages will be reared as Jews….We must remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts. ”  Extending the platform in 2005, URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie used the words “heroes of Jewish life” to describe those non-Jewish spouses who are involved in synagogue activities, offer active support to the Jewish involvements of spouses, learns about Jewish customs, attends synagogue worship from time to time, and commit to raising children as Jewish.” 

Discussion #1

  1. What, in your opinion, is the essential point in each statement? Are there differences in these messages that reflect the thirty years between them? Explain.
  2. Is Outreach a good idea even if it does not lead to conversion? Explain.
  3. Have members of your congregation removed the “not wanted” signs from their hearts?  Explain. Considering our people’s history, both ancient and modern, why might these “not wanted” signs have existed?
  4. Do you agree with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler that drawing the non-Jewish spouses of intermarriages into Jewish life should “dramatically increase the probability that the children of such marriages will be reared as Jews”? Explain.
  5. Do you agree with Rabbi Eric Yoffie that non-Jewish spouses who are actively involved in synagogue activities, learn about Jewish tradition, and commit to raising Jewish children are “heroes of Jewish life”?  Explain.    

"Red Hair, Green Eyes, & Jewish," by Lucas McMahon

When Lucas was born, his Jewish mother and Catholic father were prepared to ignore the question of “what religion shall we raise the children?”  “It seemed easier to avoid the question altogether,” 17-year-old Lucas now relates, “until my mother’s grandfather advised:  ‘You cannot raise your child without religion in his life.  You must give him an identity to cherish.  You must make him part of a community that he will feel connected to.”  Deciding on Judaism, the couple sought out a congregation, and after many cool receptions, they found a Reform synagogue in Marblehead, Massachusetts that welcomed them warmly.  Lucas and his brother have both celebrated Jewish life-cycle events at the congregation;  Lucas’ mother became a bat mitzvah before he did because she didn’t want him to feel alone as he prepared for his bar mitzvah; and his Catholic family was a proud witness to these joyful occasions.

Discussion #2

  1. Do you agree with Lucas’s great-grandfather’s words, “You must give him an identity to cherish”?  Explain.
  2. Would you feel differently about question #1 had Lucas’ parents selected Catholicism? Explain.
  3. Why do you believe many synagogues greeted his parents “uncomfortably and reluctantly”?
  4. In what ways does your synagogue respond to interfaith families?
  5. What impact do you believe Lucas’ non-Jewish dad and grandmother have had in Lucas’ Jewish identity? 
  6. In your experience, have you observed any differences in the Jewish identities of people you know who grew up in interfaith families as compared to people raised in in-married households? 

"Being Honest With Ourselves," by Tim McMahon

Here, Tim, Lucas’ non-Jewish father, shares his perspective on raising Lucas as a Jew.  While he ruled out conversion for himself, he and his wife Mindy decided to raise Lucas and his brother in one religion and selected Judaism because they realized that “I would be more comfortable having my children be Jewish than Mindy would be having hers be Catholic.”  They taught their children their belief “that a person should grow up with a real commitment to a single faith.  We needed to pick one for them, and we chose Judaism.  They respected this honest explanation.”  He and Mindy’s biggest challenge, he says, was “getting past decisions based on not hurting or trying to please family…. Children suffer in families that avoid commitment.” Today he attends both church and synagogue and says, “I would challenge anybody who says that [my children] are not Jewish in every way.”

Discussion #3

  1. Tim and Mindy chose Judaism for their children based on their individual comfort levels with regard to raising children in a faith other than their own. Do you think this is an appropriate way to make such a decision? Explain. 
  2. Do you agree with Tim’s statement in the article that “there is no right or wrong way to do things.  It is what works for you.”?   Explain.
  3. Why did Tim and Mindy refuse to allow families or friends to influence their child-rearing decisions? Do you agree? Explain.
  4. Do you agree that children suffer “in families that avoid commitment”? If yes, in what ways?
  5. Discuss three specific things you can do to help intermarried families integrate in your synagogue. 

"The Making of a Jew," by Rachel Flynn

Rachel was four when she acquired a new father, an ex-Jesuit who had abandoned most of his Catholic practices. Twenty years later, he converted to Judaism. Her mother, a practicing Jew, assured Judaism’s hold on Rachel; though in her father’s search for a new spiritual and theological direction, he became so enamored of Jewish teachings, he deepened Rachel’s knowledge of Judaism as well. 

Now 25, Rachel also reflects on what being Jewish means to her today.  She goes to synagogue services on special occasions, and she dates mostly Jewish men.  She explains to non-Jewish suitors that “the most fundamental things about who I am come from the experiences I had growing up in the Jewish community….I can’t possibly make a life with someone to whom these things are foreign.  But I often wonder how much of my ‘policy’ is just what I think I should be doing, and I am haunted by the question: What if my mom had dated only Jewish men?”  She wonders if what’s more important is what her dad taught her: “Whether or not someone can understand and appreciate the importance of Judaism in my life.”  

Discussion #4

  1. All of Rachel’s early experiences “took place in a Jewish context.”  How did your early religious experiences influence you? Your parents? Your children?
  2. Rachel’s parents influenced her Jewishness in different ways.  How so?  How did each of your parents influence you religiously? 
  3. Rachel takes pride in having played a part in both of her parents’ becoming more Jewishly involved.  Can you think of personal examples in your life of the child leading the parents religiously?  Explain.
  4. If you were having a conversation with Rachel regarding the dating “policy” she struggles with, what would you say to her?  Why?
  5. Do you agree with the message Rachel takes away that the most important quality in a partner is “whether or not someone can understand and appreciate the importance of Judaism in my life”?  Explain.

"A Breathing Faith of My Own," by John Tibbets

Rachel’s father John learned from his study of the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich that both belief and doubt undergird faith, which “is to the life of the soul as breathing is to the life of the body….As we learn more, we may come to believe some things we used to doubt and doubt some things we used to believe.  Otherwise we’re not really experiencing the world.” John came to believe that “believing is like inhaling—taking sustenance into ourselves.  Doubting is like exhaling—letting go of the material that’s no longer useful…The person whose faith is alive ‘breathes’—absorbing and expelling, believing and doubting. “Years later he met Barbara, a Jewish woman; they married and joined a Reform congregation.  “Judaism,” he says, “at least the Reform Judaism I came to know, allowed me to ‘breathe’ spiritually.” Moreover, Judaism “requires spiritual breathing—a life of faith that includes belief sometimes, doubts sometimes, and learning always.”

Discussion #5

  1. What do you think of Tillich’s idea that both belief and doubt undergird faith?  Explain.
  2. Do you agree that “the person whose faith is alive ‘breathes’—absorbing and expelling, believing and doubting“?  What about John’s understanding of Judaism as “requiring spiritual breathing”? Explain.   
  3. John believes that “Torah appears indistinct, shadowy, elliptical, suggestive.” What in our tradition seems to confirm this view? (Hint: He also says, “Judaism invites interpretation.”) What are the advantages and disadvantages of this understanding?
  4. John says that Jewish beliefs are “filled in only by the living of our individual lives.”   How does that work, in your life and in the lives of your family/friends?  

"I'm a Jew Just Like You," by Joelle Asaro Berman

Joelle’s comfortable upbringing as a Jew of an interfaith marriage with a Sicilian, Catholic mother and a Jewish father was challenged in later years by Jews who questioned her Jewish authenticity, giving her the message that “patrilineal children like me needed to suck it up and convert....” Her Jewish experiences at home, in temple and at a Reform summer camp enabled her to realize, years later, that “I know exactly who I am: An American Jew of Sicilian heritage,” and buttressed her against would-be detractors.  She advises the North American Jewish community to 1) “accept the reality of interfaith families”; 2) “welcome interfaith families”; and 3) “count in adult children of intermarriage.  Give us a stake in the incredibly rich and resilient tradition that is also our Jewish future.”  

Discussion #6

  1. Unlike Lucas and Rachel (above), Joelle’s father, rather than her mother, was the Jewish parent. Why might having a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother cause difficulties under certain circumstances?
  2. Within the Reform Movement, children like Joelle who are Jews of “patrilineal descent” are considered full Jews, so long as they have satisfied the requirements of a formal religious education and appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1983; see Jacob pp. 61-68 for historical and contemporary Jewish positions and the CCAR’s reasoning). How did Joelle satisfy the requirement?  
  3. Which acts of identification, if any, do you believe children of two Jewish parents should perform? Explain.
  4. Joelle says that “There’s no chance for Jewish continuity unless we open the tent to [all interfaith families].”  Do you agree?

"Celebrating Our Differences," by Beverly Asaro

This is Joelle’s mother’s story. At first, she “felt strongly that if [Jay and I] were ever blessed with children I would want to raise them in a religious way, though not necessarily in an organized religion.”  She came to see, though, that “one of the traits I so admired in [Jay] was his complete, unwavering belief in his religion—a comfort level with his faith I wished for myself.”  She never considered converting to Judaism: “I am very comfortable with who I am and do not feel the need to redefine myself.” But for her children: after reading, questioning, and seeking the professional counsel of a rabbi, she “fully embraced…the idea of raising my children as Jews.”  Family and friends were very supportive of the choice, “and in retrospect,” she says, “it seems effortless, what with strong familial support and Jay’s and my strong commitment to each other. …We have reveled in our differences with both sides of the family….I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”  

Discussion #7

  1. Beverly characterizes her husband’s Reform Judaism as: “observant, attending synagogue, spiritual, an unwavering belief in his religion.”  How would you characterize your own religious beliefs?  Explain.
  2. Joelle’s parents decided before marriage to raise their children as Jews. Why?
  3. Beverly did not consider conversion. Why did that not impede her raising Jewish children?
  4. Beverly points to an incident in temple that was difficult for her as the non-Jewish spouse; her role during Joelle’s bat mitzvah preparations was defined repeatedly as that of the “non-Jew.”  Confronted, the synagogue members said, “they had never before considered the negative impact of their words.”  What negative messages have you experienced about your or another’s religion, directly or indirectly?  How did you respond?  In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
  5. Beverly points to “strong familial support” and she and her husband’s “strong commitment to each other” as the key factors in their success in creating a loving family with Jewishly committed children.  Do you agree that these are the most important elements?  Explain.  What are some of the ways to give “strong familial support”?

 “Big Ideas” to Consider

  1. Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism oppose intermarriage. Still, many Reform rabbis are supportive of intermarried couples who express their commitment to raising Jewish children.
    1. Do historic reasons for opposing out-marrying still apply? Explain.
    2. How do you feel about Jews out-marrying?  What about a family member marrying a non-Jew?  Explain.  
  2. Reform Judaism is committed to drawing non-Jewish spouses into Judaism’s circle, encourages appropriate visible Jewish actions on the part of non-Jews within in the congregational community, and assists in educating children of interfaith marriage as Jews.   
    1. What has motivated the Reform Movement to reach out to the non-Jewish spouse and to the children? 
    2. How has Outreach made a difference in the Movement and/or in your life and the lives of people you know?

Walter Jacob, Ed. (1). American Reform Responsa. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis. 1983.

Walter Jacob, Ed. (2). Contemporary American Reform Responsa. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis. 1987.

Bernard Bamberger. Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. New York: Ktav. 1968.

See also: Reform Outreach Sources in the "Focus" section.

Note: Biblical translations in the Guide are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1999.