This article first appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, April 2013
I recently met with a bride-to-be and her fiancé whose personal story made my blood boil. She had been raised Jewish in a Jewish area in Skokie IL, attended a Reform synagogue all the way through High School, and her mother even converted to Judaism while she was still living at home. But at college, actually showing up at some Jewish community events, she found that people quizzed her on her parentage, when her mother converted, etc. only to conclude that, “Well, then you aren’t REALLY Jewish.” And, no surprise, she felt alienated from her Jewish connection for some time.
Who appointed those jerks the ethnic bouncers, checking IDs and pedigrees at the door? We in the Jewish community have a self-created problem, one exemplified by the following contradictory statements:
- Why are there so few Jews these days?
- No one is allowed in!
Now one can say that “no one is allowed in,” and then it’s no wonder that there are few people involved. Or one can say, “why are there so few?” and then take positive steps to improve the situation. But to say both is the equivalent of the old joke: the food is terrible, and the portions are too small.
We in Humanistic Judaism are truly unique: we celebrate families for who they are. Whether they have chosen a primarily Jewish connection or identity, or they are positively connected to both family cultures, they are fully welcome as part of our Jewish community. They do not have to promise to raise their children “exclusively” Jewish, even though the non-Jewish partner may have positive connections to their family traditions. And their children are fully welcome members of our open and diverse Jewish family.
Every story like that young woman’s college experience is a Jewish communal failure; the fact that she continued to Jewishly identify and seek out a rabbi for her wedding is a testimony to her, not to us. Here is someone who stuck around past Bat Mitzvah and chose to seek Jewish connections in college! I know that we cannot be responsible for every individual; I have even heard stories of intolerance demonstrated by Humanistic Jews. If someone said, “I don’t keep kosher but I’m Jewish,” the vast majority of the Jewish world would accept them and keep a place for them. The important part of that sentence is the second half, “I’m Jewish”!
In 1905, the General Jewish Worker’s Union in Poland and Russia, more commonly known as the Bund, called for Jewish cultural autonomy in Eastern Europe under the authority of “central and local institutions whose officials will be elected in general elections by all those who identify themselves as belonging to the Jewish nation by an honest, secret ballot.” [cited from The Jew in the Modern World, emphasis added] If, over 100 years ago, those persecuted Jews were willing to accept self-identification with the Jewish people, with all of the challenges that identity can involve, why can’t we? Or, in a saying ascribed to many figures, whoever is crazy enough to want to be Jewish is Jewish!
I am always proud of our movement’s statement on Jewish identity, issued in 1988. The key passage:
a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.
In other words, brukhim ha’baim – blessed are those who have arrived, have actually shown up, have demonstrated their commitment to our people. Welcome, and ethnic bouncers begone!