This a text version of my sermon from 2/24/18 –
Many of you know that before I went to rabbinical school I was a psychiatric social worker, and in my training for that work I completed a Masters Degree in Psychology, which I proudly hold from the University of Maryland. The most difficult course – at least for me – in that program was the statistics class. It was required for the degree, the thinking being you’ll have to read studies and you’ll have to be able to understand how the numbers behind the studies – the statistics – came together. Despite my challenges with math, I somehow did well enough with that class to complete the program and earn that degree, and I figured that was the last I would see of statistics for a long time, if not ever.
Little did I know how important statistics would be in rabbinical work. I didn’t really learn this until I was out in the field, and when every couple of years or so a new demographic study of the Jewish community comes out, as the rabbi I am expected to be an expert, to know the numbers, what they mean, and how they were calculated. I have learned over time that professional Jews are obsessed with demographic studies. We try to understand from them what the current trends in the community are, how old or young the Jewish population is, how many school age children it contains, how observant Jews are, the list goes on and on. And of course the one number that professional Jews are concerned with more than any other in these studies is – the intermarriage rate! We want to know how many Jews are marrying non-Jews.
Generally when we find out the newest numbers we wring our hands, we worry, we fear for the Jewish future – the Yiddish word geschrei comes to mind. And there are valid reasons for this. One is that the intermarriage rate is going up – the most recent numbers tell us that in the non-Orthodox community the intermarriage rate is around 60%. A number this high is a potential threat to Jewish continuity, because statistics also tell us that the children and grand-children of intermarried parents are also highly likely to intermarry, and if the intermarriage rate continues to rise rapidly and exponentially there will be fewer and fewer Jewish families.
There is no question that this is a serious issue and also a serious concern, but there is also no question – at least in my mind – that it is an issue that is not going away. That is to say, it is not ‘solvable.’ The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher. There are some things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly – home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.
If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular. Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you. And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them. After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home. Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.
And the truth is, those families have a tremendous amount to contribute to our community. I imagine you know that Wednesday night is Purim. I hope you’ll all be here, we have an evening planned that should be a lot of fun for everyone, from the young to the not so young. Just for a moment I would like to think with you this morning about the story of Esther that we will read Wednesday night. It is one of the best known stories of the entire Bible, and I don’t feel I have to recount the narrative, because you know all about Esther and Mordecai, Vashti and King Ahashverosh, and of course the wicked Haman. As the old joke goes, Purim tells the classic Jewish story – they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!
But the Book of Esther is much more than that, and in fact I would argue it is the most modern of all the biblical books, at least in the way it understands and describes Jewish life. The Jewish community of Persia in the story is highly assimilated. Mordecai and Esther are secular Jews who still feel connected to their Jewish identity, even if they aren’t ‘religious’ in any traditional sense – which is exactly the way many Jewish describe themselves today. And although we don’t have the intermarriage statistics for 6th century BCE Persia, we do have the story of an intermarried family from that time – the family of Esther and Ahashverosh. The story of Purim is at least in part the story of an interfaith family – because when Esther wins that beauty contest and marries the King, she is a Jewish woman marrying a man who is not Jewish.
This is not the way we normally read the story, it is not the part of the narrative we usually focus on, but it is the truth. Queen Esther is one of the great Jewish heroes in the Bible. With courage and pluck (and her Uncle Mordecai’s encouragement) she fights back against Haman, and risks her life so that her people might be spared. But that same Esther’s husband is not Jewish. In fact, we might say lucky for the Jews that Esther is in the marriage she is in. If not for her access to the King, it is likely the Jewish people of that time and place would have perished. Esther alone doesn’t save the Jews in the story of Purim – her family does. And her family is an interfaith family.
On the surface it might seem strange to think about the Purim story this way. But we shouldn’t really be so surprised. In today’s world, our interfaith families are some of the most devoted families we have at Beth El. They bring their children to Hebrew school, celebrate at their sons’ and daughters’ ‘b’nai mitzvah, participate in congregational life, give generously to Jewish organizations, speak out positively about Israel, and create Jewish homes. Our congregation is in part the kind of community we are all proud of because of the commitment and connection of our many interfaith families.
Which is why we should keep the doors open as wide as we can. That is why we have an interfaith havurah at Beth El, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey. That is why Beth El has always been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue, from the days of Rabbi Jacob Agus to the present. That is why we welcome non-Jewish partners and spouses to the bima for the baby namings and b’nai mitzvah of their children. It is why we have readings for Friday night and Shabbat morning services that non Jewish family members can participate in. Those families are a part of our larger family, and their journeys are intertwined with ours. They may not save the Jewish people in one fell swoop the way Queen Esther and King Ahashverosh did, but their presence in our midst will help us all build a stronger Jewish community for many generations to come.