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Interfaith Issue Crops Up in High Holiday Sermon, Hits Listener Hard
During High Holiday services last week, my rabbi raised an issue that, in recent months, has been weighing quite heavily on me.
While delivering his last High Holiday sermons before his retirement after 19 years at my synagogue, he spoke about the temple's openness to outsiders, particularly interfaith couples.
My temple, founded in 1839, is quite Reform -- sometimes, it even feels too Reform. It is so Reform that many congregants do not wear kippot and a fair number of the families are interfaith.
In his sermon, my rabbi spoke about his philosophical decision to embrace non-Jewish spouses and those who are "Jewish by choice."
I am not going to get into a debate about which stream of Judaism is the best or more correct or better than the other. I have tremendous respect for the more- Orthodox branches that adhere to stricter rules than I can accept for myself. But I have, at times, wrestled with the looseness with which my congregation practices.
My rabbi talked about how he wanted to help the synagogue grow or, at least, stay afloat by welcoming interfaith families. He spoke about how he lifted some of the harsh standards for conversion, even the practice of the rabbi rejecting a prospective convert three times.
While the sunlight filtered through the tall, century-old, stained-glass windows, warming the sanctuary that was near capacity, there was a good chance that a fair number of those worshippers were not even Jewish.
Then, my rabbi quoted some alarming statistics, including a recitation of stark demographic figures, including the low birthrate for Jewish families. He questioned our ability to maintain Jewish populations outside the Orthodox movements.
It was telling for a rabbi to talk about all this in one of his last sermons, and it was especially interesting to me who has been wrestling with my own ability to find a nice Jewish girl.
He Spoke to Me
For once, it really felt like he was talking directly to me -- not to the families with kids or the senior citizens or the long-established congregants.
Questions over interfaith issues have cropped up in my life throughout the years, even though, since college, I've only dated Jewish women.
Over the years, my friend "Cody," who likes to remind me that I let a great Jewish girl slip away years ago, has gone as far as calling me a "racist" because of my dating preferences.
Some other friends have likened my search to panning for gold (or Goldsteins) in a raging river, especially given the demographics of a place like Syracuse, N.Y.
Even my Jewish mother, who, contrary to popular stereotypes about Jewish mothers, has never meddled in my social life, has questioned the practicality of my narrow casting. Recently, she went as far as to recommend I consider branching out.
Over lunch a couple of weeks ago, one of my closest friends, who is also a member of my Council on Female Affairs, also echoed my mom by telling me I should think about expanding my horizons.
Some of my friends are vexed by my pursuit of a nice Jewish girl, questioning my motives, my faith and even my sanity. One friend questioned whether my behavior was consistent, considering I do not keep kosher or keep the Sabbath.
Another friend said that my dating restrictions are simply a way to avoid commitment -- while yet another questioned whether I was even attracted to non-Jewish women. The answers to the latter questions are: No, I'm not a commitment-phobe and, of course, I'm attracted to non-Jewish women.
Lots of Happy Couples
I know plenty of interfaith couples, too. My other friend and mentor, "Joe," is happily married to a wonderful woman from another faith. So far, two of their four children have had Bat Mitzvahs at our temple. Last year, my brother, who is secular, married a Catholic girl, and he's happy; and two of my mom's uncles have married non-Jewish women and had happy lives with them.
Even though I reveal a lot of myself in this column every other week, I am probably withholding a lot about my rationale for my preferences. I have my reasons, yet I am starting to wonder whether they make much sense anymore.
The more time I spend searching for the right Jewish woman, who may or may not actually exist, the more I find myself wrestling with these concepts. But until I change my mind or criteria, I suppose I'll just have to go on wrestling.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer.