Wendy Aronson and Rabbi Brian Field
On page 13 of his essay in Jewish Megatrends, Rabbi Schwarz describes a twenty-year-old, non-Orthodox Jew named Bill. Bill is engaged to a person of another faith and when he places a call to his childhood rabbi to see if he will officiate their wedding, he receives a response that makes Bill feel rejected.
It was in response to scenarios just like this that Judaism Your Way (JYW) was created in 2003. The original one-point plan was to fund and administratively support a rabbi who would enthusiastically respond, engage, and officiate weddings between Jews and their beloveds of other faiths. In the years since its founding, JYW has articulated a mission of embodying a Judaism that is maximally inclusive and has expanded its programmatic offerings to the whole range of lifecycle moments, adult and B’nai Mitzvah education, spiritual counseling, and selected holiday celebrations.
Of the four propositions in Rabbi Schwarz’s essay, we believe that Judaism Your Way is an expression of three: chochma, kedusha and kehillah.
One way that Jewish wisdom has been expressed over the millennia is in midrash. Midrash is the term Judaism uses for the work of the early rabbis to creatively apply the Torah to radically new circumstances in Jewish life.
Until now, much of the Jewish community’s outreach to interfaith couples and families has been viewed as a compromise or a surrender to an unfortunate reality of assimilation. JYW believes that Jewish wisdom points in a different direction. The name we give to this premise is “The Torah of Inclusion.” According to the Book of Exodus, the Torah was given to the Jewish people through a man who was married to the daughter of a Midianite priest. We note that Moses had lived with his Midianite in-laws for much of his pre-prophetic adult life. Moses worshipped with his Midianite father-in-law and took advice from him. In fact, it was Tziporah, Moses’ Midianite wife, who took responsibility to ritually bring their son into the brit.
We also note that in Jacob’s blessing of his two Egyptian-raised grandsons, Menasseh and Ephraim (whose mother was also the daughter of an Egyptian priest), Jacob says to them: “through you shall all Israel be blessed.”
In other words, within the narratives of two of the most important characters in the Torah there is an acknowledgment and a blessing of the compatibility of interfaith marriage with Jewish covenantal continuity. However, because of a history of oppression, this is a piece of chochma that has remained hidden. It is our hope that it can be the basis of a whole new genre of midrash.
In his essay, Rabbi Schwarz identifies a generational trend in some of the traditional markers of Jewish connection and involvement. He also identifies a greater percentage of “covenantal” versus “tribal” Jews among the younger generations. Accordingly, in Judaism Your Way’s early years, we expected that we would be most compelling to Gen X and Millennial Jews and their loved ones. However, up until very recently, the largest demographic of people attending our events has been Baby Boomers. When asked why JYW is the right choice for them, they respond by sharing that they joined synagogues to get their children a Bar/t Mitzvah, but now that their children are grown up, they look to JYW to find a Jewish spiritual connection for themselves. In other words, the urge to find spiritual meaning in Judaism includes all the generations.
Decades ago, Rabbi Field read an article in Moment Magazine by the late Jacob Petuchowski entitled “The Ever-Expanding Holiness Franchise.” Rabbi Petuchowski’s thesis is that over the millennia, the proportion of people who could claim access to the communally recognized expression of kedusha has increased – from the Levites in Biblical times to all men in rabbinic Judaism, to women and men in more contemporary expressions of Judaism, to openly gay Jewish women and men in increasing numbers of Jewish sacred communities today.
Let’s consider Rabbi Schwarz’s young inter-married Jew, Bill. He has brought his spouse of another faith to High Holy Day services. He is moved to sing. But as he glances at his spouse, he notices that she is somewhat lost, perhaps because the structure of the service isn’t familiar, or because the songs are in Hebrew. And Bill is torn. Does he sing, like a “good Jew”, and leave his spouse alone with her feelings of discomfort? Or does he align with his spouse, and stay silent, so she doesn’t feel alone?
Given the huge number of people of other faiths whose lives are deeply intertwined with the lives of Jews, the question is now being asked: Can the Jewish “holiness franchise” be extended to these loved ones as well? At JYW, the answer is “yes”. When we compose the machzors (prayer booklets) for our High Holy Day services, one of the filters through which we run every prayer and song is: Will this be accessible to non-Hebrew-literate Jews as well as people who grew up in different faith traditions?
One of the decisions the founding team made back in 2003 was to not become a congregation. The Board and staff of JYW are aware that a source of negative feeling among many Jews is that of not fully belonging, either to the general society (due to being Jewish) or to the Jewish community (not being Jewish enough). By choosing not to organize ourselves as a membership-based organization, we hoped to minimize if not eliminate that potential source of alienation.
One of the critiques that has been directed at JYW is that we are not a community. And in a traditional, legacy-organization-model sense, perhaps that is true. But one thing that we’ve noticed is that people who have been coming to our High Holy Day services are recognizing each other, are taking pleasure in seeing each other, and are taking steps to deepen their connections with one another. Each year, we have watched people reach out and make room for strangers who were of different ages and lifestyles. People are singing, they are happy to be there, and they often return over multiple years, bringing their family and friends with them. For our supporters and us, this is precisely the type of kehillah we desire.
Wendy Aronson has enjoyed working for innovative Jewish organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Boulder JCC and now Judaism Your Way where she is the Executive Director. Her early career has focused on creating positive Jewish experiences for young people through informal education like camp, youth group, and Israel experiences and has since grown to include a passion for administration.
A graduate of RRC, Brian’s been a rabbi for 23 years. He came to Denver in 2004 to become the spiritual leader of a creative and evolving Jewish outreach initiative called Judaism Your Way. Brian’s vision is a maximally-inclusive Judaism that plays a robust role in the healing of the planet and the liberation of all human beings.