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September 26, 2023

Your People Are My People (Yom Kippur 5784)

Angela W. Buchdahl

Your People Are My People
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Yom Kippur 5784


Al Cheyt Shechatanu L’fanecha:
For the sin which we have committed against You by lying.
For the sin which we have committed against You through speech.
For the sin which we have committed against You in passing judgment.

We have a lot of atoning to do!
This last one, however, stopped me short:
the sin of “passing judgment.”
I understand sins of lying, cheating, speaking ill.
But that judgmental thought –in my head? 
We have to atone for that?

Our tradition understands: judgments hold great power.
On this holiest day of 5784, as we communally atone,
I want to address an issue that the Jewish community
has perhaps most openly judged: intermarriage.
And justified our disapproval
in the name of “Jewish continuity.”

You may already be aware that I am the product of an intermarriage myself–
a Jewish American father to a Korean Buddhist mother.
But it might surprise you that my sister and I grew up feeling
some familiar pressure.
I’ll never forget when my sister
brought home her first college boyfriend for Thanksgiving –
and he happened to be Korean!
My mom pulled me into the kitchen and whispered:
When is she going to find a nice Jewish boy?
Even my Korean Buddhist mother had internalized
the Jewish mother’s mantra!

Like many of you, I’ve adopted the Jewish mother’s mantra, too.
And to say otherwise would risk my children – and yours–
thinking that I don’t care if they create Jewish homes. 
Or Jewish grandchildren. 
But the persistent mandate to “marry someone Jewish”
is not the only path to Jewish continuity.
Nor is it sufficient.
It may even be backfiring.
You see– the American Jewish community has been insisting on this
for more than seventy years
but it hasn’t stopped our children from falling in love
with people who aren’t Jewish.
And the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews has only grown
to over 70%.
So for the vast majority of our kids, regarding the most consequential,
emotional decision of their lives–
we’re essentially telling them:
You’ve let us down.  And all your ancestors.
Our judgment has turned many Jews away.

We all want to see Judaism thrive and endure,
but Jewish continuity has never just relied on “marrying Jewish.”
And if you don’t believe me, let’s go back to a Rabbi’s favorite source.

You see–intermarriage is as old as the Bible
Joseph married an Egyptian. Moses married a Midianite. 
King Solomon had multiple non-Jewish wives. 
Queen Esther’s intermarriage saved our people!
The Bible has no universal prohibition on intermarriage–
only on certain restricted tribes who threatened to lead Israel astray.

But our exile to Babylon in the 6th Century BCE changed our identity as a nation. 
When the Israelites were allowed to return to Israel,
some 70 years later–
most had acculturated so successfully in Babylon
that they didn’t want to leave, even to go back to their ‘homeland.’

The scribes Ezra and Nehemiah were among the few who did return,
and they were dismayed to see that most of the Israelites
who had stayed in Israel
had married women from other tribes. 

Worried for Jewish continuity, Ezra took an extreme position:
he demanded that intermarried men divorce their wives
and disown their children. 
Ezra introduced the concept of zerah kodesh,
the requirement of ‘holy seed’ –
a racial Jewish essence that only comes through two Jewish parents.

But Ezra did not have the final word.
Around the same time as Ezra, the Book of Ruth appeared.
Ruth was a Moabite–one of the biblically prohibited tribes –
who nevertheless, married an Israelite.
When Ruth’s Jewish husband dies, she refuses to abandon her mother-in-law –
that alone would make her a saint! (If we did that kind of thing.)
Ruth accompanies Naomi back to Israel–
even as it makes Ruth a stranger herself.
And she utters famous words of devotion:
Wherever you go, I will go.
Your people are my people. 
Your God, my God.

Professor Yair Zakovitch, a preeminent Bible scholar from Hebrew University,
argues that the Book of Ruth was written as a radically inclusive response
to Ezra’s intermarriage intolerance. 
Ruth goes on to become the great-grandmother of King David–
and the future Messiah.
This sacred text makes explicit:
The redemption of the Jewish people will come
from a foreigner we welcome into the house of Israel. 

The Book of Ruth rejects the idea that ‘belonging’ in the Jewish community
is about zerah kodesh, ‘holy seed,’
and instead sets up the ideal for conversion to Judaism,
which is about dedication to our people and our God. 

Now fast forward 2500 years to 1948, the founding of the State of Israel,
when once again Jews were miraculously able to return to our ‘homeland.’
But by then, the vast majority of American Jews
had assimilated so successfully in our new nation,
that very few of us returned. 

We remained in America. And we started to intermarry.
At first these unions were viewed
as a positive sign of Jewish acceptance.
But as the numbers rose in the 1960’s,
Jewish sociologists, relying on the new oracle of ‘data,’
declared intermarriage the single greatest threat to Jewish survival.
When intermarriage rates hit 50% in the 1990’s
some rabbis even called it a “Second Holocaust.”[i]

Not unlike the time of Ezra, we were insecure about our Jewish future.
And many in the mainstream Jewish community
took an Ezra-like approach:
families sat shiva for children who intermarried. 
Synagogues rejected non-Jewish partners as members. 
Rabbis refused to officiate interfaith marriages.
We shunned and we shamed.

But in 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler,
the President of the Reform movement,
risked a radically different approach.
So radical it made the front page of the New York Times.
Schindler advocated a 3-part Outreach plan:
First, Do a much better job of welcoming those who convert. 
Second: Do everything possible to include and welcome non-Jewish partners
into our community – and their children.
And third and most controversial: Be champions of Judaism to the world. 
In short–proselytize.

Schindler’s revolutionary plan provoked criticism,
even within the Reform movement. 
And yet, over time, this Outreach approach
fundamentally changed American Jewish life.
I know it changed mine. 
It meant that my family was welcomed
into my Tacoma synagogue in the 1970s. 
That my Buddhist mother could stand beside me as I became bat mitzvah. 
That I was fully accepted as a Jew of patrilineal descent. 
It’s no exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be a rabbi today,
or even a Jew – 
had it not been for Rabbi Schindler’s courageous belief
that intermarriage was not a threat, but an opportunity. 

Schindler believed that it was not intermarriage itself,
but the community’s response to it
that would decide the fate of Jewish continuity.
Two generations later, we can see he was prophetic.
Before Schindler’s Outreach revolution, the percentage
of children of intermarriage who identified as Jewish
was in the single digits.
But today – more than two-thirds of intermarried families
are raising their children as Jews.[ii]

Now, I’m not great at math–but this sounds like a formula for Jewish growth.

Yet we still treat intermarriage as a threat.
It’s true – creating Jewish identity can take more work
for children of intermarriage,
who are still less likely to identify as Jewish than children of 2 Jewish parents.
But I want to let you in on a little secret —
it is often the non-Jewish parent who encourages Jewish identity in the family.
Who enables us to see our holidays and rituals with fresh eyes.
Raises Jewish children.
Drives the Hebrew school carpool. I see it everyday.

For reasons that are as diverse as each of them,
they have not chosen to convert.
So we will not call them B’NEI Yisrael–the “People of Israel.”
but we should see them as BONEI Yisrael– the “Builders of Israel.”
These non-Jewish parents and partners, here in this room,
and watching online – like my mother –
deserve our gratitude and honor for the many ways
they have built Jewish families and Jewish community. 
For example, right here at Central.
In addition to your senior rabbi–
Cantor Jenna Pearsall, Rabbi Chelsea Feuchs, Cantor Julia Cadrain–
all encouraged me to share that they too, are children of intermarriage. 
It’s time for the Jewish community to stop passing judgment. 
And to recognize the reality –and the blessing
of having Bonei Yisrael within our families and our people. 

I can’t help but wonder, however, how many of these Bonei Yisrael
would actually choose to become B’nei Yisrael, if we made a true invitation.
Every marketer knows that the most important way to gauge
how much someone values a program or product
is the way they answer the question:
“Would you recommend this to a friend?”
Jews don’t do this!
We don’t recommend Judaism to our friends.
Or even our spouse.
Why is that?

I know we are allergic to the idea of proselytizing. 
It’s the one part of the Schindler Outreach program that never took hold.
But I’m not talking about knocking on people’s doors with a Hebrew Bible.
This is about sharing what is most meaningful to you, with others–
those seeking a roadmap for living with purpose.
Throughout Jewish history, whenever Jews felt safe, we sought new adherents.
This moment in America should be such a time.

Proudly, Central Synagogue has not shied away
from making conversion accessible and inviting.
14 years ago, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein hired Rabbi Lisa Rubin
to start our Center for Exploring Judaism,
which has welcomed 1600 students and
overseen more than 500 conversions to date.
During Covid, we started offering remote classes
and now have students from over 20 countries.
Our Center for Exploring Judaism is the largest program of its kind
in any synagogue– but it is not nearly enough.   
We will need the entire Jewish community to prioritize this. 
And that includes every Jew here, and everyone watching.

Because I think one of the great obstacles to others converting–is our JUDGEMENT.
Al Cheyt.  For judging Judaism – as not worthy of sharing.
I remember when a woman named Barbara
came through our Exploring Judaism class. 
She had been married to a Jew for over a decade before realizing
she could find a spiritual home for herself in Judaism. 
Weeks before her giyur – or conversion – ceremony,
a murderer killed 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. 
Barbara’s wife Ruth, asked her,
“Why in the world would you want to join such a hated people?” 
Barbara not only joined the Jewish people,
she took on the Hebrew name
of Rose Mallinger, one of the Pittsburgh victims.
Ruth resisted.  But Barbara insisted: Your people are My People.

But before we leave our list of Al Cheyts
there is more we must atone for communally when it comes to the convert:
Al cheyt:  for privately thinking that Jews by choice
are somehow less authentic Jews.
Al Cheyt.  For stubbornly clinging to a holy seed identity
which sees Judaism as an ethnic, racial club
you can only join by birth.

I think of my non-Jewish Korean mother who was always warmly welcomed
in our Tacoma synagogue — as a guest.
But no one ever suggested, “You know–you could be part of our people?” 
My mother loved Judaism, but believed she would never really be seen as a Jew,
even if she converted. 
That she would be the perpetual stranger.

Do you know, the word ger in the Bible means ‘stranger’--
and the process to convert to Judaism is called giyur
from the verb l’hitgayer–to make someone into a stranger.
At first this seems backwards–
isn’t conversion making a stranger–into a Jew?
But the deeper meaning is: when you choose to become a Jew,
you are choosing to become a Stranger.
Abraham is the first ger – he is called to leave his homeland
and become a stranger – in order to become a Jew.
Ruth also leaves her home in Moab, to become our most famous ger,
and to ultimately redeem us all.
Being a stranger–and how this calls us to empathy, compassion and justice–
is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

For those who have considered conversion,
but feel like you don’t know enough,
or can’t play Jewish geography, or feel like an outsider,
you should know: this is what it means to have the soul of a stranger,
and there’s nothing more Jewish than that.

And every time someone chooses to joins the Jewish people
they remind us of this, and what is most true and beautiful in our tradition.

Like Lesidi, a new Jew who shared what Judaism calls her to do:
“I will remember … Adam chose knowledge instead of immortality –
and cherish the Torah; knowing that God is in those pages…
I will give Tzedakah, understanding it isn't about charity…but justice.
I will "remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy"
to lessen the chasm between the ideal of the Divine
and the reality of humankind.
I will raise Jewish children who will know that despite being enslaved people
their ancestors saw that human life was sacred
and that we are all equal before God.”

Wouldn’t you recommend that to a friend?

This year, let us shed the harsh judgments of Ezra
And pick up the courageous mantle of Ruth –
this outsider who was willing to journey to a strange, new place,
out of devotion and love. 
Our tradition teaches that our survival, our Jewish continuity,
our very redemption depends on it.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.