the schmooze


*Gut fur di yiden" means "good for the Jews"

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Syosset, New York

The word "koved" or "kovod" means honor, respect or reverence.  For example, it has been said of Dora Wasserman, founder of Canada's only Yiddish-language theatre, "koved ihr andenk"--honour and tribute.

Laurel Synder ("Half Life - Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes") writes, "...more Jews are now intermarrying than marrying within the faith, which means that the so-called Dilemma of Intermarriage will represent, in a generation, a giant population among Jews.  How will the Jewish community turn its ship around to welcome these half-Jews when for generations many of the half-Jews have been silently tolerated or excluded outright?...The history of the Jews is, whether we like it or not, a history of intermarriage and assimilation, a tradition of blending cultures and asking questions."

So, the question is:  Should we pay "koved"?

According to Sue Fishkoff (JTA), some rabbis use synagogue services to honor non-Jewish congregants.  During one Yom Kippur, Rabbi Larry Raphael of San Francisco's Cong. Sherith Israel, invited his non-Jewish congregants up to the pulpit ("di bime") to thank them for casting their lot with the Jewish people.  He tells them, "You are the moms and dads who drive the children to Hebrew school.  You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help make a Jewish "heym" (home)." He then asks the rest of the congregation to rise and say the blessing that begins, "May God bless you and keep you."...At one time, 50 people came forward; the congregation was in tears.

Many reform rabbis have come up with "farsheydn" (various) ways to express gratitude.  In Nov. 2005, Rabbi Eric Yoffie urged congregants to honor their non- Jewish members publicly, especially the non-Jewish "tate-mame."

Rabbi Barry Block, of Temple Beth El in San Antonio, held a brunch in April to honor his non-Jewish spouses.

Martin Schneer, President of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia, says congregations should extend a warm welcome to the non-Jews in their midst, but honoring them from the dais is INAPPROPRIATE.

Camp Ramah has begun admitting pre-bar and bat mitzvah-age children of non-Jewish mothers.  These changes are bringing intermarried families closer to the community in order to encourage conversions.  That is quite different than honoring non-Jewish parents who don't convert.

Rabbi Steven Glazer of Cong. Beth Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Herdon, VA, is in the minority in his movement.  For 10 years, he has chosen to stand on the bimah during Yom Kippur service and read the story of a Righteous Gentile, a non-Jew who saved Jews during the Holocaust.  (A fair number of the non-Jews he honors in this way go on to convert, although he emphasizes that wasn't his intention.)

Rabbi Marc Wilson--in an e-mail to Marjorie Wolfe--wrote, "My approach to kovod to gentile spouses and family members is a little different.  I do not have a formal blessing for them, but try to do something with a little more 'kishkes' all during the year--to walk-the-talk (you'll excuse the deadly cliche).

I maximize all ways in which a gentile partner may participate in synagogue life. Above all, they are enfranchised into the community as full members, not merely appendages of their Jewish spouses.

Naturally, they are encouraged to attend all activities, particularly classes.  I've found that the gentile members don't need 'special' classes on conducting the Seder, etc., as the Jewish spouse  rarely knows more.

They are welcomed to the bimah to conduct all portions of the service that focus on Psalms, in English or Hebrew, likewise other prayers of a more universalistic nature.

They may be called to the Torah along with the Jewish spouse, aufruf, Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, and may recite the berachot together with them.  They may not have an aliyah alone, as I consider the aliyah an affirmation of the Jewish covenant is strong that it is unique to the peoplehood (look at the words).  I see an aliyah the equivalent of a Catholic communicant taking communion.

I even know of, and have seen, Lubavitchers who allow the gentile partner to tie and dress the Torah (gelilah), although they do not let them lift it, as the Talmud considers this tantamount to having an aliyah."

And Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, New York, sent the writer this e-mail.  It is included here with his permission:

"I have heard of colleagues who honor non-Jewish spouses for taking a principal role in raising their children Jewishly. I couldn't name you a colleague I know who does it, but I wouldn't be surprised if a Conservative colleague, here and there, did, though I suspect the practice is not widespread within the Conservative Movement.

I understand why my colleagues might think this is a good idea, as it is a noble and welcome gesture on the part of the non- Jewish spouses, and in the very least, I sympathize with that sentiment.  Nevertheless, I don't think I could see myself encouraging the practice and I will tell you why.

First, I try not to distinguish the non-Jewish spouses from other parents but rather try to make them feel welcome as members of the community in spite of some restrictions that apply to them.

Secondly, the honor suggests that the community has no interest in their conversion, which is probably true though from a purely political perspective, is harmful to the Jewish future.  Our distaste for proselytization has cost us dearly and the price of our distaste will only increase over time.  Religious affiliation in western culture has diminished as a fate and strengthened as a choice.  Simply put, people increasingly choose what church they will belong to, how they will celebrate this holiday and that holiday, etc.  Until Jewish people begin to actively promote their Jewishness, non-Jews will continue to view them as apathetic and hence uninterested in Judaism as a religion.  Would you convert to a religion populated by people who seemed not to care about their religion?  I wouldn't.  And, of course, we don't promote religion because of 2,000 years of baggage that would suggest  that such proselytization is hurtful if not deadly.  But, this is no longer the Middle Ages.  We're no longer trying to kill anyone if they don't convert.  We're trying to guide people who are either lost or searching for a legitimate way to connect with God and a community.  I would sooner honor the converts to Judaism than the non-Jews who raise their children Jewishly, though the latter group is deserving of our respect and admiration.

Finally, and perhaps this is less germane but I think it important all the same, having them read stories about righteous gentiles as if to suggest that what they are doing is on a par with righteous gentiles or the Holocaust strikes me as distasteful. Righteous gentiles acted at the risk of their very lives, and some, indeed, lost their lives. Our non-Jewish members are hardly doing that  But this detail is more a criticism of the rite than the rightness of what the rabbis are trying to do by honoring the non-Jews.

When I ask Jews if they have asked their non-Jewish son-in-law, daughter-in-law, wife, etc., about the possibility of  converting, I almost always get a wishy-washy answer--a little, not so much, once we talked about it, not really, it's too personal, etc.  Imagine asking a real estate agent if they spoke to the customer about buying a house and the agent answers--a little, not so much, once we talked about it, not really, it's too personal, etc.  Of course, you don't hear that from real estate agents because real estate agents really want to sell the house so they are going to be a bit more assertive and even aggressive.  Not so Jews when it comes to Judaism.  We would sooner sell a house than a spiritual/ethical/communal system that has endured for 3,000 years--and that's a problem.

So, in the end, I understand what my colleagues are doing but it is a short term answer to a long term problem.  They are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but I respectfully disagree with the approach."


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Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of
two books:
yiddish for dog and cat loversbook
"Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers" and
"Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction?  Yiddish
Trivia."  To order a copy, go to her

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