Expert urges outreach to interfaith couples

Expert urges outreach to interfaith couples

As rates of intermarriage continue to rise, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky says it is important, for both practical and spiritual reasons, to encourage non-Jewish partners to engage with the Jewish community.

“I think we have a moral imperative as well as a demographic imperative,” said Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. “Just as important, if we want to demonstrate that the Jewish community is warm and welcoming, the place we have to begin with is our own families.”

Olitzky, a North Brunswick resident, will address the issue in programs at two local synagogues.

At Shabbat morning services on Jan. 18, he will address Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen as part of its Gilbert and Claudie Hayat speaker series. Discussion will continue after kiddush lunch.

On Monday, Feb. 10, he will appear at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is perhaps the best known advocate for including interfaith families in Jewish life, arguing in part that exclusion only ensures that the children of such families will not be part of the Jewish community.

While the Neve Shalom program will be text-based, its subject matter ties into intermarriage.

“Our moral imperative is to welcome the stranger,” said Olitzky. “For example, the instruction to welcome the stranger is mentioned in the Torah more often than any other mitzva, so either it’s the most important or it is because the Israelites didn’t do it. I think the answer lies somewhere in between. I think it’s among the most important of the mitzvot, and I think the Torah reminds us so often because we don’t always reach the level of fulfillment that God would like us to reach.”

In Highland Park, he will focus on reaction to an adult child’s bringing home a non-Jewish partner for the first time.

“The only thing to do is welcome them and open your arms in a wide embrace,” said Olitzky, a move that helps to ensure “they will cast their lot in the orbit of the Jewish people” at a time when the majority of marriages in the non-Orthodox Jewish community are interfaith.

Moreover, the community needs to treat interfaith marriages with nuance. For example, he said, a young couple entering a first marriage is quite different from a mature couple entering a second marriage.

“On one hand the question of children is less relevant, but if one or both still have children at home it becomes more complicated,” said Olitzky.

“The crucial issue for me is not whom you marry, but how you raise your children,” he said, pointing to evidence showing that if non-Jewish spouses are warmly welcomed, they are more open to raising Jewish children.

“They have to begin to ask the question, ‘Of what benefit is it to me in raising a child in the Jewish community?’ I think the Jewish community has to demonstrate that benefit by the power of a value-driven community.”

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