A Jew Named Christopher

I know a Jew named Christopher. Yes, the word “Christ” is in his name, and yes, he’s a Jew…at least according to Jewish law. When I think about how to create a more engaging, sustaining Jewish community, I do it by putting myself in Christopher’s shoes. And they’re big shoes. Because besides being a Jew, Christopher is also a large black man. Christopher’s Jewish mother ran away with his African-American father to marry in Paris when she was just 18 years old, in the late 1950s, at a time when it was illegal in most of the US to wed interracially and rare for a Jew to marry a non-Jew.

Was she rebelling? Probably. Was it rebellion against parents, or society, or Judaism…or all of those things? Even she may not fully understand. But what happened to Christopher is a microcosm of how the Jewish community in the last 35 years has continued to cannibalize itself rather than adjust, embrace and grow. Because Christopher’s mom “betrayed” her people by marrying out, her people got payback by taking it out on Christopher, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. “You don’t look Jewish!” is an expression that many of us have uttered at some point in our lifetimes, let’s admit it. We may have thought it an innocent enough statement, even playful. But for Christopher it cut like a knife. As did, “That’s not a Jewish name!” And “How can you be Jewish if you’re black?”

It’s not remarkable that Christopher felt isolated from the Jewish community growing up the product of interracial intermarriage in the 1970s. What’s remarkable is that the same scenario continues to play itself out in countless varieties today, 30 years later, despite an explosion in Jewish interfaith/intercultural marriages. The organized Jewish community on the whole-notwithstanding pockets of genuine inclusion-remains a fearful, closed, homogeneous group, with leaders considerably more conservative than their constituency who would rather oversee a decline in the number of Jews than take the bold step of “welcoming the stranger” in every Jewish family. Admitting the problem is the first step to recovery.

The next step is submitting to a higher power. But in this case it’s not the obvious higher power. The power that will revive Jewish engagement in America is the inherent Jewish spark that still resides in unengaged Jews, intermarried families, and the children and grandchildren of intermarried Jews. Igniting that spark should be the primary goal of the Jewish community. We need to create many more doors back into Judaism, instead of obsessing over how to close the barn gate after most of the herd has already escaped. By the time I’d met Christopher, the Jewish community had been ignoring him for 20 years. Today, it’s over 36 years. Yet Christopher’s Jewish identity is still strong. He follows news about Israel intently, and still talks about the class we took together in college on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. If birthright Israel had been around back then, he might have gone. Congratulations, Jewish community, that’s one way in. What else you got?

The Jewish community’s standard answer is that we’ve got plenty for Christopher; he simply needs to walk through the doors of our institutions. Except that he’s never going to. The Jewish community has repeatedly turned him off, whether through overt racism, inadvertent insensitivity, sermons against intermarriage (i.e., against his parents), or for all the reasons any other unaffiliated Jew is unaffiliated: boredom, lack of meaning, high costs, and an acute awareness of his inadequate Jewish education. We can no longer ask the unaffiliated to come to us. We as a Jewish community must go to them.

There are kernels of this idea taking hold, but not nearly in the scope needed. Chabad has been trying to meet unaffiliated Jews in public venues for years. Would they bother asking Christopher the obligatory opening line, “Are you Jewish?” Even if he did wrap tefillin inside their Mitzvah mobile, would they then be able to offer him a relevant next step? Or is his only choice to become a baal tshuvah? The other streams of Judaism are finally beginning to learn that programs held in secular venues-based around Jewish culture or holiday celebrations and open to all who would participate-removes barriers for unaffiliated and intermarried Jews.

Take for example Jewish film festivals. Twenty years ago there was only one, in San Francisco. Today it seems there’s one in every town with more than three Jews. A recent study suggests that when Jewish films are screened in secular venues like multiplex theaters, rather than in JCC auditoriums or synagogue basements, the crowds in attendance are considerably less affiliated. But the question is, are there any trained Jewish communal professionals working the crowds at these events? Or are Jewish film festivals simply happy enough to fill the seats with warm fannies? We need to learn who these unaffiliated Jews are, find out what they might need from us, invite them to something else they’d find relevant, and then follow-up with them personally rather than dumping them on a mailing list or, worse, soliciting them for membership or donations. They need to get to know us, and we need the sensitivity not to inadvertently turn them away again.

Jewish programs are only as good as the Jewish professionals running them. To reach Jews like Christopher, we need the sort of trained army of outreach workers that Chabad has built, but have them offer countless additional paths into Jewish meaning. Christopher is the proud father of two beautiful preschool girls. His wife is not Jewish but like Christopher’s father doesn’t practice any other religion. The spark of Judaism is still alive inside that household. If only the community were to reach out to them, a whole generation could reclaim their Jewish heritage.

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