A Jewish Soul: Orthodox Outreach and Interfaith Families

With his unfashionable spectacles, black beard and plain black yarmulke, Rabbi Zev looks every inch the Talmudic scholar. But as the rabbi of the Chabad at Johns Hopkins University, he’s encountered some situations never envisioned in the Shulchan Aruch.

One of his students is the president of a traditionally Jewish fraternity. He regularly attends Chabad events, often brings his fraternity brothers with him and mentions his grandfather-the-rabbi. But because his mother is not Jewish, Chabad and other Orthodox organizations do not consider him Jewish.

Another student, a freshman with an Irish-sounding name, is Jewish to Chabad, even though she was raised Catholic. Once she entered college, she acted on her Jewish grandmother’s admonition to explore her Jewish roots, and is doing just that at the Chabad house.

“On spring break, which coincided with Passover, she went home to make a seder,” says Rabbi Gopin, who does not know how her family reacted to that development.

With an intermarriage rate hovering at 50 percent nationally, Orthodox outreach organizations like Chabad and Aish HaTorah are having to grapple with their approach to intermarried couples and their children. How do you “spread Judaism in the widest possible manner”–Chabad’s stated mission–if hundreds of thousands of members of your potential audience have a non-Jewish parent? How do you “provide opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage” (Aish’s mission), if nearly half of these Jews are married to non-Jews?

“In reaching out to Jews, you encounter a large number whose spouses are not Jewish or whose children are not halachically Jews. You have to deal with it. It’s part of everything you do,” says Rabbi Yitchok Lowenbraun, national director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, a Baltimore-headquartered international organization of Orthodox outreach groups including Chabad, Etz Chaim and Aish HaTorah.

Within the parameters of halacha, Jewish religious law, Rabbi Lowenbraun prefers the individual approach. So, it appears, do others in the Orthodox outreach field.

“There isn’t a set formula,” says the rabbi, who spent 18 years as Atlantic Seaboard regional director for NCSY, an Orthodox youth group. “Do we turn away interfaith couples? The answer is an emphatic ‘no.’ We deal with them as a couple.”

The Orthodox position on interfaith marriage is that it is unacceptable, a violation of halacha. But by that same law, if the mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish regardless of upbringing; if the mother is not Jewish, the child is not Jewish.

Rabbi Gopin talks about a Jewish neshama, a Jewish “soul” that flows from mother to child. In the Orthodox outreach field, another Chabad rabbi reports, the common saying is that the child of a Jewish mother is “as Jewish as Moses.”

Rabbi Gopin’s attitude is that he does not question the motives of interfaith students who attend Chabad activities. Their parentage often comes out in conversation and he knows that things can get sticky. Halachic status is a delicate topic, filled with the potential for hurt feelings and resentment. He has not, for example, raised the subject with the fraternity president.

“If I were doing marriages, it would be more of a pressing issue,” he says. “But in terms of the Shabbos table, of taking classes?” his voice trails off.

Nonetheless, the rabbi does represent an outreach organization whose efforts are aimed at Jews. That’s where he focuses his time and attention, not on non-Jews.

“I don’t say, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ but I can’t pursue that relationship,” says Rabbi Gopin, although, he adds, he is willing to help anyone interested in learning about Judaism.

Rabbi Gopin is by no means alone in this approach. Rabbi Eli Backman, who runs the Bais Menachem Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Maryland College Park, says basically the same thing.

Rabbi Backman says the question of Jewish identity comes up in many different situations. “We target our programs to Jews,” he gives an example, but students of all backgrounds come to Chabad events, and some are searching for their identity.

“They remember attending a Passover seder at the grandparents. They may have heard something” about the family history, Rabbi Backman continues.

“We have conversations” that, depending on their circumstances, touch on conversion, he says. “As a traditional organization, we won’t compromise on halachic values.”

Rabbi Backman teaches a class on Jewish spirituality and kabalah, and the question of Jewish identity comes up frequently. The rabbi says he tries to be “sensitive and open” in his responses.

“You have to deal with emotions and feelings and not throw text at people. You don’t say, ‘This is what it says in the book and have a nice day.’ This is a person’s identity,” he says.

To Rabbi Mayer Pasternak, executive director of Aish HaTorah, an international Orthodox outreach organization, it’s a matter of definition.

“To Reform and Conservative, the focus of outreach is to non-Jews, specifically the interfaith. Our focus is to Jews. There might be overlap but the definitions are totally different,” says Rabbi Pasternak, who runs the 25 Aish HaTorah branches from his base in Baltimore.

Like other workers in this field, Rabbi Pasternak constantly encounters interfaith situations, sometimes with surprising outcomes. One woman married a man whom she assumed was not Jewish and who did not inform her otherwise. Three years passed, they had children. One day, her mother-in-law let slip the truth.

“She started getting interested in Judaism. She looked into her own family history and found out, she’s Jewish,” says Rabbi Pasternak.

Aish HaTorah runs a variety of educational programs, online and community based. It does not have separate programs for non-Jewish spouses or children of interfaith marriages. At its programs, “non-Jewish spouses are not told to leave but they are not necessarily encouraged to come,” he says, unless their presence somehow benefits the Jewish spouse.

As for children of interfaith marriages, “if people think they are Jewish but are not [halachically], let them participate but at a certain point, they are told they need to convert. If they are not interested in doing that, they are encouraged not to continue participating,” he says.

Like the others, Rabbi Pasternak has met children of interfaith families who are halachically Jewish but not raised as such. “Catholics, Protestants, we’ve had them in our programs,” says the rabbi. His attitude is, “I am not going to chase after people who were raised Christian.”

Rabbi Shlomo Porter is director of Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Living and Learning, an independent multi-faceted organization that operates outreach programs in two centers in Baltimore, for Shabbatons, religious services, educational programs, a college network and initiatives in local senior centers.

A 28-year veteran of outreach, Rabbi Porter, an Orthodox rabbi, says that over the years, the attitude of the Orthodox towards intermarriage has changed, a recognition of the reality of the American Jewish community.

“It’s no longer, this Jewish person who married out of the faith is rejected,” says the rabbi. “Most Orthodox organizations have two policies. One, the public or group policy, is against intermarriage. But the second is an individualized policy, or how to deal with individual couples” who respond to outreach efforts.

Etz Chaim does not have separate programs for the intermarried. Rabbi Porter has seen situations where the Jewish spouse is eager to learn about Judaism, and the non-Jewish spouse is not. He has also seen the opposite, where the non-Jewish spouse wants to learn and the Jewish spouse is being dragged along.

“It can cause conflict,” he says. “Sometimes, it does end in divorce. And sometimes, it ends with both becoming observant.”

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is Maryland regional director of Chabad Lubavitch. He oversees 18 Chabad centers around the state. Like Rabbi Porter, this long-time veteran of outreach programs has noticed a change in attitude among the Orthodox.

“I came to the Maryland in 1974 and we openly challenged intermarriage. We weren’t afraid to condemn it. We were not concerned about alienating people,” he says.

“Now, we run into intermarriage all the time. Today, we may be offending people.”

Still, it’s no secret that Chabad is an Orthodox organization. When people come to an event, Rabbi Kaplan maintains, they know what they’re getting into. Indeed, that may be the reason interfaith couples and/or children of interfaith marriages choose a Chabad program.

“When they come to us, they are receptive to our programs. When they come to us, they are at least open to discussion. They know we have standards,” he says.

“At services, there is a separation of the genders. They don’t have a problem with that when they come of their own volition,” says Rabbi Kaplan. “They know that’s our standard and they accept it.”

(Tags: Orthodox, Intermarriage, Jewish, interfaith)


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