Shavuot Your people is My people
Thirty-eight centuries ago, one pagan discovered the one God of the universe. He became the first Hebrew, and, we could call it the first convert to Judaism, before there were any Jews.
Thirty- five centuries ago, his descendants, a rabble of slaves, fresh out of the idolatrous society of Egypt, stood at Sinai at this season, and as a group, entered the covenant with God. It was the first recorded case of a mass conversion to Judaism.
Thirty centuries ago, an adventurous Jewish family man moved from Israel to seek his fortune in the neighboring country. His two sons married local women, and then disaster struck. Only his wife, with her two non-Jewish daughters-in-law survived the disaster. All was lost. One local woman stayed in her native country, but the other pagan widow decided to find a new home among her in-laws people. She made the first formal declaration of conversion of an individual:
El asher teylchi aylech uvasher talini alin
"Wherever you go, I go; wherever you live, I will live; your people are my people, and your God is my God. Wherever you die, I shall die, and there will I be buried. May God do so to me and more so, for only death will part me from you."
Here, a non-Jewish woman had intermarried with a Jew, and, after her husband’s death, had made the choice to become a part of the Jewish people and teachings.
This event is read, at this season, when we associate the choice of the entire children of Israel to accept Torah with the choice of the individual, the non-Jew, to accept the Torah.
But that was then, and this is now. What do we have in our day? Who is making choices for Torah, for the teachings of Judaism.
What happens today, when a Jew and a non-Jew marry. Who says',Wherever you go, I will go.? Who even goes anywhere in a marriage today?
Many years ago, my father was a Rabbi in a small town in West Virginia. Years before a young Jewish man had come to the town and opened a jewelry shop on Yom Kippur day,
Le’hachis--to spite the rest of the Jewish community. He was liberal, he was independent, he had no obligations to an outmoded tradition.
On top of that, he married a Catholic, a devout Catholic to boot.
Could anyone guess how the story should end?
The devout Catholic decided that since her husband was Jewish, her children should be Jewish, and not just Jewish, but as deeply Jewish as she could make them, no matter what her husband, the born Jew, might think. The two sons born to them were officially converted to Judaism by going to the mikveh, she saw to it that studied in Hebrew school and celebrated their Bar Mitzvah properly, and sent them to Israel for a summer while they were in high school.
I lost track of them since then, but I have the feeling that today they have become very involved and committed Jews, despite a Jewish father, and thanks to a Catholic mother.
I mention this, because our attention as Jews in America has been riveted in the last months to a survey on the exceptionally high rate of intermarriage that has struck the community. The rate has been around 50%, but among non-Orthodox Jews, that rate is close to three out of 4, which means that of 5 non-Orthodox Jews, 2 marry each other, while three go outside.
What am I getting at? Do I want to suggest, by my story, that the solution is for Jewish young men to meet devout Catholic women, who will see to it that the children are raised as Jews? Hardly.
However, while the flood may be coming, it is not necessarily the end of the Jewish people. Nothing ever is, and we needn't and dare not throw our hands up in despair.
Some time ago, a gentleman called me, very distraught about the results of this survey. He had just discovered that it was against Jewish law for a Jew to marry a non-Jew, and he had the ideal solution--if only we could announce to our children that it is against Jewish law, then none-of them would intermarry.
I wish it were such an easy solution.
If only I could go to a young Jewish man or woman and say, "Darling, what you are doing is against Jewish law," and thereby guarantee that they marry a Jew, I would be the very first. Unfortunately, I am afraid that the young man or woman in question would look back at me, and say, quizzically," What Jewish law?! I don't observe the law of Shabbat, of kashrut, of observance of festivals. I don't read Hebrew; I don't go to the synagogue, not on Shabbat, not on weekday, not even for a social event. What do I know about Jewish law, or life, or history, or belief, or tradition?!"
There is no question that most of what we are doing today is closing the gate after the horses have all left the barn. It is the price we are paying in the Jewish community for the style of life we live--we live as American, and even more so than the neighbor next door, and the neighbor next door no longer believes we have horns on our head. It is the price of living in an open society, but I know of no one who would like to go back to the ghettos as a solution.
So what is it that we are to do? Shall we wring our hands in woe? I know that most of us here are no longer seeking to get married, nor even have children any more of marrying age. Many of us here do deal with children in mixed marriages, and we do seek ways to deal with grandchildren who may or may not be Jewish. What can we do?
The same studies about the high rate of intermarriage also show us the ways to retain and to strengthen our flock, and see to it that our grandchildren and great grandchildren are Jewish. There are no air-tight solutions, but we can certainly better the odds.
One way is through the synagogue--
Every study shows that families that were affiliated with synagogues, families which showed their children that they cared about being Jews, had twice as good a chance to walk their children to the huppah in a Jewish wedding, than did non- affiliated Jews. Hand-in-hand with this goes quality Jewish education, starting from nursery school, through Hebrew school, or Jewish day school. Of exceptional importance, perhaps of even greater importance, is young adult Jewish education, after Bar Mitzvah-- through continuing Jewish High School programs or private Jewish high schools, through youth activities, through Camps like Ramah or, for young adults, Hillel and Brandeis Bardin institutes, and probably the most intense but with impact, Birthright. trips.
We know that today, the cost of being Jewish is high. Many of us, as grand-parents, or great-grandparents can, and many do, chip in, by helping the struggling younger generation pay for synagogue and for religious school, or day school, or for any of these programs. Could you imagine the impact it would make if you would give a Bar Mitzvah child a gift of an Israel Bond, and say, when you go to Israel to visit and study, you can cash it in to pay for the trip.
Even more so, there is the value of home example. To the extent that the home life is warmly Jewish, actively Jewish, in which Shabbat is a special day, in which the festivals are celebrated distinctly--all this sinks in, and places its mark in the decision-making of our younger generation. Those of us who have the opportunity can host our grand-children, nephews, nieces for such special events, to share with them the atmosphere of Jewish life, which will further their decision to establish a Jewish household.
There is always the reality that a young Jewish man or woman is eager to find a Jewish partner, but is still looking, and looking, and looking, even after all the Jewish singles programs and the online J-Date..
Still, try as we may, even under the best of circumstances, a Jew finds his hearts choice in a non-Jew. It happens, and we cannot any more, sit shiva, as we once did. The answer is not to rush to perform a wedding at all costs, but to bring in the non-Jewish partner to the fold, with the wedding as a prize.
I made mention of the conversion of Ruth. The Jewish people are descendants of individuals and nations who chose to be Jews, and we must do all that we can to encourage the outreach to willing and eager non-Jews. We are descendants of blond-haired Cossacks, Turkish Khazars, North African Berbers, Arabian Bedouin, Roman nobility, and just about everybody else in between. We know that there is no such thing as a Jewish race, even if many of us share common genetic markers, and that we are a composite of pagan peoples who chose, individually, or en mass, to embrace the Torah.
There are exceptional opportunities in this area, for people we know, who are contemplating a marriage to a non- Jew, to say, do yourselves both a favor--learn what Judaism is, then make a mature and adult decision about what kind of household you will create, what kind of atmosphere you will raise your children in.
Finally, we do recognize that for many, the die is cast, the marriage made, the children born. Do we then close the door? Never. The doors of the synagogue are open always, to all, Jew and gentile. We seek to strengthen the Jewish partner, make the non-Jewish partner take an interest in Judaism, and above all else, hope to bring the children within the fold of Judaism. The doors are never closed.
We will do our share. This synagogue must be strengthened; it must enjoy your fullest support, your deepest personal commitment, so that it can create the activities and programming needed. Your children and grandchildren need your encouragement and support to choose to establish a warm and vibrant Jewish household. We can see to it that the next generation of Jews remains Jews. That is our challenge, that is our commitment to the future, And then we will say, to our ancestors, as well as to our descendants: Your people was, is, and will be my people. Your God was, is, and will be my God.