By Sana Britavsky
A child is born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in the former Soviet Union. He carries a Jewish family name. He considers himself a Jew (more important, those around him consider him a Jew). This child is offered opportunities to embrace his Jewishness and grows to be proud of his legacy. As a young man he falls in love with Jewish knowledge and culture and takes part in Jewish life. Finally, he decides to continue his life as a Jew in a Jewish state – only to discover, to his shock and dismay, that, according to Halacha, he is not really a Jew.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Israelis exist in this identity limbo. They have been welcomed to Israel as new citizens, they are undistinguishable from other Jewish Israelis, but they are not recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate. The same can be said about non-Jewish spouses and parents – people who have chosen to live the life of their Jewish partner, to share their fate, to build their future in the Jewish state.
Working closely with this population for years and enabling them to reclaim their Jewish legacy has convinced me that Israel must embrace all those who choose to identify as members of “our big Jewish family”, not treat them as “non-Jews”, alien and foreign. Despite much progress, we still have a long way to go to accomplish this. However, in Israel, the integration of intermarried families has a unique dimension, an additional common denominator – we all live in a Jewish state. Above and beyond the religious domain, there is an inclusive Jewish context to our national life, available to all, regardless of their Halachic status.
In the Diaspora, where intermarriage continues to grow (outside of those who identify as Orthodox), there are still limitations on opportunities for engagement for intermarried families and their children, despite the best efforts of a number of prominent organizations. It is time to accept that those who choose to identify as Jewish are not guests, but members of organized Jewish life. Currently, Jews who marry outside of the tribe are perceived as beginning a process of disengagement from everything Jewish, including contribution to and participation in communal life and support for Israel.
Any opportunity that brings these families and their children closer to Jewish life serves all of our interests.
The second Genesis Prize Laureate, Michael Douglas, has powerfully described the pain of feeling unwanted by and isolated from the community he wanted to join. No one who has heard or read his appeal for acceptance and openness for those like him (children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers) can remain indifferent to this human need. In addition, neither the Jewish people nor the Jewish state can afford to push away those who are potentially part of our future.
Through my experience working with emerging and established Jewish organizations in Eastern Europe, the FSU and Israel, I have seen that in fact and in practice many who approach their work with the goal of introducing young adults to their heritage are including by default non-halachic Jews. These programs engage intermarried families and their offspring, giving them an opportunity to discover the treasures of cultural Judaism and the rich reality of Israel, as the organizational criteria for participation is based on the Israeli civil Law of Return. Now, as Douglas has so powerfully challenged us to do, it is time for these Jewish organizations to define the important role they have assumed in building our Jewish communities, so that all those who are ready to proclaim themselves as belonging to the Jewish people will know that they are welcome and invited to partake in Jewish life and Jewish study.
To implement Douglas’ compelling vision and put in practice his passionate call for a Jewish world open to anyone who feels in his or her heart the same call of our common legacy, The Jewish Funders Network with support of the Genesis Prize Foundation has launched the matching grants fund of $3.3 million to support projects and ideas that promote inclusiveness.
For philanthropists and organizations, this will be an opportunity to present and expand the good work they have been doing for quite some time; for others this offers a first call and opportunity to engage with one of the most challenging and complex issues shaping our reality as a nation.
The initiative is truly global, and applications are welcome from all over the world where Jewish communities are struggling to develop an inspired response to this challenge.
As someone who has been working for years in the field of Jewish identity and has taken part in organizing many projects engaging the young generation of intermarried couples, I believe that the success of this enterprise will empower those who want to build a Jewish world that is strong and welcoming, open and enduring. All who care about the future of our people must join in this vital work.
Sana Britavsky is Deputy CEO of the Genesis Prize Foundation.
This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post’s Genesis Prize Magazine.