As Yom Kippur approaches on sundown tomorrow, the Religion News Service runs a heartfelt story on non-Jews who support the Jewish community.
A heartfelt story that’s nevertheless haunted by religious ghosts. But let's praise its merits first.
The article looks at a decade-old trend among Reform synagogues: calling non-Jewish congregants to the bima, or platform, for a formal blessing from the rabbi. It begins with the leader who started it, Rabbi Janet Marder of California.
Back in 2004, as RNS tells it, Marder called 100 people, mostly spouses of Jews, to the bima, then said:
“What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.
“Most of all, we want to offer our deepest thanks to those of you who are parents, and who are raising your sons and daughters as Jews,” she continued. “In our generation, which saw one-third of the world’s Jewish population destroyed … every Jewish boy and girl is a gift to the Jewish future.”
The reaction to the blessing that followed — an outpouring of emotion and gratitude — surprised Marder. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do,” she said. “I was not prepared for the way people were weeping.”
Journalistically, the story is a creative break from the usual Yom Kippur fare, which often takes the form of politics (this year, Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.) or food (tasty ways to follow the all-day fast). The RNS article instead takes some well-known facts -- like the insularity of many synagogues and the percentage of Jews who marry outside the faith -- and tells what a group of temples are doing about it.
And rather than coast on assumptions or low-level reactions, RNS digs up data and interviews leaders like Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism:
It’s far more than a strategy for Jewish continuity, Jacobs continued, speaking of the drive to assure that the Jewish population — shrunk by persecution and more recently, by intermarriage and assimilation — will survive. The Pew Research Center pegs the Jewish intermarriage rate at 58 percent, a figure alarming to many who note that the children of such intermarriages often shed their Jewish identities.
But the blessing Marder wrote offers a different perspective, said Jacobs. “It’s turning the fear of the non-Jew into the inspiration.”
The article adds that even at Marder's own congregation, 30 percent of the couples are married to non-Jews. And it gets reactions from one non-Jew, Rod McVeigh, who was so honored.
It says that he was born to a Catholic father and a Methodist mother, but that he’s been a synagogue member for 20 years and serves as treasurer for the men's fellowship:
“Clearly it’s a little unnerving each time,” he said of the now annual blessing at the synagogue. “Do you want to stand up in front of everybody and walk up to the front?” But it soon becomes clear, he continued, that the blessing is not about singling people out, but embracing them.
“It was awesome,” said McVeigh, who was born to a Catholic father and Methodist mother but did not have much of a religious upbringing. “It kind of gave you goose bumps. Not anything had happened like this before.”
Now for the ghostly part. You could read this whole story, all 950-plus words, without learning what Yom Kippur is really about. And what explanation it does have is buried in the first third of the text, as a lead-in from the segment on the custom of blessing:
Now, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, it is uttered in hundreds of congregations across the nation on Yom Kippur, which begins this year at nightfall Tuesday (Sept. 22) and ends — after services and a fast — the following evening.
The holiday, the “Day of Atonement,” is the most important in Judaism, marking the end of a period of introspection when Jews renew their commitment to their better selves.
But why is it called atonement? Atonement for what? Is it a stand-alone holiday or part of a series of such days? And do all Jews see Yom Kippur only as a period of introspection and good resolutions?
In short, the RNS story has nothing on Yom Kippur as the climax to the High Holy Days, which began at sundown Sept. 13 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. No indication that they are also known as the Ten Days of Repentance, or Yamim Noraim -- the "Days of Awe." Many websites abound in those facts and more.
Granted, this article is about the Reform movement, the most liberal, least traditional of the major branches of American Jewry. But when millions of Conservative and Orthodox Jews also pray, fast and attend services all day on Yom Kippur, the omission is striking.
There was certainly room for an explanation of the holiday. The story mentions two other Jewish attitudes toward outsiders:
In the Reform and the smaller Reconstructionist Jewish movements — which has also in recent years incorporated blessings for non-Jews on important days on the Jewish calendar — clergy may marry Jews to non-Jews. And the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers can be considered Jewish. Neither is acceptable in more traditional streams of Judaism, absent a conversion.
That explanation apparently was meant as a clue to why non-Jews and their families don’t feel fully accepted in synagogues. But again, the article is about Reform Judaism, so it wasn't even necessary. The space would have been better spent with a rundown on the basics of Yom Kippur.
I fully understand the dilemma of finding something new every year in a millennia-old observance. As a newspaper religion writer for decades, I wrestled with that problem with Christian, Muslim and Hindu holidays as well. RNS rates a thumbs-up for humanizing poll numbers, applying them to a major holiday and turning it into a human-interest feature.
But while casting about for the new, it's still vital to recall what makes the special day special. Otherwise, you risk losing the very heritage that Jews are trying to preserve.
Photo via guruphotos.net.