Abraham and Sarah’s Tent

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November 1, 2008
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Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff

For earlier generations of American Jewry, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew was clear. Jews were born Jews and stayed Jews because the larger society would not accept them as anything else. In this context, converts were often viewed with suspicion. Why would anyone from the outside want to be Jewish? Judaism in all of its joys, trials, and traditions was not something you chose; it was a condition of life.

Today, the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews have become fluid. Antisemitism is no longer a significant force in American life. Jewish holidays are respected in most workplace environments and schools. Love has replaced hate as intermarriage has become a fact of life and non-Jews even use the Internet dating site J-Date to find Jewish spouses. Given these shifts, it is not surprising that many young Jews no longer see their Jewish heritage as a central feature of their identity but as only one strand in a complex fabric of interests and connections. Judaism is now a choice, not a condition. Without antisemitism to impose Jewish identity, it is easy to identify oneself as a Jew, but it is just as easy not to.

Some regard the high rates of intermarriage as the reason behind the declining numbers of Jews in North America. They argue that to maintain the distinctiveness of Judaism in a society of diverse cultures, we need to strengthen the boundaries around Judaism and focus on defining who is a Jew and who is not. This approach is misguided. Our concern should be to welcome people into our community, not to build barriers around it. It is just as important to be welcoming to Jews as it is to non-Jews. Today, all Jews are Jews-by-Choice. To build a vital Jewish community for the 21st century, we need to be open to all who wish to add their voices to the Jewish story.

Let us think of Abraham and Sarah’s tent in the Torah as an image for Jewish community. By rabbinic tradition, the tent was open on all sides to welcome travelers coming from all directions. Welcoming guests is so important to Abraham that he even interrupts God to greet three strangers. (Genesis 18) Though Abraham eventually learns that these strangers are angels, he is unaware of their identities when he invites them in, bathes their feet, and offers refreshment. He simply accepts them. We should take the same approach to all who approach the tent of Jewish life, no matter what their parentage.

It is not the borders of the tent that should be our main concern, but what happens inside. Jewish communities should be places of learning, where all are invited to encounter Jewish texts, culture, history, and spirituality. They should be places of joy where the rhythms of the Jewish calendar punctuate time with moments for reflection and celebration. The Jewish tent should be big enough to accommodate many kinds of Jewish practice and to foster respectful debate. It should be wide open to the outside world, so that even as we cultivate our own community, we ask what it can offer to the world at large.

Conversion, in this vision, is not a condition for entry into Jewish life, but a decision that one makes from the heart, when ready. There are many examples of people who, married to Jews and raising Jewish children, take years before deciding they are ready to convert. Whether people choose to make a commitment to Judaism has a lot to do with the quality of the welcome they receive. Abraham’s example teaches that it is not enough to say, “Come in and sit”; we must say, “Come in and sit with me.” Then we can all begin to learn together.

Jews in North America have succeeded beyond the dearest hopes of the immigrants who built our community, most of whom were more concerned with building better lives for their children than helping them become better Jews. But if Judaism is to stay significant for future generations, we need to take a critical look at what we are doing. Are we holding onto vestiges of the old suspicion of the stranger and thus pushing people away? Do our synagogues, Jewish community centers, Israel programs, and Hillel chapters create communities where all who enter may find a substantive, joyful connection to Judaism? Are we opening not just our doors to newcomers, but our hearts?

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Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff are the authors of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). Edgar M. Bronfman is a leading philanthropist and chairman of the Board of Governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd and the former president of the World Jewish Congress. Beth Zasloff, a writer and teacher of writing, is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

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