Are you a Green Bay Packers fan?” was the first question Nana, my future husband’s grandmother, asked me when we met more than 10 years ago. I wasn’t — I had never even thought much about the NFL, let alone the Packers — and I realized that as far as my non-Jewish husband-to-be’s family was concerned, I was a stranger.
I’ve often thought that this experience of being a “stranger” resonated with the experiences I’ve heard — and continue to hear — from friends who enter our Jewish community: the feelings of being confronted (you are not one of us), being unsure (I don’t understand what’s going on), and, strangely, being attracted (there may be something special here).
From that moment in 2002 in Waukesha, Wisc., I began the journey of figuring out how to be an authentic fan of the Green Bay Packers, despite the fact that I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin and didn’t understand the game of football. Nonetheless, I felt curiously inquisitive, and I knew it was important to become a fan, if not for its own sake, for the sake of my relationship with the non-Jewish family I would someday join. What I learned is that the concept of the “Fellow Traveler,” one who has not converted but who has tied her or his spirit to the community, is an authentic way to be part of a people, whether they be “Cheeseheads” or Jews. As Jews, we need to embrace these fellow travelers who have chosen to live lives filled with Jewish practices, despite the fact that they are not, by any accepted standards, Jewish.
My husband, the Packers fan, is one of them. He has not converted (and he may never), but he does make Jewish choices: He honors the Sabbath every week by refraining from work, and he parents our Jewish children with me. I never asked him to convert because such a serious decision must be made by an individual alone.
By recognizing fellow travelers like my husband as welcomed members of the Jewish community, we can reinvigorate the concept of ger toshav, the stranger among us. Then, we can celebrate and honor both those who have undertaken the important ritual of conversion and those who have tied their spirit to the Jewish people. Rather than turn away those who are not Jewish, despite their interest in the Jewish community, we offer them a legitimate way to feel included. A 2005 Greater Boston Community Study reported that intermarried families with children (a family in which one partner is a fellow traveler) are generally as observant in traditional Jewish ritual practices — including having their children become b’nei mitzvah — as families affiliated with the Reform movement in which both parents are Jewish.
The teaching Na’aseh v’NiSh’ma (“we will do and we will understand”) offers inspiration about how to welcome the ger toshav. Na’aseh v’NiSh’ma suggests that first we “do” — that is, we convert — and then we “understand” the meaning of being Jewish. But I’d like to suggest that the opposite may be true when it comes to the ger toshav: Judaism is a tradition of action and practice, and much of what we do as Jews does not require one to be Jewish. Studying texts, observing Shabbat, reflecting and repenting every year — all enrich life, regardless of status. But even more important, they help someone who hasn’t grown up with these traditions and practices to learn empirically what it means to live as a Jew. Conversion is an option that some fellow travelers may choose, but rather than being the first step in joining the community, it becomes a significant (but not necessary) milestone in one’s Jewish journey.
One way we can demonstrate the community’s support of fellow travelers is to recognize the journey they are on. We can be more sensitive when using Hebrew or Jewish “terminology”
by explaining its meaning. We can say “thank you” to fellow travelers who have chosen to raise their children as Jews, despite the fact that they themselves may still be learning what it means to live a Jewish life. And, finally, we can offer information and programs that address the unique challenges of being a fellow traveler (or convert); for example, the community might offer opportunities for fellow travelers and converts to discuss how they honor their own families of origin and how they walk through holiday seasons with them.
Fellow travelers bring much needed fresh blood — literally and figuratively. The story of Moses and Yitro illustrates this well. It is Yitro, Moses’s father in law (who is a Midianite and not Jewish), who advises Moses and helps him see that he cannot be a solitary leader, but that he must learn to delegate responsibility and include the voices of others. Today, it is often the perspective of a fellow traveler that helps an intermarried Jew “struggle” with how to express her or his Judaism. For many of us, it is too easy to follow the path of our parents — to do Jewish without any personal stake in making it our own. But when I have to explain (and sometimes advocate for) a Jewish concept or practice to my husband, it forces me to reflect upon and understand the practice more fully. Fellow travelers can alert us to our own struggles with our tradition, building on the story of Jacob who struggled with the angel.
“So, are you a Green Bay Packers fan?” It took a few years until I was able to say “yes” with a sense of authenticity. Although I will never live in Wisconsin, nor ever sport an Aaron Rogers jersey, nor read PackersNews.com on a weekly basis, I get excited when the Packers win and disappointed when they lose. I have not “converted,” but I do feel part of the Green Bay tribe. My husband feels the same way about being part of the Jewish community. And, together, we have an opportunity to reframe the question, “Who is a Jew?” into “Who is part of the Jewish community?” Rather than focusing on Jewish status, we can honor everyone, Jewish or not, who is bringing the riches of Jewish traditions and sensibilities to our lives.email print