One of the things that I’m incredibly passionate about is reaching out to Unaffiliated members of the Jewish community. (In fact, my first blog post was titled “Unaffiliated by Default” and discussed that very subject.)
I truly believe that every Jew, no matter what their observance level or personal beliefs may be, has a place in the community and we need to welcome them. By welcoming I mean not judging, not being critical, and not trying to bully them into changing.
One such person is a lady that I know from childhood. We attended Hebrew School together and were marginally friendly, but not close. We weren’t in touch for many years until she reconnected with me on Facebook. Our lives went in very different directions. She is a single mother, with two kids, by two different men, and neither one is in the picture. Her current boyfriend, who is a multiple-time felon, is literally covered head-to-toe in tattoos and is obviously not Jewish.
I have invited her to my home at least half a dozen times to celebrate various Jewish holidays. She has always refused, stating that she is a Humanist, an Atheist, and doesn’t believe in a “Unicorn Fairy Tale Book” (meaning the Bible). She has not been inside a temple since her Bat Mitzvah, even for her brother’s funeral.
While I don’t agree with any of her ideas or lifestyle choices, I refuse to give up on her and her kids. The holiday of Sukkot, which is a harvest festival, presented the perfect opportunity for more outreach. Because she is a vegetarian and into camping and outdoor stuff, I suggested very casually that she was welcome to stop by my Sukkah and share dinner with us.
After considerable hemming and hawing, she agreed, provided there was no religion discussed and no praying. Without hesitation, I accommodated her wishes, not because it was my first choice (certainly not), but because her presence and the presence of her children was important—to me, to their identity, and to the Jewish People as a whole.
Though I haven’t seen her in person for over 20 years, it wasn’t awkward at all. It was simply two families sharing a meal, during a holiday, without either side imposing their will on the other. I’m pretty sure it was her kids first experience with anything Jewish and definitely the boyfriend’s, so I wanted it to be low key and warm.
With huge segments of the Jewish community inter-marrying or simply cutting themselves off from traditional Jewish institutions, I feel strongly that we must make allowances for these folks and meet them where they’re at. If we are negative or preachy, they will never come back! By being kind and understanding, and not shoving religion down their throat, they will (hopefully) find their way back into the fold.
Do I hope that she will become religious again? Of course! Do I want her children to have a full and rich Jewish life? OMG, Yes! But that can only happen in stages, over time, with encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Every member of the Jewish community is important. Every one should be valued and honored. It doesn’t matter if they live wrong, think wrong, whatever else is wrong, because one day they may get it right. We owe it them and to ourselves to make the effort. We can not afford to turn our backs on anyone!
That is why I invited an Atheist to my Sukkah and I think you should too. Don’t expect someone else to make the first move. Extend the hand of friendship, expecting nothing in return, and truly care about that person. That, above all, is what God commands us to do—love each other unconditionally.