(RNS) Eleven years ago this Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Rabbi Janet Marder asked the non-Jews in her California congregation to come forward for a blessing.
These 100 or so people, mostly spouses of Jews, were not sure what the rabbi had in mind. And Marder acknowledged that they might feel a little embarrassed to be singled out. She told them:
“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.”
In reaching out to those whose contributions to the community had never been publicly appreciated before, it seemed that she had touched a nerve.
News of what had happened at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., in 2004 spread from synagogue to synagogue. Marder fielded phone calls from scores of rabbis who also wanted to affirm non-Jews in their congregations who had made a commitment to Judaism — learning the traditions, cooking Shabbat dinners and driving the carpool to Hebrew school.
That same year, the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement, of which Beth Am is a part, took note of Marder’s blessing and posted it on its website.
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.
So it is fitting, Jacobs said, on this holy day, when the synagogue is most crowded, to call these non-Jews up to the bima — the platform at the front of the synagogue.
“We want to say to you in the most traditional way,” he said, “God bless you.”
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.”
Rod McVeigh didn’t think of himself as an inspiration. But several years ago, sitting in his synagogue in Mahwah, N.J., on Yom Kippur, his own rabbi called him and the congregation’s other non-Jews up to the bima. It seemed awkward at first, to be distinguished in a place where he had always blended in.
He and his wife — Rebecca Bernstein McVeigh, the principal of its religious school — have been members of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom for about 20 years. He is treasurer of the synagogue’s Brotherhood. And he proudly stood alongside his three sons for each of their bar mitzvahs.
“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.”
Though the blessing is now a Yom Kippur ritual at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Rabbi Marder has not yet repeated it with her California congregation, where about 30 percent of the couples are intermarried.
Each year, she said, she brings a different group up to the bima for a blessing on Yom Kippur. Veterans one year. Teenagers another. And she added: “I don’t want to show a lack of respect for those who have made the ultimate commitment to Judaism, which is to convert. So for me it would feel a little strange to every year honor non-Jews.”
Marder plans to reintroduce the blessing in the future, she said, perhaps when there are more members of her 1,650-household congregation who weren’t present when it was first bestowed in 2004.
How does she account for the reaction that day, all the crying and hugging?
“I think there had been a lot of buried hurt in people’s lives,” she said, for non-Jews and their families who hadn’t felt accepted in some way.
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.
Though not at her congregation, some non-Jews may have been made to feel unworthy, rejected, Marder said. The blessing, perhaps, made some amends.
“This was a gesture of love and affirmation, and I think it touched people’s hearts.”
LM/MG END MARKOE