On June 9, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) hosted the webinar Embracing Diversity: Wisdom from an Interfaith, Interracial Jewish Family. The event addressed the issues involved in creating an inclusive setting within a congregation and keeping an open mind about Jewish intermarriage.
Keren McGinity, the USCJ’s interfaith specialist, led the inaugural event, which took place on Zoom. Interfaith is one of four areas of diversity synagogues should hope to include, she said; the others being LBGTQ+, people of colour, and people of all neurological and physical abilities; occasionally, there is overlap.
It was mentioned that the webinar took place close to Loving Day (June 12), which marks the anniversary of the 1958 marriage – and subsequent arrest – of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in its Loving v. Virginia decision.
Guest speakers for the afternoon were Shira and Derrick, an interfaith and interracial couple. Shira grew up in the northeast United States and was raised in the Conservative movement; Derrick was born to Ghanaian parents and raised in an evangelical Christian environment in the Midwest. The pair met at university and began dating in their senior year. Because of their different upbringings, neither believed at the outset that the relationship would last. To their surprise, however, it did. They fell in love, ultimately got married and are now raising a baby daughter.
“There was a lot of internal struggle for both of us,” Shira admitted, explaining that they both wondered whether they were going to go through with it. Also, from Shira’s friends and family, there was concern, not that Derrick is black but that he is Christian.
“When I came to the realization that I would be marrying the love of my life, and not a Christian, it led to a lot of changes in thinking about what relationships meant,” Derrick told the Zoom audience.
“Whenever two people come together, there are always gaps that need to be bridged. What really matters is what are the things that are important to you and what are you willing to talk about,” he said, when asked about the cultural, religious and geographic differences the couple had when entering the relationship.
Intellectually, Shira understood that getting a rabbi to officiate would be challenging, yet, emotionally and spiritually, she could not come to terms with that fact because she knew in her heart that her relationship with Derrick was “the right thing.”
After sharing aspects of their personal journey as a couple, Shira and Derrick were asked by McGinity what the Jewish community could do to be more inclusive. Derrick described the reactions he generally receives when entering a synagogue with Shira. First, people look shocked, then, when they realize they are not supposed to make that face, they come over and make some awkward small talk.
Though Derrick understands the need to maintain certain traditions to make a religious setting what it is, the problem for him “is constantly feeling like the other, despite having a desire to being a part of that space, and not being treated like others who are entering the space.”
For her part, Shira said she thinks people are overcompensating because they are uncomfortable. “We have an idea of what Jewish looks like and assume that Jews look a certain way, even though there are examples in front of us.” One of those examples is their daughter.
“I don’t expect everyone to be completely comfortable with me walking into a room, because I look a little bit different than the majority of those in the Conservative shuls I have attended. What I do recognize is that there is going to be progress,” Derrick said, referencing the Loving case. He pointed out that the Supreme Court verdict was only 54 years ago and that his own marriage would have been illegal in a different era.
“To expect that not everyone in a Conservative shul is going to be comfortable is reasonable,” he stressed. “What I do expect is an openness and recognition that change is coming, and the recognition that there are going to be some awkward conversations. I expect that. What I don’t want is to be the warrior to help explain that to everyone.”
“If someone is in a Jewish space, they’re there to do Jewish things,” Shira said. “And that’s what matters.”
Richmond’s Congregation Beth Tikvah is one of the participating synagogues in the USCJ’s Embracing Diversity program.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.