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Building a “Big Tent” Judaism

From: Kerry Olitzky To: Stephen Schwartz Subject: Beginnings…From Squirrel Hill to Mt. Sinai My background is not quite as exotic as yours, Stephen, but I’ll share it with you nonetheless. I was born in Pittsburgh, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, … Read More

By / February 20, 2007

From: Kerry Olitzky To: Stephen Schwartz Subject: Beginnings…From Squirrel Hill to Mt. Sinai

My background is not quite as exotic as yours, Stephen, but I’ll share it with you nonetheless. I was born in Pittsburgh, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which remains one of the core Jewish neighborhoods in North America. However, I soon moved to St. Petersburg, Florida where, at the time, racial segregation was the norm.

My high school—with the name Dixie, complemented by the school’s Confederate flag, team name as Rebels and school song of (you guessed it) Dixie—provided a rather challenging context for me. It wasn’t desegregated until after I graduated. I was one of two Jews in a graduating class of 1000 that showed little other ethnic variety.

Although my parents’ traditional Conservative Judaism of Pittsburgh quickly gave way to more of a laissez faire Reform affiliation, I clung to my Jewish roots as best I could. And it was that that provided me a lens through which to view the racially tense goings on around me.

Jewish ethics motivated me to join the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council and become an early leader in the Walk for [Hu]Mankind, which was just making its way on the local philanthropic scene. But it was a clarion call of unknown origin that drew me to the rabbinate while I was still 16. To test the strength of this call, I went to Israel. If I were to commit myself to the Jewish people, I wanted first to spend time in their midst, since Florida did not provide much of a Jewish context.

In Israel I learned many things but perhaps the most instructive experience was my climb up Mt. Sinai. While the debate remains as to Sinai’s precise location, the one held as authentic by local tradition was enough for me. And so I climbed with a group leader (really more of a madrich ruchani, or spiritual advisor). When we came close to the apex, we stopped short. He then told me “You aren’t ready to finish the climb” and we walked down the mountain silently for the next several hours, while I contemplated how to prepare myself to finish the climb in the future.

I finished school (studying philosophy and ethics) and gained an advanced degree in social gerontology. I was trying to find the right vehicle to apply what I had learned before entering rabbinical school—that even in a liberal environment there are ethical approaches that are unique, that do divide us.

I continued through rabbinical school and a doctoral program, then moved on to a major pulpit in the northeast before returning to the faculty of the school that trained me. That took me next to a premier learning program—Wexner—before taking on the challenge for which I had unknowingly been preparing myself throughout my entire career.

So I here I sit, leading an organization—and perhaps a movement—to make the Jewish community more inclusive, one that can embrace those who have intermarried and their children—the coming majority. And
all this emanates from one principle grounded in Jewish ethical tradition and repeated more frequently in the Torah than any other principle: “The stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lrd your Gd” (Leviticus 19:34). This is the principle that guides my daily work.

I encourage Jewish families and communities to open themselves up, to shape a “big tent Judaism.” But there is another step we must take. Even as we develop more inclusive Jewish communities, we have to be in a position to share with those who have intermarried an answer to the question, “Why bother? Why should you raise Jewish children?” After all, parents make decisions about their children based on what is good for the family rather than what is good for the community. So why would it be better for your child to be raised in the Jewish community, as a Jew?

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