Forward Thinking

Intermarriage Is Us

By Elon Gilad

Samson and Delilah, a cautionary tale against mixed marriage, by Rubens / Haaretz

(Haaretz) — On Shavuot, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of how the heroine - a Moabite woman - married her way into Judaism. Later rabbis adopted the story as a model of how a Jew may marry a non-Jew.

According to the story, after Ruth’s Jewish husband died, her mother-in-law urges her to find a new husband in Moab. Ruth refuses, saying “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:6-7)

Ruth moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, where she meets Boaz, a relative of her dead husband. Following the advice of her mother-in-law, she enters his tent in the dead of night and seduces him. They marry and live happily ever after. Their son Obed, we are told, is King David’s paternal grandfather.

This story so obviously supports mixed marriages that some scholars believe it was written in response to increased regulation enacted by Ezra the Scribe in the late 6th century BCE against marrying foreigners.

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Meet the McJunkins (They're Jewish!)

By Julie Wiener

Alexander Rapaport

(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.

On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.

Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.

The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.

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5 Ways To Make Folks Care About Shavuot

By Amy Klein

Hey, did you know that Shavuot is upon us?

If you said, “no” or “oh, right, I remember that vaguely from grade school,” you’re not alone. Many non-observant Jews (not to mention non-Jews) are unfamiliar with this festival, even though it’s one of the most important ones in the Bible, celebrating… something (see No. 4).

And you know why? Bad marketing. Here are five ways to get this festival on the map.

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Israeli Rabbinate Should Learn From Shavuot Heroine

By Pesach Sommer

Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk

Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.

Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.

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Want Authentic Shavuot Meals? Try Fruit, Not Dairy

By Sarah Chandler

As a Jewish food educator, I’m often asked for ways to enhance holiday celebrations with authentically themed dishes for the season. What was once a simple plate of apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah becomes a series of prepared desserts featuring these key ingredients. Chanukah gelt can now be acquired with fair trade certification. Vegans can finally enjoy kale challah shipped across the country.

And yet, for Shavuot, folks only want to know about one thing: dairy. Since the majority of elaborate Shabbat and holiday dishes are centered around meat, when it comes time for Shavuot, people think: Finally, an opportunity to plan a delectable dairy meal!

Only problem is, dairy isn’t originally a Shavuot food at all.

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Shavuot, When We Became Who We Are

By David Wolpe

(JTA) — Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God spoke at Sinai, the world was silenced — birds did not sing, breezes did not rustle leaves in the trees. Out of that profound silence came the word, and were the world silent again, for even an instant, we could hear the everlasting echo of God’s voice.

In one way that is a beautiful metaphor for the holiday of Shavuot. Among the holidays, it is “silent” in that no custom imposes itself on our imagination. There is no sukkah, no seder. It slips by, for many Jews, almost unnoticed. Yet the echoing voice makes it the central moment in our history. On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the establishment of the Jewish covenant.

The rabbis tell us that the Torah is the ketubah between God and the Jewish people. A ketubah is sometimes called a wedding contract, but it is better called a covenant. It enshrines sacred obligations. Jews are a covenantal people; we are bound to one another and to God by the idea of everlasting, mutual obligation. Sinai was the chuppah, and Shavuot is our anniversary.

On our anniversary we recall what made us a people. It is customary to stay up at night to study on Shavuot in order to demonstrate symbolically that we stand at the ready to receive the Torah. It is also a signal of acceptance and of passion.

Our tradition advises us to read the Torah as a love letter. One who receives a letter from a beloved reviews it again and again, searching each word and clause for significance, noting what is said and what remains unsaid. We read the Torah with the lens of the lover, dwelling over each word, unwilling to set it aside, certain that to study it once more will help us understand.

The Book of Ruth is read on this holiday because Ruth took upon herself the Jewish tradition in full. She accepted, as a true convert must, both the people and God. Israel embraces more than the individual’s relationship to the Divine; we are bound to one another. When Ruth declares to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God,” she epitomizes the covenantal message of mutual interdependence, past and future, the dual covenant of faith and of fate.

There is a custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, given for a variety of reasons, including the inventive idea that the laws of kashrut were unclear before the giving of the Torah and eating dairy was therefore less complicated. It may also be tied to the idea of eating lighter fare, which makes it easier to stay awake for the tikkun. Symbolism and practicality are at times symbiotic in ritual life.

The great Saadia Gaon taught that we are a nation only by virtue of our Torah. For a people dispersed throughout the world, the Torah was the one precious possession — containing our history, our values and our practice — that bound us one to the other. Shavuot is the moment that made us who we are. We celebrate, on this holiday, our relationship to God and to one another. As we hold the Torah aloft, we also celebrate our identity as Jews, eternal people of the covenant.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of the forthcoming “David: The Divided Heart.”

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Counting the Omer and Nigeria's Kidnapped Girls

By Naomi Ackerman

Nigerian women call for the freedom of Chibok’s kidnapped girls / Getty Images

Last month, an Islamist armed group called Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Presumably, these girls will be killed or sold into slavery and child marriages.

Even though I sit here in Los Angeles, this crisis affects me personally, deeply and immediately. You see, I am a Jewish mother of three daughters: Zohar, Ella and Hadar. And even though I do not know the names of the 276 girls, I know who they are. I see them clearly. They are my Zohar, my Ella, my Hadar.

I know what slavery means. I grew up reciting, every year at the Passover Seder, “In each generation, each person must envision being freed from slavery in Egypt.”

If I can imagine that, how can I not imagine what the mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of those girls are feeling? And how can I not act upon my feelings of sadness, fear and outrage? After all, the Torah teaches, “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Those girls and their families are not strangers to me. They are my family.

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