Welcoming The Stranger Or Just Welcoming

By Ruth Abrams


August 208

I must confess: I am a Jewish insider. I speak the language, and I don’t only mean Hebrew–I operate with a set of Jewish cultural assumptions. Here’s how Jewish my assumptions are: I was over 30 years old when I realized that most people think gefilte fish is repulsive. I’ve always liked it. I offered a gefilte fish taste test as part of teaching the history of Eastern European Jewry to my Jewish History class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and was absolutely amazed that most of the students, even the Jewish ones, were grossed out.

I know that Jews are a minority and that we have a distinctive subculture, but it’s taken me a long time to understand what unexamined ideas underpin my every thought.

Let’s take interfaith marriage as a not-very-random example. One of the key moments in my adult life that made me realize that interfaith marriage might be good for the Jewish people was reading an article in 1995 that drew on biblical ideas to welcome non-Jewish friends and spouses into the Jewish community. The article, which InterfaithFamily.com has republished, suggested that we could describe supportive non-Jews with the term Ger Toshav, which translates to something like resident stranger. Now, I already knew several families in the Jewish community in which a parent who was not Jewish was supporting his or her children to have a Jewish education. For me, though, having a Jewish legal category and a historical tradition in which I could fit such non-Jews was a big relief. “Aha, see!” I thought, “There’s a precedent in the Torah itself, and you can’t do better than that!”

Ruth in the field with Boaz
Terms like Ger Toshav evoke biblical images like this one from the Book of Ruth. Wikimedia: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Ruth in Boaz’s Field, 1828.

What a geek I am. Of course, I’m not the only one.

Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael’s “A Proposal for Intermarried and Other Allies in Our Midst” which she first published in 1992, drew on work by the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordecai Kaplan and the ideas of the late Rabbi Myron Kinberg. The idea of the Ger Toshav comes from a foundational Jewish text, Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The words “ger toshav” are the ones for “stranger who resides with you,” as the verse is translated above, though the word “ger” comes from another verb that means “reside,” and it also means convert. It’s obvious to me that what makes this term so attractive is that it’s in Hebrew, which grants Jewish legitimacy to our feelings of warmth toward non-Jews in our community. It places non-Jewish spouses and allies in the middle of some of our most beloved words, the ones that give a religious mandate to empathy for others.

In her foundational article, Rabbi Raphael proposed a study program for intermarried couples or non-Jews who are interested in Judaism. They would be taught the seven commandments given to Noah–laws that predate the Torah and which are considered applicable to Jews and non-Jews alike. But, she writes, “Even if no formal study program is undertaken, but the non-Jew has shown love, support and loyalty over a period of time, some ceremony to admit him or her into the ranks is in order.”

Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg was excited about this idea, too. He writes in “Between Intermarriage and Conversion: Finding a Middle Way”, also on InterfaithFamily.com, that the concept of Ger Toshav might help Jews engage more productively with intermarried families.

“Instead of focusing our attention on mixed marriages, why not attend instead to the problem of mixed homes?” he writes. “Why not secure the Jewish home by creating a contemporary ger toshav–not a convert to Judaism, but a gentile who actively chooses to live among Jews?”

If you aren’t part of this mindset that I apparently share with these rabbis, you might be wondering why we need a ceremony or a category for people who aren’t Jewish who are supportive of Jewish relatives or friends. The sad answer is that Judaism does not assume that non-Jews are friends to the Jewish people, because Jewish history doesn’t support such a premise. This accounts for our perceived need for some ritual way to distinguish between the non-Jews who scare us and the ones we trust and love.

The funny answer is that, of course we need a ceremony, because everything needs a ceremony, preferably with a certificate and a big table of baked goods afterwards.

I wanted to know whether a Ger Toshav status or ceremony had made non-Jews feel more included in the Jewish community. Our reporter Molly Parr found that many rabbis like the idea of Ger Toshav, but only a few are actually using it in their congregations. Most rabbis doing outreach with interfaith families don’t use it with those families. Reconstructionist Rabbi Judy Kummer, the former director of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Discovery Institute in Boston, sees the term as acknowledging that “there’s room under the tent–not excluding, but including.” Kummer does use the term with colleagues but feels it might be too foreign a term to use with actual Gerei Toshav.

I was hoping to learn what people who had taken on the status were doing today, but few of the rabbis whom Molly contacted had congregants who could speak to that experience. Rabbi Geela Rayzel knew of one person, John Mason of Philadelphia, one of her congregants, who took on the title at a point during his conversion process. Mason prefers to think of Ger Toshav as meaning “he who dwells among us,” emphasizing that he is an ally rather than a “resident alien.”

When Reconstructionist Rabbi Jamie Arnold of Congregation Beth Evergreen in Evergreen, Colorado, counsels interfaith couples preparing for marriage, he uses a document, inspired by the late Myron Kinberg, called The Covenant of Ger Toshav, a seven-part commitment spelling out the privileges, obligations, terms and commitments of the Ger Toshav. By signing the document, the non-Jewish partner acknowledges “being a non-Jewish member of the Jewish community, committed to the perpetuation of Judaism in my home life,” and pledges to raise “any future children I may have as Jews.”

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, Mass. also uses the term in her thinking but not publicly. “There are so many different gradations in the community, it’s so subtle,” she said. “With 112 families [in my congregation], how do you define which is a Ger Toshav or a supporter in the community?”

Wechterman’s congregation allows non-Jewish members and lets them serve on the board, but some rituals, like aliyot to the Torah, are reserved for Jews. In Wechterman’s experience, most conversions have been made by those who have been a part of Jewish families for a long time, living in a Jewish household. The step is “most joyful, with deep integrity, from a place of deeply lived experiences.”

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, also chooses to not use the term Ger Toshav. “It adds another barrier,” he said. “It’s a somewhat elusive Biblical/Rabbinic concept. It places people as ‘other’.” Rabbi Olitzsky feels that if a couple is raising Jewish children, congregations should “be bold enough to call them a Jewish family.”

Other Jews reaching out to interfaith families have embraced the term for its biblical resonances. The Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community at the Union for Reform Judaism recently published a pamphlet offering support to their interfaith families that used the term Ger Toshav. The movement recognized that many congregants, although not converts, are “lovingly and supportingly raising their children as Jews,” and calling them the “unsung heroes” of the Jewish community for their effort they put in to volunteering and learning about Judaism in order to raise Jewish children.

Rabbi David B. Cohen, a Reform rabbi at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, Wisconsin refers to the Gerei Toshav as “blessings,” for their contributions to the community like “baking challot for Shabbat, preparing the house for Passover and driving their children to Hebrew School.”

Other Jews have suggested alternative, more welcoming designations for non-Jews among Jews. Several years ago, a group of Oakland, Calif. based rabbis gathered together to discuss intermarriage and the Conservative Movement. In their book, A Place in the Tent, they suggest using the term K’rov Yisrael–a friend or relative of Israel–instead of Ger Toshav, thus downplaying the latter’s connotation of otherness. As they explain, a K’rov Yisrael would be “like an amicus curiae, a friend of the court.”

The truth is this kind of Hebrew term warms the hearts of a small segment of the Jewish community. It helps us to develop a mental picture of a new world, one in which we actually have supportive life partners, relatives and friends who aren’t Jewish. It may tell us more about the Jews who use it than it does about the non-Jewish allies they want to welcome.


About Ruth Abrams

Ruth Abrams was the Managing Editor at InterfaithFamily. She has wide-ranging experience as a Jewish educator, from work with children in religious school to adult education programming. She works as an academic editor and freelance writer. See more of her writing at www.theversatilewriter.org. Ruth is a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., where she lives with her husband and son.