A few weeks ago, I had a first in my introduction to Judaism class: Three separate students who preferred the gender pronouns “they/them” — three individuals who considered themselves gender-fluid and unconfined to the conventional protocols of identity. It took a small amount of getting used to — I just needed to think a little harder before referring to a student’s comment in the third person — but overall it was no big deal. It was just the latest example of a shift in the population I have served as a rabbi.
I’m in my 11th year of teaching Introduction to Judaism, spread across two different cities (Denver and Pittsburgh) and my 16th year of sitting as a rabbi or student-rabbi on a Beit Din for conversion, and I can tell you from my experience that the liberal Jewish community is experiencing some real and notable shifts. As the years go by, Jews are becoming more and more diverse.
I have seen more and more gays and lesbians for conversion in recent years, and many more self-identified queer individuals of all types across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I have seen a growing number of Asians, and Blacks, and Latinx individuals coming to my classes, too. Many express to me that they find Judaism to be a more inclusive and accepting community than one they grew up with — one they can find a home in. They understand a religion of action, a religion of justice. They understand and appreciate a tradition that encourages debate and dissent rather than squelches it. They see Judaism as a welcoming, open tent after a life that often comes with a lot of judgment and disadvantage for minorities. And our tradition of caring for and welcoming the stranger means that not only do we accept folks that are different, we celebrate the act of welcoming them in.
And many of these diverse individuals may have come to Judaism a generation or two ago — they now have Jewish children and grandchildren. Many of these Jews have practiced the religion all their lives, but are often perceived by folks as “other” because they have an intersectional identity — they’re Asian, so we see Asian first when we see them in shul. They’re trans, and so we get mentally get stuck on that aspect of their essence, rather than their yiddische neshama, their Jewish soul.
In preparing for the seder, I came across a commentary by Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen, a modern Israeli rabbi who was an author and scholar, but is most known for hosting the weekly “Parshat HaShavua” television program. He was considering one of the sections of the Haggadah that seems to carry an unnecessary redundancy: In the beginning of Maggid we say “let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all that need come and have Pesach.” Why say both clauses?
Rabbi Avigdor teaches, “What does it mean ‘all that need’? We are commanded to invite and bring close those that are not there because they are hungry or crave food, but rather those that lack the fellowship of other people and the joy of the holiday. There are people that, more so than they need food, they need a kind word and to feel included in the experience as a partner.”
This principle is not just one that extends to our seder tables, but to each and every aspect of the modern Jewish life. It’s been thousands of years since we transmogrified from an ethnicity, a people and a nation, into a religion — a multiethnic, multicultural and diverse religion. Your shul’s kiddush is more diverse than ever before, and it will only keep getting more diverse as the years press on. Remind yourself to make everyone feel welcome, included and part of the community as often as you can, in all your words and your actions.
Let everyone sit at your table. PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the rabbi of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. He lives in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.