Lag Ba'omer reminds us to accept Jews that are different from us - opinion

There are interfaith couples and people in interfaith families who don’t feel fully at home in the Jewish community, who feel like “outsiders,” or “less than.”

 THE WRITER, a Reform rabbi, poses with her Haredi son, Benji Frisch. (photo credit: TALI FRISCH)
THE WRITER, a Reform rabbi, poses with her Haredi son, Benji Frisch.
(photo credit: TALI FRISCH)

Soon it will be Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer – a festive holiday in the midst of a period of semi-mourning between Passover and Shavuot. This Lag Ba’omer will also mark the first anniversary of a great tragedy. Last year, approximately 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews were celebrating Lag Ba’omer in Meron, when the overcrowding resulted in a stampede.

My oldest son, who’s ultra-Orthodox, was in Meron that evening. He was incredibly lucky to have returned to his bus just minutes before the stampede began. Forty-five others weren’t so fortunate and they lost their lives.

As I followed the unfolding of events here in America, I experienced a myriad of emotions. I was simultaneously grateful for my own son’s having survived and heartbroken that so many others had been killed or injured. As a way of processing my grief, I wrote an article, which I had published in the Jewish press.

Within days, I was flooded with emails. Some were from other moms of ba’alei teshuva, children who’d become more observant than their parents. But the majority was from moms from the Orthodox community. They identified with me as a Jewish mom – even though we inhabited very different worlds. Ultimately, we had in common that we loved our children unconditionally and that’s all that mattered. Many of them wrote to me some version of: “I never expected that I’d learn so much from, or identify so much with, a Reform rabbi.”

As proud as I am of my son now, it wasn’t easy for me when he first became Orthodox. I’m a Reform rabbi married to a Conservative rabbi, and I’m very liberal in my thinking. For nine years I’ve worked for 18Doors, which focuses on nonjudgmentally embracing interfaith couples, and helping them to find ways to meaningfully include Judaism in their lives. I’m deeply committed to our mission.

 FUNERAL FOR brothers Yosef David Elhadar and Moshe Mordechai Elhadar (opposite, far right), killed in the Meron tragedy; flames of remembrance for 45 victims; both May 2, 2021.  (credit: FLASH90) FUNERAL FOR brothers Yosef David Elhadar and Moshe Mordechai Elhadar (opposite, far right), killed in the Meron tragedy; flames of remembrance for 45 victims; both May 2, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

Perhaps ironically, my work with interfaith couples helped me accept my own son’s decision to become ultra-Orthodox. After advising Jewish parents for years that they need to accept, and hopefully embrace, their child’s choice of life partner regardless of the religion and/or culture in which that person was raised, I came to realize that I need to accept my own son’s chosen life path, different as it may be from my own. I’m not naïve, there are plenty of challenges – but there are also many blessings, and each time I’m with him I learn more and more to open myself up to them.

Now, each day as Lag Ba’omer 5782 approaches, I feel a sadness coming over me. I mourn for those who lost their lives in Meron last year, and for their loved ones who’ll be observing their first yahrzeits.

But I also feel another sadness: in our world today, there are interfaith couples and people in interfaith families who don’t feel fully at home in the Jewish community, who feel like “outsiders,” or “less than.” Like a bar mitzvah student I worked with recently, who has a Jewish mom and a Filipino dad – he’s being raised solely Jewish but who’s constantly referred to as a “half-Jew” and told that he “isn’t really Jewish” because his dad isn’t Jewish and because he has brown skin.

And I’m sad that liberal Jews and traditional Jews have grown so far apart from each other. Growing up, I was taught to believe in “Clal Yisrael,” that all Jews are connected, and “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” (Shevuot 39a), that “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” We may pray differently, eat differently, etc. We may live very different lives – but there’s a common bond because we’re all Jews.

I worry that not many Jews feel that way today. I find my situation to be all too unusual in that I have genuine connections to two very distinct Jewish worlds: a world with wonderful interfaith couples and families, and a world that’s ultra-Orthodox. I see great things and I know truly amazing people in each of these communities. But too often I hear hateful comments made by people in each of them about the other.

Yet, along with my sadness as we approach Lag Ba’omer, I also feel a sense of hope. In the Talmud (Yebamot 62b) we learn that during the first 32 days of the Omer, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a plague. On Lag Ba’omer the plague was lifted. We’re taught that Akiva’s students died because they didn’t treat each other with respect. According to the rabbis, the miracle that occurred on Lag B’Omer was God’s reminder that genuine respect and appreciation for the differences among us can change history.

My hope is that this Lag Ba’omer, the entire Jewish community – Orthodox Jews and liberal Jews, Jews partnered with Jews and Jews in interfaith relationships, single Jews, straight Jews and LGBTQ Jews, white Jews and Jews of color – every type of Jew– can work harder on treating each other, and everyone partnered with a Jew, with respect. We don’t have to put aside our differences – our diversity is beautiful – but we need to do a better in at least accepting each other, if not embracing each other.

Just as God ended the plague on Rabbi Akiva’s students on Lag Ba’omer, we – who are created in God’s image – must work toward ending the intolerance among Jews in our community today. May we again come to see the value of Clal Yisrael, and may we remember that as Jews of all different types, we are all responsible for one another.

Kein Yehi Ratson. So may it be God’s will. And so may it be our will.

The writer is director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship for 18Doors, spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai in Northeast Philadelphia, and the founder of the Mazel Pups (the Mazel Pups Group on Facebook, and on Instagram @mazelpups).