Ruth follows Naomi. What an interesting dynamic. That someone is so respected and revered that we place our destiny in their hands. That what they feel and think matters to us so much that we might suspend our own individual course to be influence by this other person. So it goes with Naomi and Ruth. Naomi tries to send Ruth back to her family, and she refuses. We could say that Ruth knew a good thing. Her mother-in-law was wise and caring, and Ruth trusted that Naomi would take care of her.

This is familiar to me since I had a similar relationship with my own mother-in-law, Ruth Usher. She was an intellectual, fourth-generation American woman who was educated at Smith College and became a social worker who derived great satisfaction from her career. With her encouragement, I, too, became a social worker and eventually went on to get my doctorate in the field. My identification with her served me well.

Ruth Usher stood in sharp contrast to my own mother who came to Canada at age 13 from Esterpolia in the Ukraine, was street smart, self-educated, worked as a bookkeeper before she was married and valued being a stay-at-home wife and mother for what it represented economically. She didn’t have to work, nor did she want to. My mother gave of herself to others less fortunate. From her I learned about tzedakah and tikkun olam, two core values that inform my life.

On the other hand, my mother-in-law affirmed all my yearning to have a professional career. She was interested in what I did, enjoyed our clinical discussions, and promised me that my children would be fine. She insisted that they would probably even be better for my going to work. She frequently reminded me of this when I was plagued with doubts about my choices. She understood how psychically important this was for me. As I continued to develop my professional life, she was always in my camp, supporting me at a time in Montreal when Jewish women married to doctors did not work or pursue a professional life. I am grateful for her presence in my life.

Just as Ruth Usher saw how her legacy would continue through me, Naomi saw how the Jewish people could continue through Ruth. By encouraging Ruth to stay close to Boaz’s girls, and then by sending Ruth to curry Boaz’s favor, Naomi constructs a plan where she helps Ruth attain economic security, and at the same time, Naomi makes sure that she will have Jewish grandchildren. If Ruth the Moabite marries Boaz the Jew, their offspring will be officially Jewish because at that time the Jewish religion was transmitted through patrilineal descent. Boaz, being Jewish and wealthy enough to buy Elimelech’s assets, was the perfect mate for Ruth. After Boaz agrees to acquire Elimelech’s assets and to marry Ruth, the Moabite, he is instructed by the Elders to make Ruth like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel.

Ruth has a son, and it is declared that this child will renew Naomi’s life. The text then informs us, “Naomi has born a son.” And as this baby’s grandmother, Naomi has responsibilities for passing on the family’s history, culture, and religion. True, the child is born of a Jewish father. However, he also has a Moabite mother, and that makes him the child of an interfaith couple. I think that the sentence “Naomi has born a son” can be interpreted metaphorically, as Naomi knowing that she, as the baby’s grandmother, can be instrumental in helping her grandson acquire a strong Jewish identity. And from this grandson, Obed, in two generations, came David, the great king of the Jews. Her legacy of Jewish continuity was fulfilled.

Now, how does the story of Naomi and Ruth translate to the contemporary issue of Jewish continuity? When Naomi realized that her daughter-in-law was not going back to her family but was staying with her, she welcomed her with open arms. Naomi took the first important step; she welcomed her non-Jewish daughter-in-law into the tribe. Second, she treated her with love and respect, and third, she cared for her and for her future welfare. Naomi got down to business and did her work. She made a plan, and it worked.

Today, intermarriage is a fact. The statistics from the national and regional studies indicate that well over 50 percent of all first marriages in our Jewish community will be between a Jew and a non-Jew. Wringing our hands won’t help. Ruth didn’t do that. Instead, she dealt with the issue directly, just like we need to deal with intermarriage within our own families and communities directly. Like Naomi in biblical times, it is the wisdom and action of contemporary mothers and grandmothers who can create new possibilities for Jewish continuity.

As we bring new and different approaches to including interfaith couples, we can guarantee the eternalness of the Jewish people. By welcoming the non-Jew into our Jewish community, by celebrating Judaism, and by showing the importance of our faith in our own lives, we create the possibilities for interfaith families to make Jewish choices and to be included amongst us.

This requires a significant paradigm shift. We need to modify our attitude from one of exclusion to one of inclusion. To see this change as an opportunity rather than a tragedy makes room for each of us to include our non-Jewish daughters-in-law and sons-in-law within the Jewish community, and then to focus on the religious lives of our grandchildren helping them acquire a strong Jewish identity. This will allow for the continuation of the Jewish nation. We women can do this!

I ask you all: How many of you have mentored an interfaith family in your synagogue? What have you done to celebrate your faith? Have you ever openly discussed with your children and your grandchildren how important being Jewish is to you? We are women who have hearts and who are responsible for passing down our heritage through our love and the acceptance of our children and their spouses, and our grandchildren. In this way, we can make every interfaith couple and family feel that they are welcome and belong to the Jewish community. Only then can we take our place in history as contributing to the development of Jewish continuity.

Photo credit: Amos Gil