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Intermarriage: Why Be Jewish?

Rabbi Waxman nicely explains the dilemma facing rabbis today with regard to the intermarriage issue. He highlights just how torn many in the liberal movements are regarding intermarriage. But the intermarriage question is part of a much larger discussion that is beginning to emerge regarding the idea of Jewish peoplehood. What does it mean to be a people when so many of our people want to or are marrying other kinds of people?
In the past few weeks Gary Rosenblatt, Jack Wertheimer and Joey Kutzman, Daniel Septimus, David Suissa, and Noah Feldman all, in one way or the other, have written pieces noting the decline in Jewish peoplehood as rallying concept for Jewish identity.

This past week I had a chance to listen to two of the most influencial American rabbinic voices, Avi Weiss and David Ellenson, confront the issues of peoplehood and intermarriage in a panel discussion at the “Why Be Jewish?” gathering in Park City, Utah. (As a matter of full disclosure I co-hosted the gathering along with Adam Bronfman under the aegis’s of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation). Both came at the issues from two very different positions. Rabbi Ellenson tried to redefine Jewish peoplehood by arguing for a broader and more welcoming understanding of the term: Jews should not abandon the idea of peoplehood, but redefine its contours. He argued passionately for a push towards conversion and opening the gates of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to the intermarried. On the other, Rabbi Weiss seemed to side step the issue arguing instead for the importance of Judaism itself, its rituals, ethics and ideals as the core building blocks for Jewish identity.
While I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Ellenson’s argument that we must be as welcoming as possible, I found Rabbi Weiss’s argument to also be very compelling. For years, the Jewish community has privileged the concept of the Jewish people over the message and meaning of Judaism. In some sense our parents generation did not believe in Judaism. Yes, they stood up and defended the Jewish people fighting for its survival but they never really took to the ideas and practices of Judaism seriously. While both the Jewish people and Judaism are important elements it would seem to me that if we first start with Judaism we might have a better chance at having people want to identify with a concept of peoplehood. Or as Leon Wieseltier put it in his text study on Tuesday morning, we need to start with one neshamah (soul) at a time.
More people today are open to Jewish ideas, texts, learning and practices than ever, what they are skeptical about is identifying strictly with Jews.
Which brings me back to “Why be Jewish?” More than anything else the conference highlighted that there is no one entry point into Judaism. Even if we converted every person who intermarried, or on the other hand Jewishly recognized those couples that wanted to remain multi-faith we would still be left trying to offer these two adults a positive Jewish identity. We still need to be able to give them an answer to “Why be Jewish?” In the end four ideas emerged: works (ethics, halakha), spirtuality (humanity’s eternal search for meaning), comfort (Judaism responds to human needs) and belief (Judaism believes that what it offers is right). What do you think is the answer?

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Scott R.

posted August 3, 2007 at 4:39 pm

I’m wondering –
Obviously our Orthodox posters do not consider patrilineal Jews or converts through Reform or Conservative Jews religiously.
But do they consider these people as part of the Jewish people in some way?
Or are they as far outside as any other gentile?

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posted August 3, 2007 at 10:57 pm

If I understand your question; the “they” you mean are the Conservatives and the Reforms? I know that before I converted I visited both groups and the conservative rabbi wanted me to convert right away while the reform rabbi wanted me to do it when I was ready as he guided me after years of study. What’s the point of having an orthodox rabbi convert me if the Jews I live with don’t live that lifestyle to the letter?
My Jewish husband doesn’t read Hebrew,he doesn’t abide by kosher laws, needs to ask me about all the Jewish holidays; when they are , why they are, and so on. If it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be in a synagogue at all. Everything he knows, I taught him and he is very thankful. If you were to meet me, unless I told you I’m a convert you would never know that I wasn’t born a Jew. Sometimes, once the Jews find out, the wall goes up. I understand it and it is not just an Orthodox feeling. It’s a Jewish feeling and I understand it gets too close for comfort. I’m sure many converts experienc it too.I also have met many wonderful life long Jewish friends who I would do anything for and I especially love when my Jewish women friends want to mother my husband in their Jewish way by cooking for him and caring for him.
Just in case something should happen to me, he will be cared for!:) Isnt that what the peoplehood is all about?
Why shouldn’t a Jewish man’s children be considered Jewish? My children carry his name, and most importantly the rest of the world sees them that way, which is far more in number. I’m not going to be conserned about the Jews who will not accept my children. My son just came back from Israel on the birthright trip and said “mom I’m so proud to be a Jew”. I thought, my work is done.

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Scott R.

posted August 3, 2007 at 11:41 pm

I love your post. I only wish you had put your name down.:)
I’m a born Jew. I love converts. I’m in awe of them, because (1) they chose to take this all on, with all the peril and (2) that you found your way home. What a blessing. Baruch HaShem. Who cares what “movement” people choose to affiliate with as long as they join us.
Actually, the “they” was referring to Orthodox.

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posted August 4, 2007 at 9:18 am

I forgot to write in my name. Florence
We’ll have to wait to hear from Orthodox converts to answer that question. I know that Orthodox Jews will not accept me as kosher and the my status in Israel would be an issue too. Since god owns the whole world, I won’t worry.
Shabbat Shalom

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laura t mushkat

posted August 4, 2007 at 1:01 pm

I love meaty subjects like this. Have yet to read the 4 other posts so this is just from the article topic.
I live in an area where there is a small Jewish population. Most Jews are very aware of their religon and practice it in their own way. We know we are different from the majority we work and play with who are Chritians primarily, in varying types and practice.
My relatives in the NYC/Long Island/Brooklyn areas know they are Jewish but are surrounded by Jews of many types and practices. They often work and play with many people just like them.
The Jews who live in NYC and are not frum rarely think about their religon. Most are not kosher, rarely go to a house of worship and only on special occassions do they even pray let alone go into their shul-if they are even members. They feel very Jewish however and are aware of the Jewish people. Much like a secular Jew in Israel I understand.
Christians are like this all over the great country we live in. Why not? This usually happens when you are or feel like the majority.
The reasons for intermarriage are simple. More of them less of us.
If you care about being choosey you may not find a Jewish spouse who would fit the bill.
My daughter has Jewish children with a non-Jewish husband who does not practice his faith. Beliefnet seems full of the same types all bringing up Jewish kids because the Jew feels stronger about it then the Christian because there are less of us.
That is reality.

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posted August 4, 2007 at 3:57 pm

I can totally understand a Jew’s concern over seeing his fellow Jews marry gentiles, considering Judaism is a racial religion for the Israelis. However, how many Jews that are 100% Israeli are still around? The original Israelis had brown, typically Middle Eastern skin. The Jews have been living in Europe for so long, practically all of them have race-mixed with White people, that they now have white skin themselves. Face it, the Israeli race is dead. I’m not sure if it’s still worth following an Israeli racial religion when the Israeli race is no more, but either way, there’s no point in keeping race-mixing out of the Jewish community at this point.
But of course, that is just IMHO.

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Marian Neudel

posted August 4, 2007 at 8:20 pm

I’m a convert, technically. But my father’s father was born Jewish, and I’m well acquainted with the Jewish (sefardi) lineage on that side. I’ve been Jewish for at least twice as long as I was anything else. And I would probably never have converted if it hadn’t been for my husband, whose Jewishness was so important to him that he delighted in sharing it with me. If one non-practicing Jew marries another, how does this benefit the Jewish people? If a serious practicing Jew brings another person into the Jewish people, this is a win-win.

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Telma Anijar Andersen

posted August 5, 2007 at 4:33 am

I was born in Brazil and the Jewish community in the area where I was born was very small. My mother’s grandparents by her father’s side were from the northeast of Brazil where the Dutch, Hispanic, Portuguese Jews settled. Many were converted to the Catholic religion with time. Many people are descendants of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even though their religion have changed through time. As children of Abraham we are a Nation first, no matter the religion, color of skin, where we were born, etc. Our religion did not become concrete until Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.
Hebrews, that is what we were called in the old days, our father Abraham was from Ur of Caldean, Babylon. Isaac’s wife was a Caldean, and so was Jacob’s wife Rachel. So, intermarriage has been going on for thousands of years. Rachel did not worship the G-d of the Hebrews, for she stoled her father’s gods. Joseph married an Egyptian and not a hebrew woman. There are intermarriages throughout the books of the Tenach, Ruth is another example.
When jews marry christians, christians (messianics) are the followers of a jewish man (Yeshua)born to jewish parents, raised in the jewish religion, believe all that is written in the Tenach and the “New Testament” which is made up of books written by jewish people. Then they are converts to judaism already.
If a jew marries a Budhist, or a Hindu, or any other pagan religion than I believe there should be a concern.
I have seen marriages in Brazil where the women tried to be accepted and converted into the religion, but they were denied entrance to the religion. I noticed the hurt in their faces when they talked about it. One lady had the last name Levy as her family name, but she was not allowed to convert.
Traditions are good to hold a people together, but too many of our people don’t know anything about G-d’s words, they don’t read the Tenach, they don’t go to synagogue, or if they go is not to pray but to visit with others disrupting those that are praying. I believe that what our people need is to turn their hearts to the G-d of our forefathers. That is what he wants from us, that we obey him, praise his name, and be a light unto to the world. The responsability to show the world about the true G-d of the Universe was given to our people. So, if a person wants to convert, lets receive that person with open arms. G-d will be pleased with another convert.

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laura t mushkat

posted August 5, 2007 at 12:57 pm

If people practice their faith that is great. Jews who do not are still Jewish, pass on the faith and sooner or later it gets practiced.
Makes sense to me! At least this way the faith grown. Same with a non-Jew who marries a Jew and the kids are brought up in some Jewish way and pass it on.

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Mary Bender

posted August 5, 2007 at 1:17 pm

On the article about the Jewish people and religion; because so many Jews were wiped out through castatrophic events(such as in WWll,Middleast War),it looks as though because of much intermarriage,that the actual Jewish or original Jewish people many one day vanish.
However I believe their scriptures will always live on through Christianity,which might probably never disappear.

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posted August 5, 2007 at 1:35 pm

I believe Judaism will outlast Christianity! Gd’s eternal people are the Jews, after all. They will never vanish. If Jews can outlast the Pagans, they can outlast the Christians. It’ll be another long wait though!

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Eileen Schuler

posted August 5, 2007 at 2:49 pm

I am a Jewess and I married a Catholic. Our children know G-d. That’s the only important thing. Religion is a man-made phenomenon and it’s been responsible for much pain, and suffering, as well as much bloodshed. I believe that G-d and the “Ten Commandments” is all that matters in this world. As well as Jesus(Yeshuah) the best example of Jewishness, and humanity with no religion involved.

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posted August 5, 2007 at 3:15 pm

This is a very interesting topic for me, since my mother is Jewish and my father is Christian. I am married to a Jew and consider myself Jewish, though I was raised (nominally)Christian. Still, these traditions were filtered through my Mom, a VERY independent thinker, and I was certainly a most heretical child. :-) I just never could quite deal with the Trinity and I tended to think of Jesus as a nice, Jewish Rabbi rather that part of a “Godhead.”
Now, as an adult, I have to admit, I am not entirely comfortable with
traditional Jewish ideas. So, I have become a heretic in two religions, much to the annoyance of my husband. I think, personally, that reaching out to children who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is a good idea. If they are raised Jewish, make it simple for them to be officially converted at thier Bar/Bat Mitzva. It is ironic, I am automatically Jewish because my mother was even though I was not raised in a Jewish home but a child raised Jewish but with a non-Jewish mother is not.
Ultimately, there is no one answer to keeping people Jewish, as there is no one answer to keeping people Christian. For some, encouraging Orthodoxy and strict observance is the way to go; it makes life meaningful to them. For others (and I am one) orthodoxy feels repressive. THis is why there are different streams and why we should appreciate each other. THere is more than one way to be a Jew just as there is more than one way to be a Christian. Understanding this will help the Jewish people survive.

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posted August 5, 2007 at 7:55 pm

We are all G-d’s children, so what is the issue here?
Worry less about the religious tradition and more about the fellowship of man. That is why we are put on this earth.
Kate,from Australia

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Amber M.

posted August 5, 2007 at 10:03 pm

I was raised in a mixed-religion family; my father’s a non-practicing Jew and my mother’s a non-practicing Catholic. In our family we also have practicing Jews and Catholics,agnostics, born-again Christians, and a Buddist. In our family we respect ALL religions and personal beliefs, even if we don’t belive in them ourselves. Even though my mom’s Catholic I choose to practice Judism, and though I never formaly converted, I consider myself a Jew. Almost 4 years ago I married a Christian Scientist; I had to speek to 5 Rabbis before finding one who would marry us. We now have 2 small boys who we will teach to be good and loving human beings; when they are old enough they may choose how they want to worship, and we will support that choice. But no matter what religion they choose, they will always know that they are desended from Holocaust survivors, who never gave up their belief in humanity, and that strong Jewish blood will always flow through their vains.
Peace and tolerance,

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posted August 6, 2007 at 10:46 am

I consider myself Jewish, although my mother was not. My mother was a non-practicing Baptist from Alabama, my father, a non practicing Jew from Manhattan. Talk about diversity! I didn’t really grow up immersed in either faith, and am not overly religious. I do, however, identify myself as culturally Jewish. I do feel at a bit of a loss for not having had a strong cultural identity as a child. That’s the downside of an interfaith upbringing. The upside is that I was given a lot of latitude in forming my own beliefs. I understand that it’s easier to remain culturally cohesive if both partners are from the same background, but that can cause some undesirable effects as well. From a very practical standpoint, there is a certain benefit of conversion, and/or interfaith marriage within Judaism. That benefit is that it diversifies the gene pool. Without a little “new blood” every now and then, genetic disorders become a serious threat to survival. Tay-Sachs comes to mind as a relatively uniquely Jewish disease. So, the very thing that may keep Judaism alive (cultural cohesiveness), may endanger it.

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posted August 6, 2007 at 6:23 pm

I’m finding these arguments on intermarriage are usually missing the point about why or how intermarriage affects Judaism or the Jewishness of the partner marrying out. People on the inside automatically assume that marrying out is a rejection of either identity or teaching. People who are secular on the outside assume that the objection is based on “genealogy” or parochialism. Reality is that for people who are not terribly religious, they are looking for mates that fulfill their needs and match their spiritual values.
Those people felt however Jewish they felt the whole time and resent being told they are in any way inauthentic because “organized” Judaism has declared them so. Most people are less inclined to learn more about a formalized system that has already demonized them, and their parents and believe, – perhaps rightly, based on the rabbinic commentary – that formal halachic Judaism does not share their values and will only add judgment and grief to their lives. They are proud of their families and their parents and their spouses and don’t want to join a club that has made it quite clear that those relationships and the values they have currently, don’t count or don’t measure up – so why the heck should the send their children to schools that teach that?
On the other hand traditional Judaism keeps women from participating in formal prayers and cycles that allow for a deeper spiritual connection to the religion, promotes Israel over suffering Jews here (you would be amazed at the hidden hunger in Jewish communities) and how can you tell someone that the decisions of rabbis stopped being debatable once they were uttered in 1670 or so? Absolutism creates the kind of lack of connection that also leads to intermarriage –“ if you are not with us you are against us”. If you choose X you cannot be a part of us.
This is a hidden evil because if you are ostracized for something like say – adding the matriarchs to the Amidah – you see yourself as being erased from Judaism and you begin to wonder if you are a part of it in the eyes of the community. Why want to marry someone who sees your gender (or your humanistic beliefs) as being unworthy of being added to a prayer. If you feel that way you, you might wonder about the men who support the status quo and therefore believe they will never see you as a whole person – the barrier to looking outside is down, and then surprise! you are marrying out — still Jewish at heart, but no longer feeling welcome in your community sure that you would have been erased even if you stay in. (Perhaps like Noah Feldman)
And then there are the households – where there is only one religion and it is Jewish – the other partner is agnostic, the children are Jewish, a parent is Jewish, the home is Jewish there is only one religion there, and it is hard won, usually without the full support of the community. They are “intermarried” too. The 30% who raise their children Jewishly and they are dismissed as insignificant. We are all wounded by “who is a Jew” or what is “Jewish enough”, and quite frankly it’s one more fight in the world that is already too difficult to navigate morally.
Intermarriage –(and I say this with great trepidation) is much like abortion when it is debated – everyone has an abosolute opinion and makes sweeping statements without any gray.But the decision is so incredibly personal the individual is ignored. Fraught with global and political concerns, both sides make sweeping assumptions and statements about the other. And both sides are trying to legislate using halachic interpretation depending on the movement. One side to prevent it from happening and stigmatize it when it does — The other side to make it OK so that we can “keep the children”. The assumption is that you’ve already lost the adult who made the choice. That thinking makes the adult feel that all the outreach in the world still means that Judaism has no room for them, or their reasoned, personal, spiritual decisions. When Rabbis speak about intermarriage they inevitably speak in terms of loss and salvation of the children.
It is insulting – it hurts, invalidating the Jew, only focusing on the non-Jew. It makes it more difficult to believe the rest of Judaism is focuses on G-d or good deeds instead of survival. Moses intermarried and Miriam was supposedly punished with leprosy and banished from the camp for speaking ill of that marriage – perhaps there is a lesson there for the current communities as well – we didn’t throw Moses out.
Why is the underlying assumption that the person who married out is somehow acting out without thought. I don’t know any intermarried couple that works like I’ve seen it described by all these worthy pundits. With the exception of secular couples who were never going to join in anyway, most Jews I know who marry outside agonize over it and eventually try to find a way that works knowing they will receive no respect or support and expecting lifelong issues with synagogues, schools and rabbis. I have read all the linked articles and am afraid for everyone, because intermarriage isn’t the problem – inaccessible Judaism that makes people feel bad when they try to learn more is.

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laura t mushkat

posted August 11, 2007 at 12:49 pm

I have to strongly disagree with the poster 8/6/07 6:23 pm
Egalitarian Conservative synagouges hold females as important in all parts of the service and rituals as men. It is the female who normally is most in chare of the children in our society. When invoking biblical names in rituals the female names are included.
Since not all areas have egalitarian houses of worship this can be news to some Jews.
Most synagouges of all kinds are addressing the inerfaith married couple and family in some way. There are still those that think you are dead if you marry outside the faith. These are also the people who think anyone just like them are not really Jewish anyway. Therefore if you are not their type of Orthodox, or are any type of Conservative, Reform or other Jewish type or are secular they feel you are a gentile. Fortunatly the farther away you get from the Brooklyn and Monsey NY areas where they are heavily entrenched you only have pockts of them in various sizes thruout the US. They are in the actual minority in Israel and some do not even believe it exists. While they carry a lot of weight thruout the world their ideas are actuall in the minority.

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posted August 12, 2007 at 10:40 pm

Ultimately, people decide for themselves who they are. What about all the secular Jews who nevertheless identify as Jews and still hang out with other secular Jews? They may not fit your definition, but they fit their own definition – possibly the only one they have – and that is the way they live, without your input. You may not like the labels they give themselves – you may not want them to identify as Jews – but I doubt there is much you can do to stop them.
I married my husband – an atheist former christian – a good ten years before I felt safe enough to explore my Jewish heritage. I wasn’t raised religiously, and was told only that “by Jewish law” I’m Jewish. What that meant, I didn’t know. Your culture is foreign to me. Yet to this day I’m judged by other Jews who barely know me as if that is my fault. As if I did a bad thing by not being born into the right family, by being late to take an interest, and by not throwing away my children’s home and a sixteen year marriage in order to conform. What good could come of that? I think the poster above of Aug. 6 is making astute observations about exclusivity and judgment present in Jewish communities. Either you’re willing to accommodate those who are on the fringe, or you’re not. If not, that is your prerogative. I’m not saying you’re wrong – only that I’m sad about being denied access with the family I currently have. Fortunately some congregations are “interfaith.” I am not phased by, but rather am encouraged and inspired by, many of the ethical “responsibility” aspects of the faith. But I would never destroy my family to persue it with the kind of purity that seems to be required. Who is IN and who is OUT comes across as a very complex issue indeed.
Often discussions about rejecting intermarriage come across as racist, rather than as an effort to preserve tradition and cultural identity. If you can preserve that way of life, raise your children to value it, I think that’s great – it is worth preserving.

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Richard B. Cook

posted August 18, 2007 at 6:06 pm

I am a secular, intermarried Jew. I married a bright, intelegent girl whos’ history was in The Southern Baptist church. Together we raised three boys two hers one mine. The values we share are humanistic and liberal. Our union must have done some things correctly because the boys’ have grown into men we are quite proud of.
We are the proud grand parents of two grandsons. The greatest joy of our now senior years is watching our kids be parents. We are looking forward to anoth round of Football and Baseball games.
December is a special time in our house with the light at one end of the living room from my wifes Christmas tree and at the otther end the Minorah.

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posted August 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm

Love conquers all.
Love one another, as God loves us. Through sickness and in health, richer or poor, etc.., I” wash your back or, and you wash my back, I love you and you love me, and we love our families, and we love everyone, if God wills it. The CHOICE, let it be the right choice, we have a consequence to answer to and the PRICE is HIGH. God forbid.

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posted September 2, 2007 at 3:58 pm

I am going into an interfaith marriage a/Jewis person soon. I grew up Catholic. I may convert but haven’t decided. I am pretty far behind in knowledge, i.e. I would have a lot to learn. My fiance isn’t actively Jewish. I am actually trying to help him reconnect with his faith, and we are raising the children Jewish. I think intermarriages should be performed in some cases. I also don’t expect the Catholics to tell us we can’t get married, either.

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Rufus McPherson

posted November 13, 2007 at 9:45 pm

To the comment that Orthodox Jews don’t consider Reform, conservative or other denominations Jewish: WRONG! Frankly, this is a kind of propoganda against Orthodox Jews to make them sound as primitive and bigoted as possible. Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah and Halacha. The Halacha is clear: if you are born to a Jewish mother, you are Jewish. Period. End of Story. Doesn’t matter if you intermarry, worship crocodiles or get your face tatooed with crucifixes. You’re Jewish.
If you’re not born to a Jewish mother, you can only become Jewish by Halachic conversion, not by voodoo, feel-good, bagel-eating, warm fuzzy new-age rituals made up by people who have no clue about what the Shulchan Aruch says or what thousands of years of Torah scholarship say about Halachic conversion. Ironically, the ancestors of many of the same folks were more than willing to be burned at the stake rather than be converted to any other religion. Would that they had one nano particle of their faith and willingness to humble themselves before Hashem and the Holy Torah our forefathers lived and died by.

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