More on InterfaithFamily/Chicago

There’s been a lot of interest since we announced InterfaithFamily/Chicago yesterday. We expect to make an announcement in June that we’ve hired a Director and that work will get started as of July 1. In the meantime, here is some more information about the project.

The objectives of IFF/Chicago are:
• People in interfaith relationships are aware of and connected with Chicago Jewish community resources;
• People are aware that the Chicago Jewish community welcomes interfaith families;
• Jewish professionals and organizations are trained to attract, welcome and engage people in interfaith relationships;
• Couples find it easy to find officiating clergy, and officiating clergy stay connected with those couples and help keep them connected to Jewish life and community;
• New couples learn how to talk about and have religion in their lives together, and people in interfaith relationships learn how — and why — to live Jewishly.

The InterfaithFamily.com Network lists Jewish organizations and professionals that welcome and work with people in interfaith relationships, and programs of interest to them. The Network’s social networking functionality allows individuals to become members and connect with other members who live near them or who share similar interests. The InterfaithFamily/Chicago Director will localize and fully utilize the Network’s functionality to inform and connect people by recruiting Jewish organizations and professionals to list themselves and their programs on the Network; recruiting individuals to join the Network and communicating with those who joined to ascertain their interests and needs; and connecting individuals with others who live near them or who have similar interests, including by forming groups on the IFF Network; and, when appropriate, connecting such groups with Chicago professionals who could serve their needs.

On a national level, InterfaithFamily.com sends a bi-weekly email newsletter, publishes personal narratives and “how-to” content and blogs, tweets and posts on Facebook daily, seeks mentions in national Jewish and secular media, and speaks and exhibits at national Jewish gatherings. The IFF/Chicago Director will localize these efforts to raise awareness that the Chicago Jewish community welcomes interfaith families by recruiting subscribers and writers; publicizing information about Chicago Jewish organizations, professionals, programs and events; seeking mentions in the local Jewish and secular press; and participating in local events.

Karen Kushner, InterfaithFamily.com’s Chief Education Officer, and Rabbi Lev Ba’esh, the Director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, are experienced inclusivity trainers, working to date with synagogue staff, early childhood educators and clergy. The InterfaithFamily/Chicago Director will coordinate and participate in the offering of trainings for Chicago Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and in connection with the trainings create affinity groups on the Network for those professionals.

IntefaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service assists people in interfaith relationships from all over the country to find rabbis and cantors to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle celebrations. So far in 2011 we are responding to 185 requests for officiants a month; we have over 425 rabbis and cantors on our national referral list. Our goal is to have the InterfaithFamily/Chicago Director become the repository of as complete information as possible on the practices of all of the Chicago community’s Jewish clergy as to officiation at weddings and other life cycle events for interfaith couples and families, and to respond personally to inquiries from couples looking for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle events so as to respond to their particular needs and build relationships with them. The Director also will help rabbis stay in touch with couples for whom they officiate and keep them connected to Jewish life and community, again through affinity groups on the Network.

One of the most important kinds of program for interfaith couples is a discussion group or workshop in which new couples (newly married or seriously dating) learn how to talk about and decide how to have religion in their lives. “Love and Religion” is a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher and offered for sixteen years at the Washington DC JCC. InterfaithFamily.com has offered Love and Religion – Online! in an online format using a multiple video-conferencing system. We will offer Love and Religion for Chicago-area couples in a hybrid online/in-person format with the first session meeting in person, and the other sessions taking place online. Another of the most important kinds of program for interfaith couples are basic Judaism classes. InterfaithFamily.com offers a great deal of substantive, “how-to-do-Jewish” content, and a great deal of personal narrative content about what it is like for people in interfaith relationships to participate in Jewish life. We are in the process of developing this material into basic Judaism classes that we will also offer in a hybrid online/in-person. The Network’s group functionality will foster participants (and facilitators) staying in touch after the workshops and classes end. The IntefaithFamily/Chicago Director will coordinate and participate in these workshops and classes.

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We welcome input and participation from all elements of the Chicago Jewish community interested in engaging people in interfaith relationships Jewishly, and we welcome inquiries from other interested communities. Until our Chicago Director is in place, please contact me at edc@interfaithfamily.com or 617 581 6805.

A Major New Initiative for InterfaithFamily.com

We made a big announcement at InterfaithFamily.com today. In July we will be launching InterfaithFamily/Chicago, a two-year pilot initiative to coordinate and provide a comprehensive set of local programs aimed at engaging Chicago-area interfaith families Jewishly.

This is big on two intertwined levels – programming and funding. In the almost ten years since InterfaithFamily.com was incorporated, the number of programs aimed at engaging interfaith families in Jewish life has declined. Boston, Atlanta and Denver have relatively comprehensive sets of these programs – but pretty much every other community has none, or one or two scattered offerings. Similarly, interest among major funders in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly has been level, if not declining. Funders have not been “sold” on the idea that any set of existing programs is replicable on a national scale.

We succeeded in attracting significant new funding — several major funders, including The Crown Family, the Marcus Foundation, and the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, are investing $175,000 a year, for two years. If the venture is successful, we will have created a highly replicable model of programming to engage interfaith families in Jewish life in their local communities. Hopefully, that will attract more funders, especially those who focus on their own local community, and we’ll see more programming.

This has been a long time coming. I’ve railed for years that the Jewish community was missing the boat in not providing programming aimed at engaging interfaith families Jewishly. InterfaithFamily.com has made numerous proposals to fill that gap that until now were not accepted. Back in 2008 a number of funders tried to implement a plan that would result in comprehensive sets of programs in local communities, but then Madoff and the economic downturn hit. Now as our tenth anniversary approaches, we finally have a golden opportunity to reverse decline and return to growth in funding and essential programming for our field.

Over the course of the first year, we plan to:
• Build out the Chicago listings in our existing Network so that local interfaith couples can find each other and welcoming organizations, professionals and programs.
• Personalize our existing Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service and help officiating clergy and the couples they serve stay connected.
• Bring our existing sensitivity trainings to Chicago to improve the welcome that interfaith couples experience from Chicago Jewish organizations and professionals.
• Offer our Love and Religion workshop, developed by Dr. Marion Usher at the Washington DC JCC, to help interfaith couples learn how to share religion in their lives, and we’ll do it in a new hybrid format with some sessions online and some in-person.
• Offer basic Judaism classes, in the hybrid online/in-person format, to help Chicago interfaith couples and families learn how and why to live Jewishly.
• Collaborate with others in the field. No one organization can provide all of the resources and services that a local community’s interfaith couples need. We will continue to publicize and coordinate with programs that are provided by others, or may be in the future.

Now the work begins!

A Storahtelling B Mitzvah

Last night, I attended a gala celebrating Storahtelling. And it was great*.

If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to excerpt it here:

Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.

The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.

But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.

She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)

With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”

But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”

And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event, I highly recommend it.

[sub]*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.[/sub]

Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage, Revisited

I’m feeling a little vindicated after reading the Jewish Week’s recent editorial, Future Rabbis, Conflicted About Israel.

Almost exactly a year ago, there was controversy in the Jewish media over Peter Beinart’s argument that young American Jews feel conflict between their liberalism and Zionism because of the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians, resulting in less support for Israel. In a long blog post, Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage, I disagreed with Steven M. Cohen’s response that the “primary driver” for young American Jews’ detachment from Israel was not Israeli policies, but instead was intermarriage.

I’m feeling vindicated because in the recent editorial, the Jewish Week comments on recent news that a number of rabbinical students from many American rabbinical schools come back from their year of study in Israel feeling conflicted about the Jewish state. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are feeling some degree of alienation, consistent with widespread polls and reports about their peers throughout the American Jewish community.” “When spending extended time in Israel, young, idealistic American Jews who have been raised on liberal, humanitarian values rub up against the reality of a people struggling for survival while maintaining a democratic society.”

If rabbinical students, from across the denominational spectrum, are feeling alienated from Israel, it seems to me that it’s time to reevaluate the idea that intermarriage is the main source of that problem.

We Can Help…

Sarah Silverman, if the unicorn wasn’t Jewish, we could help you.

Do you know someone who’s looking for a rabbi for their interfaith wedding? Let them know about our clergy officiation referral service, matching couples, individuals and families with Jewish clergy for weddings, bris or baby namings, bar or bat mitzvahs, conversions, counseling*, funerals, and more.

[sub]*Sarah, you and your unicorn might be most interested in this…[/sub]

Do Interfaith Couples need Genetic Testing?

I met Randy Yudenfriend-Glaser recently at the convention for Reform Rabbis in New Orleans and she opened my eyes in a new way to the issue of testing for genetic diseases.

I had always thought that testing for the genetic diseases most common in Ashkenazi Jews was a waste of time for interfaith couples as clearly one partner wasn’t Jewish and couldn’t be a carrier. I have been corrected.

The nineteen devastating genetic diseases found most commonly in the Ashkenazi Jewish population are not only found in Jews. They are found in other ethnic groups as well, just less frequently. This means that even a non-Ashkenazi Jew, even a  non-Jew, can be a carrier of one or more of these 19 very serious diseases.

The Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium strongly recommends that if only one grandparent of the couple was of Ashkenazi background, the simple blood test screening is necessary.

The protocol is: the member of the couple with the Ashkenazi background is screened first. If he or she is found to be a carrier, a genetic counselor will be able to recommend the proper screening for the spouse/partner. If both members of the couple are carriers of a mutated gene for the same genetic condition, there is a 25% chance – with each pregnancy – of having an affected child, a 50% chance that a child will be a carrier of the disease, and a 25% chance the child will be neither a carrier nor affected.

For more information, please visit jewishgeneticdiseases.org.

Jewish Women’s History Month

In honor of May being Jewish Women’s History Month, we’re participating in a social media experiment with the Jewish Women’s Archive.

At least once a week, we will be tweeting about something from their encyclopedia that we find interesting. I’m trying to keep the content relevant to the scope of InterfaithFamily.com.

So, for the first entry…

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, scores of film and video makers gave voice to enduring Jewish themes of historic oppression, resistance, immigration and exile. Some independent feature films have reached much broader audiences, especially when they situate specifically Jewish characters in romantic and/or comedic stories. But what may characterize independent Jewish cinema most, including those works made by Jewish women, is its lack of unifying discourse. While the major signifiers of Jewish life in the post-World War II era continue to be Judaism as religion, the Holocaust, and Israel, independent American Jewish cinema seems to subvert that triumvirate with images of hybrid identities, interfaith romance, oppositional politics, and jump-cut collective memories.

I enjoy that the entry on “Filmmakers, Independent North American” points out that there isn’t just one way to do/be Jewish in Jewish films. And that one of the variances among our communities, that’s reflected on the screen, is that interfaith relationships can be a norm.

Have you seen a film that reflected your interfaith relationship? Your interfaith family?

To follow other people and organizations tweeting about this, follow the hashtag #jwapedia.