Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.
I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.
Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:
A Pledge for All of Our Families:
We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:
We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.
If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?
I’m still looking for good names for gentile women raising Jewish kids. Perhaps someone like the Jewish Outreach Institute or InterfaithFamily.com should sponsor a contest, hint hint.
Hopefully they’d come up with something better than JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin’s (joking I hope) suggestion to me, via Facebook, that we call them MORBs: mothers of other religious backgrounds. A bit too close to “morbid” for my taste.
So here we go: non-morbid MORBs (it’s not too close to “morbid” for me, but does sound like a cyborg model or something), is there an acronym, nickname, pet name, title of choice that you’d like to be called?
Leave your suggestions in the comments. In our next eNewsletter, I’ll poll readers to find out which suggestion is their favorite. The winner will receive a whole bunch of books (for adults and kids)!
In speaking to the community’s sense of “reverence” and “faith in God,” she said,
“The power of God in your life… the sense of honoring that with the – what is it, the word that starts with an M, when you come in-?”
The Chabad rabbi offers the word for her, “Mezuzah.” She continued,
“Mezuzah. When you come in the door. The sense of reverence for acknowledging that there is something, not just something but the power of God, that is greater than yourself, that we’re all here in service of that, is what I think has endured [in Jewish communities over the ages].”
“In the [family’s] home, they had a mezuzah in their doorway. And I love the very idea of a reminder every time you walk into the space, walk through the doorway, you touch it and are reminded that this isn’t just my home, it belongs to God. One of the things I’m always trying to do is to get people to look inward and to discover the path for themselves that they need….”
Oprah, if you think your path needs a mezuzah as a reminder of a greater good, of God, of sacred space, I’d be happy to show you how to affix one to your home’s doors. Call me anytime.
Among the many decisions involved in raising children, how to educate them is one of the crucial ones. It will influence their growth – intellectually as well as socially and morally. It will also orient them toward a certain set of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.
For Jewish parents, there is an additional layer of consideration in educational decisions: how to ensure your children grow up with a Jewish sense of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.
Jewish day schools of all types – Orthodox as well as Reform, Conservative, and community day schools – provide one answer to this conundrum of how to raise kids Jewishly. Non-Orthodox parents have a wide array of choices and factors in choosing schools for their children. They consider geography, finances, culture, math and science excellence, arts options, plus Hebrew School on top of a public school education.
The conversation is not just for Jewish parents, but intermarried couples too. How does a Jewish education, be it day school or supplemental/after-school/weekend Hebrew or religious School factor in? Why have the conversation? Their blog post continues:
[T]he AVI CHAI and Steinhardt foundations are wondering how to make day school an option that rises farther to the top for more non-Orthodox families.
What would convince more non-Orthodox parents to decide in favor of day school? Is it an issue of a need to boost the schools’ image to align it with what the parents are already searching for to instill their children with Jewish identity? Is it a problem of marketing and reaching the target audience most likely to sign up? What ways are there to take advantage of existing trends, social networks, or current day school constituencies in recruitment efforts? Are there incentives that would be meaningful?
This blog post kicks off an exciting thought experiment. We are asking you, our readers, and people across the social web, to answer the question: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? More specifically, without changing the core educational program, what characteristics, features, selling points, functions, additional program offerings, or other ideas do you have that could make day school an attractive independent school choice for non-Orthodox parents?
Do you have ideas that could influence parents’ decisions on these questions – from your own experiences as a parent making them, as a child who was influenced by them, or as someone simply interested in issues of Jewish education? What strategies do you think will work? Please respond here on this blog, on your own blog, or in the AVI CHAI Facebook page.
I suspect the interfaith community has a lot to suggest here. Did you decide to send your kids to a Jewish school? Why or why not? What factors went into your decision? If you decided against a Jewish day school, what factors would change your decision? And, specific to our community, did you find day schools to be welcoming of your interfaith family? Was the non-Jewish parent welcomed into the school, when touring campus, while meeting faculty?
We are extremely pleased to report that the Natan Fund has awarded InterfaithFamily.com a renewal grant for 2012. Natan’s announcement in eJewishPhilanthropy.com explains that Natan is a network of about 80 young philanthropists who pool their charitable resources and collaborate to make grants to emerging Jewish and Israeli nonprofit organizations. Natan received 350 letters of inquiry and made 47 grants to express “Natan members’ unwavering commitment to supporting innovative initiatives that aretransforming 21st-century Jewish life.” Board chair David Steinhardt says, “Natan continually takes risks on new ideas, new people and new initiatives, while at the same time remaining committed to current grantees that are demonstrating success.” We’re thrilled that the young funders participating in Natan have re-affirmed their confidence in the importance of IFF’s work.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago co-lead the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) Principal’s Kallah on Sunday and Monday, January 29 and 30. About 20 Chicagoland Jewish educators (including directors of lifelong learning, religious school principals and early childhood directors) from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations gathered at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place on Sunday evening. Anita Diamant was the key-note speaker; she spoke about the American Jewish family in the 21st century. She taught us about the growth in number of conversions to Judaism. Did you know that the rate of conversions to Judaism has not been this high since 500 C.E.? She talked about how the rabbinic codes and laws concerning conversion were written at that time to be open and welcoming.
Today, American Jews are so successful and assimilated into every aspect of American culture (including the outspoken and proud Jon Stewart), that marrying someone Jewish seems like a realistic and wonderful choice for someone who grew up a different religion and is not practicing, or even for someone who still practices another religion. American Judaism is open, flexible, adaptable, and so young couples think intermarriage “works.”
She said that it is now statistically normative to be intermarried, which is a powerful statement with many ramifications. She spoke about how labels can impact our sense of identity. She said at the end that she is optimistic about the future of American Judaism and wouldn’t want to live at any other time than now.
On Monday, Karen Kushner (who lives and works in San Francisco) and I ran three workshops for the Kallah participants.
The first workshop involved getting to know each other and starting to think about the most welcoming language for synagogue membership forms. Filling in a form should leave one with the feeling that this synagogue is inclusive and respectful of all backgrounds. All of the educators at our conference said that they work with interfaith families. Many said that they were sure they had students in their classes who felt that they were “half and half” or confused about their religious identity. Many affirmed that they have children from interfaith homes who feel proud to be Jewish, love their family and feel whole and secure. So, we spoke about how interfaith families come through our doors with different needs, issues, desires, backgrounds, questions and more.
It was so interesting for the educators to take a good look at their own congregation’s website and their school forms. Many confessed that they hadn’t read through the language in quite some time and were either pleasantly surprised by how inclusive their language was or turned off by the lack of specific mention that interfaith families are welcome in their community. We had the educators circle or highlight every Hebrew or Yiddish word on their forms, all “insider” language terms and references to synagogue lingo that some parents may not “get.” We debated if one should actually translate the words, “Shabbat,” “matzah” and “Torah” for example as “everyone knows what these words mean…” Interestingly, many may not know the origins of even these Hebrew words. For instance, Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for rest; Torah has the same etymological root as horim and morim (parents and teachers) and means learning.
We ended Monday with a session on how children form a sense of self and gain a Jewish identity. We spoke about the challenges to having a “full” Jewish identity when a parent is bringing Christianity or another religion into the home.
We talked about how these issues aren’t black and white, but full of grays. For some, a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt are purely secular, so adding these elements into a Jewish home doesn’t feel like they create theological problems. I see this, for example, when I meet with couples who are preparing for their weddings. I usually start by saying, “Tell me your life in a nutshell…” I sometimes ask myself what children growing up in interfaith homes will they tell their rabbi before they get married. Will s/he say that their Jewish story is that they grew up going to a temple, attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays in the home and that mom or dad also celebrated another religion’s holidays, and they occasionally went to church with family members but that they want a rabbi at their wedding because they feel a core inside connection to Judaism…? It will differ for each child.
We do know, however, how important a connection to a synagogue is. We do know how important it is to have positive, joy filled, meaningful Jewish experiences that touch the senses. These experiences stay with us, and we want our children to experience them too. This is how we pass on our values, our memories, and live with and through our children fully.
There was definitely a lot of discussion. Many people asked questions. Many answers, suggestions and opinions were shared. The most important thing is that 20 Chicagoland educators devoted two days from their hectic schedules – juggling childcare, work obligations and more – to think about the precious subject of the American Jewish family today and how we can best bring interfaith families into the tent of Jewish living. It was an honor to be part of such a workshop.