A Model to Engage Interfaith Families

We’ve just reported on the first full year of the InterfaithFamily/Chicago two-year pilot of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. You can find the full report here. We are on to something big that can transform the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in a very significant and positive way.

Four years ago a group of leading national family foundations studied the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly and concluded that three elements were needed: a world class website, inclusivity training of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and comprehensive programs in local communities. A Task Force of the UJA-Federation of New York reached the same conclusion in 2011. We developed the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative to provide these “missing links” and in particular to coordinate and provide a comprehensive set of interfaith engagement programs in local communities.

The theory behind our model is that a comprehensive local community approach to engaging people in interfaith relationships Jewishly must address five important needs:

Awareness and Connection. People in interfaith relationships need to be made aware of the resources in their local Jewish community – organizations, professionals and programs – that are interested in welcoming them, and they need easy avenues to connect to those resources and to others couples like them in their community.

Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. When interfaith couples and families do connect with Jewish community resources, they need to find a genuinely warm welcome.

Officiation as an Entryway. Interfaith couples should find it easy to find clergy to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle events, and officiating clergy should stay connected with their couples and help them connect to Jewish life and community.

Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. Newwly married or seriously dating interfaith couples need help learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about how to have religious traditions in their lives together.

Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. Interfaith couples and families need help learning how they can live Jewishly – and how doing so can add value and meaning to their lives.

With generous funding from the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Marcus Foundation, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, and a private gift, we launched the first two-year pilot of our initiative, InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in July 2011. The results of our first full year are very positive:

Awareness and Connection. Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of IFF/Chicago, introduced the project this year in meetings with more than 60 local organizations and professionals, led or participated in 9 adult education classes and other programs, and blogged and tweeted frequently. As a result the IFF website had 36,559 visits from the Chicago area, the new Chicagoland Community Page had 3,200 visits, we added 15 more local clergy to our officiation referral list for a total of 31, and we added to our Network 46 more organizations for a total of 72, 56 more professionals for a total of 70, and 154 more non-professional individuals for a total of 241. IFF/Chicago was featured in a story in the hanukkah-1221-20111221_1_interfaith-couples-interfaithfamily-com-jewish-life">Chicago Tribune, in a local community paper, and in the JUF News.

Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. IFF/Chicago conducted 7 inclusivity and sensitivity trainings for 80 participants, including for religious school teachers at three synagogues, for preschool teachers at two synagogues, a workshop for rabbis to discuss wedding officiation, and a two-day training with three sessions at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education’s Principals’ Kallah for Reform and Conservative synagogue religious school educators. We already have 3 trainings lined up for the second year. One rabbi said,  “I will say that… the presence of an organization with this approach in the city has really affected the way I talk and write about interfaith Jews in our community and beyond.”

Officiation as an Entryway. The IFF Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service responded to 103 requests for officiation, and Rabbi Moffic had 24 follow-up conversations and 5 in-person meetings, all aimed at connecting couples beyond their wedding ceremony to synagogues and other community resources. We created two resources, available to members of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, for clergy to use to stay in touch with their couples.

Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. IFF/Chicago offered a hybrid online/in-person four-session workshop, Love and Religion created by Marion Usher, Ph.D., in February with four couples participating and again in May with eight couples. The in-person sessions facilitate community building, while online sessions make it easier for busy young adults to participate without going out every week. In post-workshop surveys most participants said that they felt empowered to talk about interfaith issues with their partners, and that they gained an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith relationships. Three workshop offerings have been scheduled for the second year.

Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. We developed and offered our first hybrid online/in-person class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family, to 21 couples. It includes eight sessions learned online with background reading, audio and video files, and personal journal entries and discussion board posts commented on by the facilitator, and two in-person meetings, a Shabbat experience and a wrap-up session. Each session is designed to teach a Jewish practice that responds to a universal parenting need and value (having a calm and reflective bedtime, appreciation for food and concern for hunger, making a regular time to be grateful, ethical behavior, etc.). Almost all respondents to the post-class surveys said that they felt more knowledgeable about Judaism and Jewish practice and gained more of an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith family; 10 respondents said their practices had changes as a result of the class to include saying the bedtime Shema, the Hamotzi, and/or Shabbat blessings. In the second year we will have two offerings of Raising a Child and two of our next class, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family.

JESNA is our evaluation consultant and will be administering surveys, conducting follow-up interviews, and issuing a report in 2013. But we are already confident that our model is meeting its important goals. More resources are being listed and attracting more traffic. Professionals are more aware of and sensitive to the needs of interfaith families. Couples are finding clergy to officiate at their life-cycle events and through our workshop are learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about religious traditions for their family. Parents with young children are learning about Judaism and Jewish practices and trying them out.

Every Jewish community should have on-the-ground staff whose job is 100% aimed at addressing these needs of interfaith families in order to engage them Jewishly. The IFF/Your Community model is the first framework that has ever demonstrated the ability to effectively work toward that result, and it can and will be enhanced and expanded as we continue to learn from our experience in Chicago and new communities as we add them. We are close to having the funding necessary to implement IFF/San Francisco and IFF/Philadelphia later in 2012, we have an ambitious plan to be in eleven communities in five years, and we have just launched a job search for a national Director of IFF/Your Community to manage this growth.

We think this is “big” and we hope many Jewish leaders will agree. 

The Importance of Jewish Education

I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:

Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”

Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.

I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.

Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!

It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.

Language, Inclusion and Entry Points

I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families.  There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.

For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.

I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.

As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.

I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)

Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.

This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!

What Do Violin Lessons Have to Do With Religious School?

My 5-year-old daughter just started violin lessons. Her lessons use the Suzuki method; parents come to lessons and learn along with the child so that when then child practices at home, the parent can help. Parents are expected to take notes during lessons and often video pieces of the lesson to watch with their child at home for reinforcement. I have not only thoroughly enjoyed the uninterrupted time with my daughter, but I have loved the pursuit of gaining these skills with her – new skills with which neither of us has any familiarity. Hannah teaches me and reminds me just as much as I help her. When we practice at home, we laugh a lot, we concentrate a lot, we learn together and get better together.

It recently occurred to me that this concept of Teacher, Parent-Learner-Teacher and Child-Learner-Teacher could be a great model to bring into the religious school classroom. Family education has become normative and popular in most synagogue congregations. Parents spend time in the classroom and engage in projects with the child. But what if family education meant that the parent and child were as engaged and highly focused on mastering the skills, on learning the techniques, on understanding the rhythm as they are in these violin lessons? What if parents prized the possibility of their child learning how to do Jewishly: how to perform rituals and traditions, how to read and speak Hebrew, how to study Torah and how to live based on mitzvot (commandments)? What if parents took notes in the religious school classroom, and all were silent, mouths gaped open in awe, as the teacher hummed a niggun (wordless melody), offered an appropriate blessing or translated a portion of Torah? What if the teacher gave homework that the parent and child had to do together and gave stickers when the parent-child team brought back their weekly homework chart filled in?

In some ways, many families have outsourced their child’s Jewish education to the synagogue school. Just as there is no way violin or a foreign language can really be learned unless it is practiced at home, there is no way Judaism can be learned unless it is practiced at home. I think that for interfaith families in particular, in which one parent did not grow up with Jewish knowledge and traditions, it would be even more powerful to gain these insights with their child. And, for a parent who grew up Jewish and has a deep level of knowledge, they can learn from the teacher how to teach and transmit that knowledge to their child. There is a parent in our Suzuki class who teaches flute. She knows music. She doesn’t know the violin. She is learning with all the other parents who don’t have her musical background. For a parent who grew up Jewish and needs a refresher, what better way than with your child?

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about how this could translate to the religious school classroom. Could you imagine making the commitment to learn with your child each week and then practicing at home? If you believe Judaism provides the framework for structuring a life of meaning, joy, order and purpose, it would seem to be worth the time and effort!

An Orthodox Response to Intermarriage

I didn't think I'd be blogging about an article on the website of the OU (Orthodox Union), let alone giving it a thumbs up, but here I am.

Dear Jew in the City,
My cousin recently got married to an non-Jew. How can I support her even though I know she made a wrong choice?!!!
Thanks,
A Concerned Cousin

Given that this is an Orthodox site, and that their denomination has not historically been kind to intermarriage, I prepared for the worst as I read the response from Allison Josephs (aka, Jew in the City). But it was actually pretty good!

She spoke to the judgement in A Concerned Cousin's inquiry (calling out both the word "wrong" and "choice"), delved into Torah commandments, made analogies and… gave a thoughtful response that I think most Orthodox would at least be open to reading.

What do you think?