A Sneak Peak at Our Online Parenting Class

InterfaithFamily/Chicago is currently offering an online/in-person hybrid class called How to Raise a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. We have 21 families – raising young children – from all over Chicagoland participating.

The participants come to their computers in spare minutes to access the content of each week’s session. They can read essays and watch slide shows about the theme of the session, gain ideas for family projects, respond to discussion questions, write in their journals, watch videos, learn blessings, read narratives written by other interfaith families, and more.

The families in this class are diverse. Some have one partner who is Jewish and another who either was born into and practices another religion or was born into another religion but does not practice that religion now. For some families, both partners are questioning elements of the religion of their upbringing and thinking about what feels comfortable in terms of the religious observance of their new family.

Parents talk about understanding elements in Judaism and coming to feel at ease reciting prayers in Hebrew. Discussions have involved how young children perceive different prayers and how they process who they are religiously. We have discussed, online and in-person, which traditions have enduring meanings and which rituals are realistic to bring into the rhythm of the family’s life. For example, during the first session we grappled with the Shema prayer. We spoke online about wanting a peaceful and spiritual bedtime routine with our children and wondered if prayer is part of that experience. If it is, is the Shema that prayer or would it be something else? Do both parents say it, or just the Jewish partner?

This past Friday evening, we also met up in-person to connect comments written on a screen to actual faces. At the Board of Jewish Education in Northbrook, IL , we ushered in Shabbat together as a new community.

We were meeting for the first time, and some young children who had been in the car for an hour were understandably antsy, energetic, and curious, while others were apprehensive.

We started with three Shabbat blessings. We spoke about light in the face of the dreary evening weather and the light in our children’s eyes. We sipped wine and thought about which sweet moments we were looking forward to this Shabbat. We ate challah and thought about the goodness of being together.

In order for these parents to get to Northbrook, some of them left work early, ran to get children from daycares and nannies, faced traffic and stress. Yet they showed up. The message that we all felt is that Shabbat means honoring traditions, being with friends and loved ones, focusing on singing and playing, and stepping out of the norms of the week for a chance to experience time in a different way. This gift that is Shabbat is one we open in our own ways and with our own spirits.

The families also made placemats that said either Sabbath Peace or Shabbat Shalom. The children pasted on pictures of their homes and images of peace. They wrote the names of those they love all over their mats. They decorated their mats with their handprints and stamps. When they use their laminated mats at meals or on Shabbat, maybe they will look at the images and think about their role in bringing peace to their home, peace to their playdates, and peace to the playground… This eternal message of Shabbat will be realized in new ways by the children of this new generation.

Lots of Questions For Teens From Interfaith Homes

I had the opportunity to join in a Chicagoland Teen Visioning Meeting, led by the Federation (JUF) with representatives from different youth movements and youth programs in the area. We broke into small groups and spoke about how to better use technology to reach teens, how to keep teens post-bar/bat mitzvah in learning and organized Jewish life, and goals to achieve in five years.

The reason I was invited to this meeting was to facilitate a conversation about how to better serve teens from interfaith homes. Every youth group has teens with a parent who is either not Jewish or a Jew by Choice, or family members who are not Jewish. We wondered aloud whether teens from interfaith homes struggle with their emerging young adult identities in unique ways. The overarching question, however, was how we reach the gazillions of teens in unaffiliated, interfaith homes who are being raised without religion or religious identity, or being raised with holiday celebrations or some Judaism in the home, but have never walked into a synagogue or JCC.

Where are these teens? Are they looking for Jewish experiences? What types of experiences? Are they not actively thinking about Judaism, but when invited, would be open to learning and participation? Who are their parents? Are their parents open to having their children participate in a specifically Jewish program?

As you can see, we left with many questions.

Every two weeks I blog, sharing the experiences I am having as Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. I have blogged about religious school teacher workshops. I have shared my thoughts from our first Love and Religion Workshop. But this blog post is open, unfinished, full of more questions than answers.

If you are parents in an interfaith marriage and have teens or pre-teens, please share your thoughts about what types of Jewish experiences your teens are open to and find engaging. Do your teens prefer to go to events that are social and loosely focused on a Jewish theme? Are your teens more apt to attend a program that is based in serious study, in which they can intellectually grapple with issues of ethics and morality and apply an ancient law code to modern times? Are your teens excited about music, sports, technology or film?

Clearly, there have to be opportunities for teens to find a way into Jewish living that touches on lots of different facets of the religion/culture. But for teens whose parents have not found their own way to organized Jewish life, what barriers are there to entry? Is language alone too daunting for teens not familiar with even basic Jewish vocabulary such as “tzedakah”?

The Jewish world wants these teens in our synagogues, in our youth groups, in our summer youth programs. It is not too late for these teens to discover their Jewish roots and heritage. In fact, coming to Judaism as a young adult is in some ways an ideal time to discover the depth of this incredible and challenging way of life.

Where are you? Who are you? How can we invite you in? Let us know!

Lessons Learned From our First Love and Religion Workshop in Chicagoland

We just finished our first Love and Religion Workshop in Chicago, a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher in D.C. and offered at JCCs across the country. The workshop, for interfaith couples who are seriously dating, engaged or newly married, seeks to engender discussion about the role of religion in their lives. Couples can begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion.

Four interfaith, Chicagoland couples, all of whom are getting married this summer, participated in our workshop. They logged into their computers with multiple video conferencing on Wednesday evenings so that we could see and hear each other from the comfort of our own homes. For the last session, we met in person at a Jewish deli on the North Shore.

Having tried to get a glimpse into these couples’ lives over the past month, here are my thoughts:

1. These couples (and many of the couples I marry) have not had backlash, ill-feelings or negativity from their parents and extended family at the thought of marrying someone from a different religion. There are, of course, exceptions. Some parents do find it hard to speak to their children about their disappointments and concerns. Not surprisingly, these issues often get exacerbated when grandchildren come into the picture. However, couples often share that their parents are happy for them: happy they found a partner who brings them joy and support.

2. Couples are interested and eager to plan their interfaith wedding ceremony and to unpack the meaning of the traditions. For couples who want to bring aspects of both religions into the ceremony and their lives as a married couple, they may feel that they are dancing on eggshells to make sure that both sides are represented in the ceremony. They want their ceremony to feel Jewish and yet honor the other partner’s religion as well in real ways. Couples are concerned that their family members who are not Jewish will feel part of the ceremony. Partners who are Jewish worry about the mention of Jesus as possibly alienating Jewish family members. Many of the couples printed out our wedding guide for help deciding on readings; gaining understanding about the meaning behind traditions; and to begin envisioning what their ceremony would look, feel and sound like. An interfaith ceremony has to present both religions’ traditions in ways that affirm the other. The wedding shouldn’t feel like two totally different ceremonies have been placed into one whole, going back and forth and back and forth with no connections being made and with ideas that conflict. As with many other aspects in Judaism, interfaith relationships are compelling us to look at liturgy and traditions with a new lens, with a new openness and with creativity to understanding the spirit behind the words and rites.

3. It is not a far leap from talking about a wedding ceremony to talking about how couples will raise their future children. Before we could talk about what role religion would play, we tried to articulate what each partner believes about major aspects of their own religion. This is where I got a lot of blank stares. For some people who grew up Jewish, they never heard a rabbi or teacher ever talk about theology. For many, what Jews do or don’t believe about God, about life and after death, about sin and other major life questions are mysteries. A lack of our own Jewish knowledge and literacy makes it more difficult to figure out, in thoughtful and purposeful ways, what we want to pass on to our children. Some say they just want to celebrate holidays in secular ways. However, if there is interest in infusing deeper meaning, both cultural and religious, couples may need guidance. How does one begin to fill in some of these holes in their own religious education? I highly recommend participating, as a couple in, an introduction to Judaism class. They are held regularly, throughout the year, in various congregations around Chicagoland.

Talking regularly with our partners about different aspects of religion helps both people sort out what is important to them, what questions they still have, areas they want to explore more and where similarities and difference lie. The way couples experience religion will no doubt look different from what either partner grew up with. That can be liberating and exciting or challenging, frustrating and even sad. Yet being willing to actively grapple with these issues can lead interfaith couples to find a new religious vibrancy and identity.

The next session for Love and Religion starts soon. Join us in May!

Moms Need a New Name

The gauntlet’s been thrown. (Thanks, Julie Wiener!)

She writes,

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)!

Ready, set, leave your comments!

Update: vote for your favorite entry!

We Have a Say in Israel?

This article from the JTA is far too short, but let’s our imaginations run wild:

A substantial majority of Israelis want the country’s lawmakers to consider Diaspora Jewry when devising new legislation on Jewish identity issues, according to a poll.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents to a survey carried out last week by the Ruderman Family Foundation agreed that it was extremely important for members of the Knesset to consider Diaspora views, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The 509 Israeli adults were answering the question, “How important do you believe it is for Israeli lawmakers to consider the views of Jews in the Diaspora when creating legislation such as ‘Who is a Jew?’ ”

According to The Jerusalem Post, the poll was administered ahead of an event sponsored by the Israeli-American Jewish Knesset caucus in order to raise awareness on the important relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

Wow. Can you imagine what would happen if every single person who converted under Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative guidance in the Diaspora contacted Israelis, imploring them to view non-Orthodox conversions as “just as Jewish” as Orthodox conversions? Can you imagine what would happen if every single child of an intermarriage contacted Israelis, urging them to see their families, bar or bat mitzvahs, and marriages as “just as Jewish” as the child of inmarried parents? Can you imagine what would happen if every single Jewish organization that welcomes, includes, or otherwise supports interfaith families contacted Israeli organizations and explained their reasons for being welcoming, inclusive, and supportive of interfaith families in Israel?

77% of Israeli respondents think Diaspora Jews need to be kept in mind when Israeli law defines “who is a Jew.” Interfaith families are Jewish families in the Diaspora – and should be recognized as such in Israel as well.

[sub](Hat tip to Jeremy Burton's tweet, alerting me to this article.)[/sub]

Remembering Newt Becker

As you can imagine, there have been a lot of ups and downs for me since starting InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. ten years ago. I have a very distinct memory of one of the high points. Although I’m not completely certain where it happened – I believe it was at the then-United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Cleveland in 2004 where we had a booth in the exhibit hall – I specifically remember a man I didn’t know stopping by our booth and starting to talk. It was the start of a wonderful and sustaining relationship with Newt Becker, who sadly died two days ago.

If the Jewish world had more philanthropists like Newt Becker, we would be in much better condition. Not that it was easy to gain his support – in fact he was very inquisitive and he was very tough-minded. I have six pages of notes from a phone call with Newt in October 2005 filled with his questions on what we were doing and suggestions for projects we should undertake. He gave me many names of people to call and I noted “use Newt’s name” by each one of them.

I have an email Newt sent to a colleague, a professional fundraiser, after that call. He said he had made a commitment to IFF “but Edmund needs more than money.” He asked his friend to critique my powerpoint and pointed out a slide that he thought was important and missing. Fortunately, although the presentation needed improvement, Newt said that I was a “serious person.” The commitment he made was the largest individual gift we received in our early years.

We talked once or twice a year and the calls always lasted at least an hour. Newt wanted to know what was going on and when it was something he knew about – like distance learning and web based instruction and local chapters in our case – he shared his experience, made suggestions, and asked to review what we came up with. But he was very generous, and he was a committed funder over the years, and one of the nicest things he ever did was increase his gift by 25%  – without being asked – after Madoff and the economic downturn in late 2008. The last time I talked to Newt this fall, in response to a matching challenge, he increased his gift again, this time by 33%.

Engaging interfaith families in Jewish life was not a popular funding area in 2005 (it still isn’t popular enough) but I don’t think Newt cared much about what was popular or not. He didn’t hesitate to support our efforts and my notes and emails are replete with his comments that the federations and movements should be doing more.

I didn’t really know Newt personally but I’m fortunate to have gotten to know his daughter-in-law Ann a little more. I’m sure Newt was a loving parent and grandparent because he often spoke to me proudly about his family, and because Ann has often mentioned happy family occasions like her son’s recent Bar Mitzvah. I hope Newt’s family will find comfort in what should be an outpouring of affection and gratitude for the very positive impact he had on our world.

Reflecting on December 2011

I was interviewed by a major city’s Jewish newspaper this week. The reporter asked if it had gotten “easier” for interfaith couples over the past ten years since InterfaithFamily got started. I said I thought there was more acceptance among parents of young adults who are intermarrying. But there are still what I call “eternal” issues – not in the sense of never resolved, but in the sense that they confront each interfaith couple who is at all serious about having religious traditions together. Issues like what kind of wedding will we have, what kind of baby naming, and … what will we do in December.

This year JOI’s Paul Golin made a valiant effort to influence Jews not to tell interfaith couples not to have Christmas trees. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

Writing originally in hanukkah-and-christmas/">Kveller and then in the Forward, Jordana Horn attracted a huge amount of comment by asserting that the point of Hanukkah is to celebrate people who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism, and to celebrate Christmas is to do just that — to celebrate the birth of someone who Christians believe is the son of God.

This argument is wrong and it’s pernicious. I say it’s wrong based on the eight years of December holidays surveys we’ve done at InterfaithFamily. They consistently show that interfaith families raising their children Jewish celebrate Christmas – with almost half having trees in their own homes – but not religiously. It is a warm family time, like Thanksgiving, that recognizes the traditions of the parent who is not Jewish. 

It’s pernicious because the more that Jews tell interfaith couples that they shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, the less those interfaith couples will want to engage in Jewish life and community.

Kate Bigam in a guest post on our blog said it best:

I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism… The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.

Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.

People who are still uneasy about interfaith families celebrating Christmas might want to consider well-known Jewish journalist Sue Fishkoff’s experience. Sue grew up celebrating Christmas with her non-Jewish mother – and continues to do so.

I’d like to ask Jordana Horn, and Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who wrote a similarly negative piece, and those who share their views: if an interfaith couple said they were willing to raise their children Jewish, they just wanted to have a Christmas tree that they didn’t regard as a religious symbol – do you really want to tell that couple “no, not good enough, not Jewish enough, better you should go away?”

*  *  *

Julie Wiener featured Sue’s essay, and if you want to see more of this debate, check out her several blog posts.

An Historic Advance by the UJA-Federation of New York

Last week the UJA-Federation of New York released what could be the most important report ever written for the field of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

The report, of the Federation’s Task Force on Welcoming Interfaith Families, recognizes that there is potential for Jewish engagement among interfaith families that is not being fulfilled and recommends

an approach that unapologetically announces its welcome, provides sustained, networked, professionally staffed, and well-advertised gateway educational programs targeted to interfaith couples and families, and provides ongoing training for professionals and lay leaders.

At InterfaithFamily.com we have long advocated for the need for comprehensive, coordinated local programs for people in interfaith relationships. Our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, with InterfaithFamily/Chicago as its first implementation, is based on a three-pronged approach of web platform publicity, trainings, and programs. We find it incredibly affirming that the staff and board of the UJA-Federation of New York – one of the most highly-regarded organizations in the entire Jewish world – has now endorsed that approach.

After Julie Wiener wrote about the report in the New York Jewish Week, that paper yesterday published an op-ed by Jack Wertheimer, one of the most vehement critics of intermarriage. 

Wertheimer first argues that welcoming interfaith families is not necessary because there is no evidence that interfaith families do not feel welcome in the Jewish community. I wonder if he has ever spent any time talking with interfaith families about their experiences. The Task Force did, and reported on what it heard in its deliberations. At InterfaithFamily.com we do, and hear about unwelcoming experiences all the time.

Wertheimer next argues that the voices of intermarrieds and their children themselves explain their complex or non-existing relationship with organized Jewish life. He actually suggests that material on InterfaithFamily.com supports his view:

Thanks to websites such as Interfaithfamily.com, it is easy to access [the views of intermarrieds and their children]. Many write candidly about the deep religious fissures running through families, about the impossible dilemmas posed by dual-religion households, about personal psychological barriers to participation in Jewish life.

The plain truth is that there are hundreds of positive personal narratives on our site of happy families who are not experiencing division or conflict over their different religious backgrounds and who are engaging in Jewish life and community. The fact the Wertheimer could summarize our material in the skewed way that he does suggests that he is simply blind to any reality that does not fit his world view that intermarriage is bad.

Wertheimer refers to “the religious and communal imperative to perpetuate Jewish life through endogamy.” I’ve written before that encouraging in-marriage is a strategy that is bound to produce fewer Jews by alienating the many who will intermarry anyway.

Wertheimer concludes by suggesting that the UJA-Federation of New York should assert that “intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and the perpetuation of Judaism.” To the contrary, we should all be deeply grateful to the lay and professional leaders of the Federation for rejecting that approach and choosing instead to embrace the reality of intermarriage and respond to it in a way that maximizes the opportunities for Jewish outcomes.

Survey Again Says: IFF Has Impact!

At IFF we are always interested in who our users are, and in what they are looking for and whether they find it with us. We’re especially interested in our impact, and so are our funders and Jewish professionals with whom we seek to work: are we changing the attitudes and behaviors of people in interfaith relationships, and of Jewish leaders?

Every two years we do an online user survey – so far, we haven’t had funding to have an independent consultant do an evaluation for us – and we’re issuing a press release today on our 2011 User Survey Report. The results are very, very positive.

Some key points about our users (referring to site visitors who responded to the survey):
• More than 85% are either intermarried, interdating, the parents of intermarried children, or the children of intermarried parents; 14% are professionals. We’d like to reach more men (currently only 19% of users) and children of intermarried parents (currently just 9%).
• 13% come to the site for help finding a rabbi to officiate or co-officiate at their wedding or other life cycle event – reaffirming the importance of our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service.
• Over the past year, we’ve been really ramping up our “how-to-do-Jewish” materials, with booklets, videos, audio files, downloadable blessings, articles and more. In 2011 many more users are coming to the site for those materials – 35% came for information about Jewish holidays, for example, compared to just 25% in 2009. I don’t know whether more are coming because we’re offering more, but clearly there is an interest and need for the kinds of materials we’re providing. Almost half are interested in the booklets that we began to offer in 2010.
• Many users are interested in the social networking-related functions that our Network offers – information about local events (45%), listings of local professionals (40%), meeting other interfaith families online (24%). More than 50% of professional users are interested in the kinds of resource materials and trainings that our Resource Center for Program Providers is offering and developing for clergy, synagogues and other organizations.
• Intermarried couples with children at home report that IFF had positive influence on the factors that we believe lead to Jewish choices: knowledge about Jewish life (79%), interest in Jewish life (72%), and comfort participating in Jewish life (59%), as well as feeling welcomed by Jewish communities (54%).
• Intermarried couples with children at home also report that IFF had positive influence on their Jewish choices, including participation in Jewish rituals and life-cycle events (62-69%), deciding to join a synagogue (34% — up from just 24% in 2009), and deciding to send children to Jewish education classes (32% — up from 25% in 2009).
• Jewish professionals report that IFF has helped them to see interfaith families in a more positive light (71%) and to develop welcoming policies and practices (57%). 
• Almost one third of users are interested in workshops for new interfaith couples about how to have religion in their lives and in classes on raising children with Judaism in interfaith families and adding value to their lives through Jewish practices – the programs we will be offering in 2012 as part of our InterfaithFamily/Chicago pilot initiative.

Remembering Leonard Wasserman

One of my heroes died last week, on October 7, erev Yom Kippur.

Leonard Wasserman was unique in my experience. He is the only Jewish lay leader I’ve ever known who became passionate about engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and then created an organization that works to do just that – Interfaithways.

I first met Leonard when the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly was last held in Philadelphia, in 2002. Rabbi Rayzel Raphael was escorting Leonard around the GA; he was on a mission to learn as much as he could about what was being done around the country to engage interfaith families. I don’t know exactly how old Leonard was, but even back in 2002 he appeared to be pretty elderly, and he was quite hard of hearing, but he was insatiably curious about our field.

That was a common theme over the nine years that I knew him – he always wanted to be current, to know if anything new was happening that could be put into use in Philadelphia. I think he attend every JOI national conference on outreach. He regularly wanted to take a train up to New York to meet with me there. A year or two ago Leonard asked if I could set up a meeting for him with Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation and the most visionary leader in the federation world when it comes to engaging interfaith families. Probably well into his 80’s by then, Leonard flew to Boston with his wonderful colleague Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and continued to ask what the best practices were and how he could bring them to his home town.

I asked Leonard once why he cared so much about engaging interfaith families. The amazing thing to me is that none of Leonard’s four children were intermarried. He told me that he and his beloved wife Dorothy were honored one year by Philadelphia’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He said, smiling, that of course when one is honored, one is expected to give more money. He asked what the JF&CS needed, and the executive director at the time, Drew Staffenberg, said they wanted to get into providing programming for interfaith couples. So Leonard and Dorothy agree to fund the program that eventually grew into Interfaithways, housed for several years at the JF&CS, and then as an independent non-profit.

Leonard was unique in that he didn’t come to the issue out of personal experience – it was suggested to him, he studied it, he realized how important it was, and he took it way beyond the expected initial gift, to many years of supporting the organization that he created. And, sadly, he was unique in that I’m not aware of any other Jewish lay leader who single-handedly created and largely funded an organization dedicated to the cause of engaging interfaith families. It is too bad that there haven’t been any other leaders like him.

Over the years Leonard had some wonderful people working at Interfaithways. He did attract some foundation and individual support, but he was disappointed that the cause of engaging interfaith families did not attract significant funding from the Philadelphia community as a whole. Despite those setbacks, he never gave up and was determined to keep Interfaithways going.

This summer when I learned Leonard was failing I sent him a note. I told him I was sorry that the progress towards engaging interfaith families had been so slow, but that I was confident that we would get there some day, and when we did, he would have played an important role.

On a personal level, Leonard was a kind and gracious and generous man. I remember very well visiting him at his homes in Florida and in Bala Cynwyd, and I remember him driving me to lunch at the nearby Jewish deli– I don’t know if it was Hymie’s, or Murray’s, or Katz’s, but it was good. I will miss him very much.