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 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 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 supports his view:

Thanks to websites such as, 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.

Choosing Life in the New Year, Part 2


I just read my friend Julie Wiener’s latest blog post put up just before Yom Kippur, Bad Day at the Mikveh, Good Day at the Beach. I usually agree with Julie but I’m not sure in this case.

Jessica Langer-Sousa, a Jewish woman who was intermarrying, wrote in the  Huffington Post that she was rebuffed by a mikveh lady who told her that her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God.

I don’t think Julie let the mikveh lady off too easily – she says the mikveh lady “no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere” and she says that “Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful.”

But I think she shifts blame to Langer-Sousa or tries to equalize blame when she says that “respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred” and “I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.”

That doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like the editors of the Jerusalem Post in today’s editorial saying that intermarriage “plagues” the Diaspora and that there is declarative value in legislation to prevent it. Interfaith couples who are seeking Jewish connection and engagement – people like Langer-Sousa, who remember was wanting to go to a mikveh in advance of her wedding – shouldn’t have to experience the judgmental condemnation of the editors of the Jerusalem Post, or people like this mikveh lady.

Choosing Life in the New Year


When I was in sixth grade I won my Hebrew school’s essay contest by writing that Yom Kippur was my favorite Jewish  holiday. I figured — correctly, because I won — what kid would choose Yom Kippur?

But Yom Kippur was and still is my favorite holiday and it was a good one for me. The services and community at Temple Shalom of Newton were meaningful and sustaining for me.

I woke up this morning still hungry, made my favorite breakfast, opened my computer, and found a lovely — I’m being sarcastic here — editorial from the Jerusalem Post, Debating Civil Marriage, with this lovely (sarcasm again) quote:

Though according to recent surveys of Jewish Israeli opinion, this is no longer the case, there was once a strong consensus that Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to fight intermarriage through legislation that encourages Jews to marry other Jews. Intermarriage and assimilation plague Jews of the Diaspora. The State of Israel should reflect through its laws the desire of the Jewish people to maintain continuity. Admittedly, preventing Jews from marrying non-Jews through legislation or a lack thereof will not stop intermarriage. Love will overcome any obstacle. But the fact that the State of Israel does not officially condone intermarriage has some declarative value.

This is so wrong on so many levels. “Intermarriage plagues Jews of the Diaspora” and runs counter to maintaining continuity? Israeli leaders continue not to understand intermarriage in North America, that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life and are actively creating continuity. My op-ed in the Jerusalem Post to that effect two years ago apparently didn’t impress the editors (at least they publish contrary opinions).

“Love will overcome any obstacle;” legislation won’t stop intermarriage? The editors got that right — but they support that legislation any way — because it has “some declarative value”? What “declarative value” does it have exactly? If it won’t stop intermarriage, the declarative value is that it will alienate the interfaith couples who have to work around it in Israel. And worse, from my point of view, it will discourage interfaith couples in North America, especially the partners who are not Jewish who do want to be involved in Jewish life and community. Who would want to be part of a community whose intellectual leaders do not want them?

At my services at Temple Shalom yesterday, I saw at least seven interfaith couples, and those are just the ones who I know well, and I saw several parents whose intermarrying children have used’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Yesterday, Yom Kippur, two couples, one in California and one in Pennsylvania, made requests for rabbis to officiate and to co-officiate at their weddings. The central lesson of Yom Kippur, as I understand it, is to “choose life.” For me, those interfaith couples at services and seeking Jewish clergy for their weddings are choosing Jewish life. The editors of the Jerusalem Post – they aren’t.

I try to be hopeful, especially at the start of a new year. There is a glimmer of hope in the editorial – apparently there is no consensus among the Israeli public that legislation aimed at preventing intermarriage makes sense. My hope is that that point of view grows and ultimately prevails.

New Year, New Decade, Inc. was incorporated on October 4, 2001 – almost exactly ten years ago. Looking back – appropriate during this High Holiday period – it was an expression of hope. Hope that we could do work that effectively would support interfaith families to find value and meaning in engaging in Jewish life, and influence Jewish communities to welcome them. Looking forward – also timely now – are our goals realistic? Are our efforts needed?

Last night our friend Ron Klain forwarded a great story from The Daily Beast about Meet the Press host David Gregory, who was “raised Jewish by his Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.” Gregory’s wife Beth Wilkinson is not Jewish and decided not to convert but agreed to help educate their children. She “encouraged Gregory to understand more about Judaism” and her questions prompted David’s resolve to find answers through serious Jewish learning.

For NBC’s David Gregory, if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press. If it’s Friday night, it’s Shabbat with his wife and three young children…Gregory has committed not just to exposing his children to Judaism, but to making it a part of the air they breathe… That includes saying the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer with them before bed.

Stories like this one – and we hear many at IFF – renew my conviction that Jewish life can be accessible to interfaith families and can add value and meaning to their lives. It’s a great way to start a new year – and a new decade for IFF.

On the community side, in a recent op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, Misha Galperin, who wrote a book about peoplehood, is disappointed with the lack of conversation about peoplehood, and thinks the word “peoplehood” itself has not caught on, is not warm and fuzzy, and may be to blame. He had hoped the book would spark discussion about “what we can do to bring people together with diverse Jewish commitments,” but in the book the goals he set for interactions were to:

connect Jews to other Jews; engender the feeling of belonging; make Jewish learning/values part of what we do and relevant to who we are; provide venues for Jewish meaning that raise the threshold of Jewish intensity; advance notions of responsibility; and model warmth and inclusivity.

By making the first goal to connect Jews to other Jews, Misha undermines his nod to people with diverse Jewish commitments – because there are a lot of people with Jewish commitments who are not Jews. Peoplehood is a hard concept for them. I don’t know how Beth Wilkinson feels about this – but many people in her position would say “I’m not a Jew so I guess I’m not part of the Jewish people.” A better word that peoplehood is community – maybe “communality” would be even better. Because I hope people like Beth Wilkinson would say “I certainly do feel that I’m part of the Jewish community – and doing something very important to support it.”

It’s fine if a program “connects Jews to other Jews,” but making that the explicit or perceived goal is a mistake because it is a turn-off to the many young people in our community who have a parent who is not a Jew or who are in a relationship with a person who is not a Jew. Our goal should be to connect all who are interested in Jewish life, and to connect them all in our community. We have a long way to go to reach that level of inclusivity.

Synagogues, Interfaith Families and Policies – Oh My!


Last month, I blogged about Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue outside of Philadelphia, that updated its constitution to be more explicitly welcoming of interfaith families.

Yesterday, the Jewish Exponent ran an article that looked at the more personal side of the decision. They interviewed Kari Kohn, a Presbyterian, who, with her husband, Joshua, is raising two Jewish kids.

When Kari and Joshua Kohn moved to Bryn Mawr a year ago, they enrolled their two sons, ages 3 and 5, in pre-school at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. But the interfaith couple had no intention of joining the congregation unless both husband and wife could be counted as members.

“I am looking to be part of a community,” Kari Kohn said. “I’m the one that drives the kids to pre-school, goes to Tot Shabbat with the kids, cooks the Shabbat meals. I’m committed to raising my kids Jewish,” she said, adding that she does not want to feel like an outsider.
Rabbi Elliot Strom

It’s families like the Kohns that Beth Hillel had in mind when it passed a constitutional amendment in June extending full membership to a family, even if only one of the adults is Jewish. Prior to the decision — the culmination of nearly two years of discussion — only the Jewish adult was considered a congregant.

The decision is not unprecedented for a Conservative shul, either nationally or locally. But it does represent a significant step for a prominent Main Line synagogue and signals a new commitment to attracting interfaith families.

But the article doesn’t stop there. It also looks a the personal impact decisions like these may have on a congregation’s clergy.

It mentions two Reform congregations:

Rabbi Eliot Strom of Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a Reform temple in Newtown, reversed a position he’s held for 35 years and will now officiate at interfaith weddings.

….He said he reconsidered his views because he’s seen many examples of non-Jews doing an effective job of raising their children as Jews — too many instances to be dismissed.

“My goal is to make more Jewish families, not to put a road block in front of them,” said Strom. “The reaction has been uniformly positive. The only issue that I have to deal with is some have said, ‘That’s great. I wish you had that position eight years ago or 12 years ago.'”

Other Reform rabbis are sticking to their positions. Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen disputed the notion that refusing to officiate at interfaith ceremonies makes his synagogue less welcoming. “It is not whether or not you do the ceremony, it’s how you relate to them, the message that you give and how you explain the reason you don’t officiate,” he said, adding that he’ll allow a justice of the peace to officiate at a ceremony at his congregation and will even attend.

He said he designs ceremonies that revolve around Jewish vows and asking a non-Jew to make such vows essentially asks them to be dishonest on their wedding day, he said.

And “a Traditional shul considered to the right of the Conservative movement but not Orthodox”:

“We have such families and we don’t want to see them as something that fell into the cracks of communal life; we want them to feel welcome,” said Rabbi Jean Claude Klein of Shaare Shamayim.

So here are my questions: Does your synagogue include non-Jewish spouses as members? Does your clergy officiate at interfaith marriages? Do you agree with Rabbi Marx’s position? With Rabbi Strom’s reasons?

On a related note, Karen Kushner, our Chief Education Officer, is collecting examples of synagogue policies for non-Jewish partners and family members. Are you counted as a member? Can you take on a leadership position? Are you given ritual honors? []Let her know![/email] Please include the name of your synagogue and city in your response. Thanks!

New Feature for Communities


Coming soon to your community: a new blog!

This space will contain posts written by, for and/or about your community, city and region.

It will feature posts written just for you, as well as relevant posts written for our Network Blog, Wedding Blog or Parenting Blog.

Intemarriage: The Impact of Birthright Israel


A “new” study, Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel, is being publicized on the impact of Birthright Israel on intermarriage. I put “new” in quotations because the study was prepared in November 2010. It apparently was published online by Contemporary Jewry then (I didn’t see it at the time), but the print version of the November 2010 journal is just being delivered, so the study is now getting some mention.

I’ve blogged before previous studies about Birthright Israel and intermarriage and the significance of Jewish wedding ceremonies.  The new study is important for focusing on intermarriage and collecting observations that have previously been made. The main conclusions of the new study reiterate that participation in Birthright Israel is associated with significantly greater probability of non-Orthodox trip participants being married to a Jew, and with increased importance placed upon raising Jewish children.

The study notes positive impacts of the trip on people involved in intermarriage: trip participants who were intermarried were nearly three times as likely as non-participants who were intermarried to think raising children as Jews was “very important,” and trip participants who themselves had intermarried parents, “rather than being lost to Jewish life,… appear to be particularly susceptible to informal Jewish education…”

For me this report is most interesting for its description of the “inreach” and “outreach” advocates and this conclusion:

The study casts doubt on the central claim of advocates of inreach; specifically, that there is little that can be done to convince intermarried couples to choose to raise their children as Jews. [Birthright Israel’s] strong impact on the importance intermarried participants attach to raising their children as Jews should encourage advocates of inreach to reconsider the possibility of engaging those who choose a mixed marriage. In parallel, the study also casts doubt on a central claim of outreach advocates. The present findings provide strong evidence that the rate of intermarriage is not fixed and unchangeable. Rather, the likelihood of intermarriage is contingent upon Jewish education and background, including even—or especially—educational interventions that occur after children leave their parents’ homes. Perhaps most importantly, the study suggests that there is no need to decide between inreach and outreach. The educational interventions that reduce the likelihood of intermarriage—including but not limited to [Birthright Israel]—also increase the likelihood that intermarried Jews will view raising Jewish children as very important.

As an outreach advocate, I have to say that I don’t take the position that the rate of intermarriage is fixed and unchangeable, and I am all in favor of educational interventions that result in part in more in-marriage. As I said in my previous blog post, “Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews.”

But I do take the position that there is going to continue to be a significant amount of intermarriage in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, regardless of intervention efforts. Again as I said with respect to the earlier study, “of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried…. [A]lthough trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.”

The choice between inreach and outreach as described by Leonard Saxe and the co-authors of this study is in my view a distraction from another more serious issue. There is extremely little programming available that is explicitly targeted at engaging people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life and community. This study supports educational interventions before intermarriage occurs, and it talks about comparative and cumulative effects of interventions like day school and Jewish camp as well as Birthright Israel, but it does not acknowledge that programming aimed at interfaith couples and families could have a similar positive cumulative impact. Sadly, it seems that the only interventions that are palatable to many in the community are those that can be shown to reduce intermarriage, with the fact that they also lead to more Jewish engagement by those who intermarry anyway as an tolerated by-product.

The last point in the report is that:

The present research cannot shed light on a key issue that will continue to divide the inreach and outreach advocates; specifically, whether rabbis and Jewish educators should advocate for endogamy. In the case of [Birthright Israel], the program’s effects appear to be due to more general features of the program, such as its impact on participants’ overall Jewish identities and/or social networks. Direct promotion of inmarriage is not part of [Birthright Israel’s] curriculum. Although some [Birthright Israel] educators may encourage endogamy, the program’s effects seem too large to be the result of such ad hoc efforts. Accordingly, the question of whether rabbis and educators should advocate for endogamy remains unanswered.

I have argued this point extensively before, most recently in my presentation at the Jewish Federation of North America’s last General Assembly. Advocating for endogamy creates too much of a risk of alienating the substantial numbers of people who do intermarry. I see this question as related to another issue that is implicated but not addressed in the new study, something I mentioned in my previous blog posts:

It would be a shame if … Birthright Israel [was viewed] as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”