Something I’ve Been Thinking About…

I love brainstorming ideas for Jewish education and engagement (outreach). One idea I’ve been tossing around is about supporting interfaith couples who have Jewish clergy present at their wedding or union. These couples are our future. These couples cared about and felt connected enough with Judaism to seek out (sometimes in a tough process) Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings.

What if every city‚Äôs Jewish community committed to supporting these couples for the first year (or two) after their ceremony? The time and resources spent continually working with these couples in meaningful ways would pay off ten-fold for the Jewish community — now and in the future.

What would this support involve?

  • Membership (I know — this is possibly an outdated model) at a congregation of their choosing. (We would hook them up with a Jewish professional who would get to know them and help direct them to a synagogue that would be a good fit.)
  • Full access to the programs at the local JCC.
  • A subscription series to the Jewish film festival, Jewish museum, and other cultural events for that year.
  • Maybe (gasp) send them to Israel as a honeymoon!?
  • Name and contact information on a magnet (are any refrigerators still magnetic?) for the marriage counselor at Jewish Child and Family Services.
  • Pay for them to take the Reform Movement‚Äôs Intro. To Judaism course or Taste of Judaism program, or Melton classes, or whatever level of continued Jewish education would be appropriate.

In exchange, we would ask them to volunteer and get involved with a Jewish social justice agency. Each segment of the Jewish community who tries to reach this age cohort (25-35ish) would decide what services they would most like these couples to know about and participate in. The couples would receive information about their options in a gift bag or maybe receive a link to a YouTube video made just for them, or something else creative (maybe an app for their phone which would keep them updated about programs and events that might interest them?). The different Jewish organizations would pay for the programs they would offer these couples.

The point would be that couples (whether interfaith or not) who wanted Judaism at this most sacred moment in their lives would be welcomed into the community with open arms. We would see their want for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings as a sign that there’s more work for us to do. The outpouring of outreach to them would be a beautiful and overwhelming testament to the many ways to get involved in Jewish life and would present the rainbow of potential for each and every couple to gain meaning from Judaism and give back in significant ways.

Now. Who’s going to make this happen?

The Simplicity of Welcoming

There are people that we meet that we enjoy and treasure, and then there are people who change our lives forever. When my friend Erin suggested I apply for the job at InterFaithways, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in working for a non-profit. But I figured, one never knows where a chance meeting or interview will lead. So I walked into my interview without any strong feelings about whether or not I would be offered the job. Throughout the meeting, I realized that the mission of the organization — to welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community — was something I could embrace. As it turned out, I was offered the job and met privately with Rabbi Mayer Selekman a few weeks later. We had a conversation that has changed my life.

Rabbi Selekman is not what I was used to in a rabbi. Most of the rabbis I knew were very stoic in nature. Rabbi Selekman is funny, sarcastic, and enjoys good conversation with lots of witty banter. I asked him why he had decided, back in the 1960s, to perform interfaith marriages. He said that he decided it was important that no one ever feel rejected. This answer really touched my soul: it was so simple yet so many people didn’t see it that way. In the 1960s, he was threatened by many people for his decision and even risked his career for his willingness to perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. As a result, he felt like an outsider in the Jewish community. But his congregation supported him and thrived because his kindness was so genuine. Soon other congregations took note and other rabbis decided, like Rabbi Selekman, that performing interfaith ceremonies could only lead to good things — people feeling comfortable in the Jewish faith and deciding to raise their children with Judaism. I realized that while many people were trying to preserve Judaism by rejecting those who intermarry, the reality was in fact the opposite: rejection leads to negative feelings and ultimately disassociation.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Years before, I had realized that if people were negative toward someone, they might think they are exerting control but they are actually relinquishing it. Now I knew that this concept came from a critical piece of my Jewish upbringing — kindness. We were always taught to be kind and that it is fundamental to being a Jew. It was ironic to me that for so many observant Jews, the one area where they were not welcoming was to their own people. And by trying to exert control over someone, you actually are relinquishing any influence you might have had. Through our conversation, I found it very liberating. The concept of kindness based in Judaism also included Judaism.

I now apply Rabbi Selekman’s philosophy to all aspects of my life — I try to remind myself to be kind even if the other person is being difficult. I attempt to avoid negativity (even though I am cynical by nature). I look at situations and try to be as inclusive as possible. While I am still cautious or cynical, I am doing my best to be welcoming and encouraging. Most importantly, I also teach my children the same.

As InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia takes its first steps as a new entity, I am proud to let you know that much of it started 50 years ago by a man who didn’t want people to feel rejected and wasn’t willing to let the kindness of Judaism have limitations. By knowing Rabbi Selekman, I learned that through kindness and welcoming, good things will happen. He has touched many lives in meaningful ways through his acts of kindness. I am pleased to say that I am one of the lucky ones he has influenced and I am better for it!

Welcoming in Philadelphia

Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.

Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:

For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.

We certainly hope we are!

For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.

Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.

The 2009 ‚ÄúJewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia‚ÄĚ revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.

One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)

InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.

But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.

There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:

For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.

And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.

The Struggle to Tolerate the Intolerant‚Ķ One Parent’s View

I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.

I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‚Äėm not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.

For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.

While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.

In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.

Encouraging the Welcoming of Interfaith Couples and Families

Six years ago, under the leadership of Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways board member Bill Schwartz urged the organization to begin a program called “InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend.” Bill thought that if the organization could convince just one synagogue to welcome interfaith families for one event at the beginning of November, others would follow. Bill was right. Under the guidance of then Vice President Rabbi Mayer Selekman (current Chairman of the Board) who helped develop the model, Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend has become an important ritual for nearly 50 synagogue communities in the greater Philadelphia area.

From its inception, the number of participating congregations grew rapidly. Interfaith Shabbat Weekend is now an integral part of these congregations’ programming, along with other programmatic spin-offs as a result of this program. The numbers have grown but, more importantly, the programming has become more enriching and impactful. With this year’s theme, “For Jewish Tomorrows,” many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith couples and families, between November 3-12, and welcoming them to beginner services, tot Shabbats, seminars, and panels of interfaith grandparents. Now that InterFaithways is merging with a national organization, InterfaithFamily, to become InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, there is an opportunity to expand our Interfaith Shabbat Weekend model nationwide.

While many synagogues have thought that hosting a weekend for interfaith couples and families would be good for their membership rolls, it is much more than that. Through sharing personal journeys about their own interfaith experiences in their own congregations, listeners are sensitized to the reality that interfaith families need a sense of belonging and desire to be included in the Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses embrace Judaism, attend services, drive their children to Hebrew school, encourage the practice of Jewish holidays — often more enthusiastically than their Jewish spouse. In fact, many synagogues are enriched and benefit from the involvement of their interfaith couples in many ways.

Any element of rejection is a negative reflection on the Jewish people. But, if couples are welcomed, they are more likely to embrace Judaism and share it with their children. InterFaithways has heard so many stories where the child experiences a little Judaism at a young age and then chooses to become a bar or bat mitzvah. Does InterFaithways encourage interfaith marriage? Absolutely not. However, InterFaithways recognizes that since there are so many interfaith marriages in the American Jewish community, the welcoming of interfaith families is not only necessary but an opportunity for growth. Growth in numbers, as a culture, and in spirit. Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights — fighting for minorities, the poor, the oppressed. Yet isn’t it time to welcome our interfaith children and families? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl?

I am deeply distressed by the publication in Reform Judaism magazine of an article that undermines the Reform movement’s historic approach to welcoming and engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The current issue of Reform Judaism includes the article "The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl."


The article, titled The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl, tells an admittedly sad story of a Jewish woman who divorced her husband who was not Jewish after he had an affair when their first child was 16 months old. Unfortunately, the back story is all about how the woman’s father was opposed to her intermarriage as a “shanda” — something that would bring shame on him, his family, and the Jewish community. She hoped to prove him wrong, but after the divorce, her father still thinks intermarriage is a shanda.

The author says that she doesn’t think intermarriage is a shanda, that “we should welcome non-Jews into our communities,” that “plenty of Jews… cheat on their spouses,” and that “I want to believe that my divorce is not related in any way to the fact that my ex was not Jewish.”

But her conclusion is, “I can’t help but think sometimes, Maybe things would have turned out differently had my husband been Jewish.” And “these days I nonetheless find myself searching again for a ‚Äėnice Jewish boy.’”

The Reform movement pioneered the modern Jewish effort to welcome and engage interfaith families. Under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, the movement created an Outreach Department and the movement’s rabbis decided that Jewish identity is based on how a child is raised not just the mother being Jewish. Some Reform synagogues today go out of their way to thank the partners who are not Jewish for their contribution to and participation in Jewish life. Many Reform rabbis officiate at weddings of interfaith couples hoping that doing so increases the chances for a Jewish future for that couple and their family.

This article, despite all of its caveats, sends a completely contrary message to those partners who aren’t Jewish. It suggests, as the author “can’t help thinking,” that intermarriage is the cause of marital unhappiness. Worse, it suggests that the author’s father was right in thinking that intermarriage will cause “the ultimate demise of the Jewish people through assimilation.” I can’t overstate how sad it is to read that message in the official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Interfaith Rollercoaster

I recently attended the symposium called “Interfaith Rollercoaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride,” sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA and their Interfaith Relationship Dialogue. It was a great opportunity for sharing ideas and solutions for couples and families in our communities.

I attended the workshop “Out of the Mouths of Babes: Young Adults Share Their Experience of Growing Up Interfaith.” The teens on this panel had varying perspectives, but were all raised interfaith and were members at the synagogue hosting the event. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences. One panelist discussed her relationship with her grandparents who aren’t Jewish, including their attitudes toward elements of Judaism. The teen remarked how she enjoyed teaching her grandparents about the various holidays.

At the workshop entitled “Managing Your In-Laws,” the facilitator introduced the concept that managing our in-laws is not really what we need to do — we need to learn to manage ourselves. One suggestion was to manage our own issues by prioritizing them into three baskets: “A,” really important; “B,” negotiable; and “C,” doesn’t really matter. The strategy is to have a small “A” basket and try to put more issues in the “C” basket. I found this to be a great tool to manage all aspects of life beyond the issues raised in an intermarriage or interfaith family.

During discussion groups, it was great to hear how everyone is addressing similar items over the course of their marriage. Many couples go through the same things, but have a varying array of solutions and compromises. What was really gratifying was that many members of the congregation said that the rabbi was always learning new perspectives. The rabbi discussed this with the group, saying that he was often revisiting concepts and frequently revising his opinion. This was very refreshing and encouraging to all attendees.

My favorite story from Anita Diamant, the keynote speaker, was when she told us about a man who was Catholic but celebrates all of the High Holidays with his wife and daughters. He said that he was “Jew-ish.” The symposium was a wonderful model for sharing that would be beneficial for any interfaith community.

To read more about it, check out this article from the Jewish Exponent.

Jewish Organization Equality Index

Last winter, I received a request to fill out a survey from our friends at Keshet (working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Jewish community) and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign, working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights).

The survey, known as the Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOIE), looked at the human resources side of Jewish organizations (were workplace policies and employee benefits inclusive of all?) as well as the activities of the organizations (do we include the LGBTQ community in our resources, programming, and other materials?). The first-ever HRC study indexing LGBT inclusion in a faith-based community, it looked at over 200 Jewish nonprofit organizations in North America.

Last night, here at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, Keshet announced the results of the JOIE.

Key findings from the index create a preliminary snapshot of how a broad range of Jewish organizations — from national umbrella and advocacy groups to local nonprofits and synagogues — address LGBT diversity and inclusion in three categories of practice: organizational inclusion efforts, community/client engagement and workplace policies.

An estimated 10% of the organizations invited to take the 89-question survey completed it, which is consistent with HRC‚Äôs experience in launching inaugural indices of this type. Of the 204 Jewish nonprofit organizations that participated, 50% received the top score of ‚Äúinclusion,‚ÄĚ meaning they are taking significant steps to welcome LGBT individuals and families. By contrast, the first year of HRC‚Äôs Corporate Equality Index, which rates Fortune1000 companies on inclusion for LGBT employees, only 13 organizations of the 319 rated‚ÄĒor 4%‚ÄĒreceived the highest score.

On our old website (think back before we re-launched the site in August), we very prominently featured a GLBT safe zone notice on our homepage. On our new design, that same safe zone notice rotates through on our homepage. From our “Learning” navigation menu, you can get to our LGBTQ Resource Page, with helpful links and articles for LGBTQ interfaith families.

After some follow up questions and conversations, we were tipped off that we rocked the index. Last night that was confirmed. I’d like to think that we skewed the bell curve, but I realize that’s just wishful thinking…

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.