What Draws Interfaith Families To Jewish Life

I’m pleased to report that the New York Jewish Week has published my op-ed, What Draws Interfaith Families to Jewish Life. A considerably longer version is on the Huffington Post, A New Year To Engage Interfaith Families in Jewish Life.

Having just come off Yom Kippur’s intense period of introspection about the past and the future, it feels that the time is now right for this call for a new sustained effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

You can find the report on the first year of our InterfaithFamily/Chicago project here, and the report on our holiday surveys here.

From “Estranged” to Beyond Welcoming

There’s an article in yesterday’s Miami Herald about a photo credit: Emily Michot, the Miami Herald father and daughter. But it’s not your typical fluff piece. From a “traditional” Jewish family, they became estranged after she told him she was getting married — and that her husband was not Jewish.

Fast forward, and not only have the reconciled, but they now work together: Debbie as a cantor and her father as a rabbi. They’ve created a congregation with an explicitly welcoming message:

Now, as a freelance cantor in Broward County, she has created her own congregation, welcoming anyone who isn’t comfortable in a traditional setting because they’re married to a non-Jew, don’t want to pay hefty synagogue dues, or are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender.

And she is joined by her once-estranged father, who began studying for the rabbinate at age 65 expressly to join his daughter’s mission.

If you’ve just read the post Ari wrote this morning, wondering why more interfaith couples and families aren’t joining synagogues, it might be interesting to compare the two… Is the goal for people to “join,” or is the goal for people to be moved, feel connected to spirituality and religion? It seems this father/daughter duo have taken a different approach — and it’s working.

How Can a Religious School Teacher Respond?

I recently spent an hour with religious school teachers in a Reform synagogue, talking about the children from interfaith homes in their classrooms. It amazed me just how emotional and personal even talking about interfaith families was for them. Everyone had a story to share about someone in his or her own family who intermarried or a story about what a child said in the classroom.

It was clear that at this time of year especially, children in Reform religious schools are talking about Hanukkah and Christmas. They are talking about the Christmas trees in their own homes; they are talking about going to their grandparents’  for Christmas; they are discussing how many presents they are going to get; they are trying to work out who they are, what they are experiencing and what it all means.

We grappled with what the “best” response should be when children share parts of their lives that involve family members who aren’t Jewish or experiences such as going to church. Should the teacher just say, “Thank you for sharing that but now we are focusing on learning about Judaism…” and just move on in the lesson? Should the teacher say, “Wow…our Jewish families are each different. Some of you have a parent who isn’t Jewish or wasn’t born Jewish, some of you have cousins and grandparents who aren’t Jewish… but there are lots of things that tie each of you together. Each of you is here because your parents hope you find meaning in Judaism.” Should the teacher stop the lesson and explain that each of us is made up of many traits, attributes, relationships and talents? Some of us are sisters or brothers. We are a daughter or son. We are neighbors and friends. Some of us are known by the sports we play, the art we create, our abilities in math. Some of us are known by our humor or our generosity. We are many things, but in amongst our traits is our Judaism and that is why we are here… to learn about that part of us. 

The religious school teachers and I debated how to best approach a lesson with language that would be the most sensitive and inclusive to a child who has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Is it okay to make blanket statements such as, “Jewish homes have mezuzot,” when in fact some of the children (whether both parents are Jewish or not) have a Jewish home without a mezuzah? Or is it better to talk about some Jewish homes having this or that and explain the meaning behind the ritual or tradition followed by sending materials home so that parents can learn about the ideas as well and have a chance to discuss with their children whether that tradition feels right for their family? 

Is it possible to be sensitive to every unique kind of family so that no child in the room could possibly feel alienated or marginalized? Some teachers wondered if they could say anything at all that wouldn’t rub one child or another the wrong way. I think that when a teacher speaks from his or her heart and soul about his or her own love of Jewish living, and when a teacher imagines that each child in his or her class is the current link in our chain of tradition that goes back thousands of years, and when a teacher gets to know the parents of the children in his or her class so that the teacher can be as understanding as possible of where that child is coming from so that the teacher can make the bridge from the class to the car ride home to the dinner table to the tuck-in time at night… that teacher has done everything he or she can do to fulfill the mandate to teach our children from the V’ahavta (the full version of the Shema which instructs us to, among other things, “teach our children diligently.”) 

Conservative Synagogues: a Step in the Right Direction

“Is it so outrageous for us to say that someone who is married to a Jew also has a place within the Jewish community?” asked Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.
This is huge.

An article in the Forward looks at the Conservative movement and its “hostile environment” for intermarried couples and families.

The question of what to do about intermarriage has long bedeviled the Conservative movement. As Jewish rates of intermarriage have climbed over the past few decades, the Reform movement has gained a reputation for openness, recognizing patrilineal descent and allowing rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages. On the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has disavowed intermarriage as a violation of Jewish law and a threat to Jewish continuity.

Conservative Judaism occupies a murky middle ground. Its Rabbinical Assembly prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith weddings, and even their presence at such a marriage can cause a stir. (Witness the fuss made over the presence of Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the reception after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in July 2010. Although he is not a rabbi, Eisen had to publicly state that he had not attended the wedding, which had taken place during Shabbat.) When it comes to synagogue policies on welcoming intermarried couples, however, national guidelines are vague, if not completely outdated.

The R.A. is currently revising its policies regarding intermarriage. The last time it took an official position on the subject was in 1988, when it advised Conservative congregations to encourage non-Jewish spouses to participate but not to belong. A non-Jewish partner might be welcome at High Holy Day services, for instance, but he or she would be barred from membership.

So why an article now?

Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue just outside Philadelphia, made a tiny amendment to its constitution: It redefined household membership to apply to families with one Jewish parent as well as those with two.

Though the amendment impacted a small number of intermarried congregants — some 10 families out of a total of 720 — it spelled a philosophical transformation for the congregation that reflects broader changes in the Conservative movement writ large. Faced with the prospect of losing members because of a hostile environment for intermarried couples, Conservative congregations are providing membership opportunities for non-Jewish spouses. But in doing so, they are sometimes placing themselves in opposition to the national Conservative leadership. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s congregations, opposes membership rights for non-Jews.

Congratulations, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. I hope other Conservative synagogues take similar first steps. And, let’s hope that this is, in fact, but a first step…

(You know, an easy second step would be to add your synagogue to our Network…)

Read the full article from the Forward here.

Pride in Welcoming the Stranger

For some, June is known as “Pride Month.” The Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, June 1969, were the catalyst for the gay (and, now, LGBTQetc) rights movement both in the US and around the world.

Here in Boston, there was both a Dyke March on Friday night (complete with a Shabbat dinner picnic potluck) and the rainy Pride Parade on Saturday. Around North America (and many other regions of the world), parades and activities happen throughout the month in recognition of Stonewall and LGBTQ rights (achieved or desired).

Following the month’s trend, the Reform Judaism blog has a post today called “On Being Straight in the World’s First Gay Synagogue.” And though it’s up there to mark June as Pride month, I think there’s more to it than lessons on LGBTQ inclusion. The author, Maggie Anton Parkhurst, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay synagogue (founded in 1972), writes:

We are diverse in more ways than sexual orientation. Yes, we are a Reform congregation, but our members have all sorts of Jewish backgrounds, from converts and Workman’s Circle yiddishists, through mainline Conservative to Orthodox yeshivah bochers. Despite these differences, we share a commitment to gender neutrality and equality at services, along with lots of singing.

We also represent Los Angeles’s varied ethnicities, which is abundantly clear when members read from the Book of Esther in fourteen different languages at Purim. Tolerance and embracing the stranger are BCC’s hallmarks, especially the latter, as everyone walking in on Shabbat receives a warm welcome. Even and especially people who feel excluded, or worry about feeling excluded, at other synagogues.

At first, all this diversity was uncomfortable compared to the suburban temple where our children grew up….

This is key. Whether welcoming individuals or families who are LGBTQ or interfaith, something as simple and easy as welcoming each and every person goes a long way. Have a greeter at the door to say “welcome” and “Shabbat shalom” to each person – be they regulars or newcomers. Every congregation – Reform or not, LGBTQ or not – can take a lesson from Beth Chayim Chadashim to ensure that all of us, strangers all, feel embraced and welcomed.

If your congregation has a welcoming practice that you’d like to share with others, leave a comment! And for more resources on making your synagogues welcoming and inclusive, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers and Resource Center for Jewish Clergy.

How Welcoming is “Welcoming”?

On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.

What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”

Instead, it suggests:

Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.

Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.

It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.

This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.

What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:

Learning from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m in the midst of one reading one of the best book series I have read in a while, the  Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  While the story is interesting, I didn’t think it had anything to do with interfaith families, making Jewish choices or encouraging a welcoming Jewish community – until I read the following paragraph:

(Officer) Bublanski felt an urge to talk with God about the case, but instead of going to a synagogue he went to the Catholic church … As a Jew he had no business being in a Catholic church, but it was a peaceful place that he regularly visited when he felt the need to sort out his thoughts. He found the Catholic church an equally good place for contemplation, and he knew that God did not mind. There was a difference, besides, between Catholicism and Judaism. He went to the synagogue when he needed company and fellowship with people. Catholics went to church to seek peace in the presence of God. The church invited silence and visitors would always be left to themselves.

While the novel was keeping my attention, this paragraph caught me by surprise and I started to think about the differences between walking into a church and walking into a synagogue–at least those I’ve walked into. My experiences in church have been primarily around Christmas services, weddings and family baptisms. Having come from a Conservative Jewish background, I was taken aback by the formality and what I initially took as coldness of a Catholic church worship service. You walk in quietly, respectfully, find a seat and sit. You don’t talk, you never yell and if you see someone you know, you may wave inconspicuously. Even though many times the entire church is full, you hardly hear a peep. During the service there is hardly any fidgeting and once the service is over everyone files out nice and orderly. There may be a bit of socializing afterwards, but most of the time you walk to your car and leave.

You couldn’t easily walk into a synagogue during  a Friday night service, sit down and pray without everyone there turning their heads to see who just walked in. If you are new to the community, sometimes even before the service is over, someone–the president of the synagogue, the membership vice president and/or even the rabbi themselves — will come up and introduce themselves to you. They will ask you questions about who you are and what you are doing there.  They may try to find out about your family, background, occupation and  upbringing–and invite you to participate on a committee. It can be an overwhelming experience for a person who is used to walking into a place of worship, sitting down, praying and leaving.

Having had both experiences, Stieg Larsson’s description of the differences between Catholic and Jewish worship services hit home. While I enjoy the part of the synagogue community that welcomes people who walk in the door and the social aspect of services and events, I can understand how a person who has not had the typical synagogue experience could easily be put off by the welcome they get. Being aware of this is one way the Jewish community can be even more welcoming to interfaith couples. It’s not that a Catholic partner in an interfaith couple is not looking for company or fellowship, they just may need some time to get used to the differences.

Not a Surprise

A recent article by Neil Rubin in the Baltimore Jewish Times, “Conservative Judaism Thrives in Baltimore, But Troubled Nationwide,” makes an interesting point. One reason why the Conservative synagogues in Baltimore have more members than the Reform synagogues (which is the reverse of the rest of the country) is their emphasis on outreach programming.

Beth Israel was a pioneer in the Kiruv project, spearheaded by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. It strives to make congregations more welcoming for interfaith families. It has organized several training sessions for rabbis and volunteer leaders, one of which was hosted by the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center.

With that topic, just as with the national movement, local congregations struggle to adhere to Halachah (Jewish law) while being as open as possible.

“If you are intermarried, you can still live an integrated life and your family can still have a family membership, and the truth is there are many b’nai mitzvah meetings with families where I know the non-Jewish spouse better than the Jewish one,” Rabbi Goldstein said.

The rest of the article also emphasizes the ways that the Baltimore Conservative congregations work within halachah to reach out to formerly underserved Jewish populations. They have pushed people to keep kosher while at the same time creating programming to reach out to same-sex couples and their families.  They also sound like great congregations in other ways: innovative pastoral counseling, continuity with old families in the neighborhood, good adult education.

We know from our work at InterfaithFamily.com that there are a lot of ways to reach out to interfaith families and a lot of profiles of those families. Not everyone wants the most liberal option–some want Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, and are disappointed when they can’t find welcoming congregations.
Among Reform congregations, which have grown precisely because of openness to interfaith families, some are popular with interfaith families even when the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings–because the congregation is intellectually challenging or provides great children’s Jewish education, or because they do social action.

There are many best practices in creating communities that are friendly to one population that also help outreach to other populations. Spirituality and adult education appeals to interfaith families–and also to many Jews in my generation. It’s not surprising to me that being open to interfaith families is one of the many factors that has made these Baltimore Conservative congregations vital.

Rabbinical School and Interfaith Marriage, Part 3

A new article in Tablet, Big Tent Country by Marissa Brostoff, sheds some light on the issue of rabbinical schools accepting and ordaining intermarried rabbis.

We blogged about this issue three months ago, when New Voices published an important article, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi. At the time, I wrote that “there could be no better role model for interfaith couples than an interfaith partner who is so Jewishly engaged that he or she is a rabbi,” and that “Intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring to the interfaith couples who they served — and there is no reason they could not be inspiring to in-married couples as well.”

The Tablet article tells about Ed Stafman, a former attorney who intermarried, became active in a Reform synagogue, and eventually was ordained by the Renewal-affiliated Aleph Rabbinic Program, the only seminary that does not reject intermarried students outright. Rabbi Stafman will be installed next week as rabbi at Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Bozeman, Montana.

What’s most interesting to me in the article are the comments by the members of Beth Shalom, which support the notion of an intermarried rabbi as a role model and inspiration for interfaith couples. Beth Shalom is by all descriptions a heavily intermarried congregation. One person in the hiring process said that Stafman’s being intermarried “might be a great asset because we’re so intermarried here that you might have a better understanding of the congregation.” Another said, “I think it will be very beneficial to those interfaith families in the community, and that they will really feel they have a home at Beth Shalom.”

Let My People…Laugh

Tis the season for matzah, wine and sometimes really bad food–unless you make one of our excellent staff recommended recipes, of course. As Passover approaches, so do the parodies of the holiday. Over the years I have seen many versions of the haggadah, the book of songs, stories and prayers read during the Passover seder (meal). This year it was taken to a new level when I was forwarded the Facebook Haggadah. For those of you on Facebook –this is hysterical. For those of you not on Facebook, you may find it slightly humorous but I have some other great links for you.

I found this video on YouTube and it made me smile. I’m particularly excited to share it with my non-Jewish husband who, while having attended many Passover seders over the past six years may find it useful in explaining what’s going on. (It’s after the cut.) Continue reading