You Are Wanted!

As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! joining the communityTo the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!

I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.

When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.

I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.

My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.

I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.

Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.

What do you think? Could this work?

Membership Possibilities: the Give and Take Model

Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30.Give (and Take) More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.

There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.

I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:

  1. You live in the area.
  2. Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
  3. This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
  4. The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
  5. You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.

The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.

The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.

I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.

However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.

You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.

What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?

And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.

How a Boycott is Inclusive

Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA (inland, due east of San Francisco) is making headlines. Their Board of Directors has “voted unanimously this week to to recommend that the rabbinical staff and synagogue members write letters stating their opposition to the policy, along with withdrawing financial support and refusing to participate in scouting events.”

Further, LGBTQNation reports:

The Board policy calls for a letter writing campaign to the local and national BSA councils, as well as encouraging Temple members and other community organizations to join in the effort to enact change through letters, financial pressure, postponing participation and supporting movements such as Scouts for Equality.

The board said it would also ask staff and others to decline [writing] Eagle Scout recommendations, or allow religious awards for the BSA until the policy is changed.

So why is a boycott something a Jewish community that prides itself on being welcoming of all might undertake? Inclusion shouldn’t just be lip-service. It’s not enough to say that LGBTQ people and their families are welcome in our synagogues — they’re demonstrating that they mean it by trying to change the homophobic policies of Boy Scouts of America. Temple Isaiah knows that folks will feel most welcome within its community when everyone feels they can be recognized as their full selves.

Which has me wondering: what actions can synagogues take to show they’re welcoming of interfaith families? They can join our Network so interfaith couples/families can find them. They can show they’re involved with us by adding our affiliate badge to their homepage. They can create inclusive policies. If you work at a synagogue and want to take actions to show you’re not just giving lip service to your welcome, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers for more suggestions.

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.

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.

Rabbi Reverses Interfaith Marriage Policy

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has a powerful article today, Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy. The article details how Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, explained in a Rosh Hashanah sermon why he was changing his long-held position and would now officiate at interfaith weddings.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said.

Rosove said he would officiate where the couple is connected to his synagogue, the partner who is not Jewish is not active in another religion, and the couple is committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire.’”

The article also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, explaining her similar change of position:

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

The complete article, with Rabbi Rosove’s explanation of his previous reasoning and how and why it changed, is well worth reading.

October 1, 2012 Update: With Rabbi Rosove’s permission you can now read the sermon, with a postscript, on our site.

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.