A Model to Engage Interfaith Families

We’ve just reported on the first full year of the InterfaithFamily/Chicago two-year pilot of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. You can find the full report here. We are on to something big that can transform the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in a very significant and positive way.

Four years ago a group of leading national family foundations studied the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly and concluded that three elements were needed: a world class website, inclusivity training of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and comprehensive programs in local communities. A Task Force of the UJA-Federation of New York reached the same conclusion in 2011. We developed the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative to provide these “missing links” and in particular to coordinate and provide a comprehensive set of interfaith engagement programs in local communities.

The theory behind our model is that a comprehensive local community approach to engaging people in interfaith relationships Jewishly must address five important needs:

Awareness and Connection. People in interfaith relationships need to be made aware of the resources in their local Jewish community – organizations, professionals and programs – that are interested in welcoming them, and they need easy avenues to connect to those resources and to others couples like them in their community.

Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. When interfaith couples and families do connect with Jewish community resources, they need to find a genuinely warm welcome.

Officiation as an Entryway. Interfaith couples should find it easy to find clergy to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle events, and officiating clergy should stay connected with their couples and help them connect to Jewish life and community.

Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. Newwly married or seriously dating interfaith couples need help learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about how to have religious traditions in their lives together.

Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. Interfaith couples and families need help learning how they can live Jewishly – and how doing so can add value and meaning to their lives.

With generous funding from the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Marcus Foundation, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, and a private gift, we launched the first two-year pilot of our initiative, InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in July 2011. The results of our first full year are very positive:

Awareness and Connection. Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of IFF/Chicago, introduced the project this year in meetings with more than 60 local organizations and professionals, led or participated in 9 adult education classes and other programs, and blogged and tweeted frequently. As a result the IFF website had 36,559 visits from the Chicago area, the new Chicagoland Community Page had 3,200 visits, we added 15 more local clergy to our officiation referral list for a total of 31, and we added to our Network 46 more organizations for a total of 72, 56 more professionals for a total of 70, and 154 more non-professional individuals for a total of 241. IFF/Chicago was featured in a story in the hanukkah-1221-20111221_1_interfaith-couples-interfaithfamily-com-jewish-life">Chicago Tribune, in a local community paper, and in the JUF News.

Warm Welcomes from Jewish Organizations and Leaders. IFF/Chicago conducted 7 inclusivity and sensitivity trainings for 80 participants, including for religious school teachers at three synagogues, for preschool teachers at two synagogues, a workshop for rabbis to discuss wedding officiation, and a two-day training with three sessions at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education’s Principals’ Kallah for Reform and Conservative synagogue religious school educators. We already have 3 trainings lined up for the second year. One rabbi said,  “I will say that… the presence of an organization with this approach in the city has really affected the way I talk and write about interfaith Jews in our community and beyond.”

Officiation as an Entryway. The IFF Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service responded to 103 requests for officiation, and Rabbi Moffic had 24 follow-up conversations and 5 in-person meetings, all aimed at connecting couples beyond their wedding ceremony to synagogues and other community resources. We created two resources, available to members of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, for clergy to use to stay in touch with their couples.

Help for New Couples Making Decisions about Religion. IFF/Chicago offered a hybrid online/in-person four-session workshop, Love and Religion created by Marion Usher, Ph.D., in February with four couples participating and again in May with eight couples. The in-person sessions facilitate community building, while online sessions make it easier for busy young adults to participate without going out every week. In post-workshop surveys most participants said that they felt empowered to talk about interfaith issues with their partners, and that they gained an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith relationships. Three workshop offerings have been scheduled for the second year.

Help Learning How and Why To Live Jewishly. We developed and offered our first hybrid online/in-person class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family, to 21 couples. It includes eight sessions learned online with background reading, audio and video files, and personal journal entries and discussion board posts commented on by the facilitator, and two in-person meetings, a Shabbat experience and a wrap-up session. Each session is designed to teach a Jewish practice that responds to a universal parenting need and value (having a calm and reflective bedtime, appreciation for food and concern for hunger, making a regular time to be grateful, ethical behavior, etc.). Almost all respondents to the post-class surveys said that they felt more knowledgeable about Judaism and Jewish practice and gained more of an understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith family; 10 respondents said their practices had changes as a result of the class to include saying the bedtime Shema, the Hamotzi, and/or Shabbat blessings. In the second year we will have two offerings of Raising a Child and two of our next class, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family.

JESNA is our evaluation consultant and will be administering surveys, conducting follow-up interviews, and issuing a report in 2013. But we are already confident that our model is meeting its important goals. More resources are being listed and attracting more traffic. Professionals are more aware of and sensitive to the needs of interfaith families. Couples are finding clergy to officiate at their life-cycle events and through our workshop are learning how to talk with each other and make decisions about religious traditions for their family. Parents with young children are learning about Judaism and Jewish practices and trying them out.

Every Jewish community should have on-the-ground staff whose job is 100% aimed at addressing these needs of interfaith families in order to engage them Jewishly. The IFF/Your Community model is the first framework that has ever demonstrated the ability to effectively work toward that result, and it can and will be enhanced and expanded as we continue to learn from our experience in Chicago and new communities as we add them. We are close to having the funding necessary to implement IFF/San Francisco and IFF/Philadelphia later in 2012, we have an ambitious plan to be in eleven communities in five years, and we have just launched a job search for a national Director of IFF/Your Community to manage this growth.

We think this is “big” and we hope many Jewish leaders will agree. 

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