Writing a Religious School Pledge for All Families

From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.

I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.

Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:   

A Pledge for All of Our Families:

We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself  as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:

  1. We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the  Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
  2. We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
  3. We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.

If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?

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2 thoughts on “Writing a Religious School Pledge for All Families

  1. While I completely agree with this declaration (and realizing this is a website focused on interfaith) I find it problematic to only address this as interfaith family needs.  It is my experience that members of our congregations come from varying backgrounds and Jewish experience levels.  The declarations made in this pledge could (and I would argue should) apply to all of our families.  If we are to create truly welcoming communities then we will meet our learners (aka all those we encounter) where they are not where we assume they are.  By listening and taking the needs of all our learners into account we move that much closer to creating an inclusive learning community.

  2. (Note- if this comment appears twice, please pardon me — having trouble with website interface)

    Dear Ari and Dena:

    Ari: that is a great idea! I hope people implement it.

    I have been advocating for something similar for 26 years, but I have encountered tremendous opposition. If you find a way to advocate for this effectively, I hope that you will share it on this website, so others, including myself, may emulate your tactics.

    Dena: As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have spent over 26 years asking synagogues and other Jewish institutions to put the following phrase in their literature — just one sentence — “We welcome interfaith couples and adult children of intermarriage.”

    Not a page. Not a paragraph. Just one sentence. Nothing to make other types of Jewish families feel bad or neglected. Indeed, other types of Jewish families can be specifically added to the “we welcome.”

    A few — very few — Jewish institutions are willing to add “We welcome interfaith couples” to their literature or websites.

    Almost no Jewish institutions are willing to add “We welcome adult children of intermarriage.”

    I’ve told them that that one sentence would lead to new members, an important consideration in this era, yes?

    I’m met with a wide variety of reasons why they won’t add the full one sentence to their literature or websites. Some say, “we’ve got a wide variety of Jews in our organization — why make interfaith couples feel singled out.”

    But interfaith couples and adult children of intermarriage have repeatedly asked for specific outreach.

    I suggested to one interfaith couples outreach program that they also offer a one page handout welcoming adult children of intermarriage.

    “We don’t have the funding in the current economic climate.” No money for a one page welcoming handout?

    I think that the failure to include welcoming language for interfaith couples and adult children of intermarriage in most Jewish institutions’ literature is sending a very negative message.

    I’m not the only one who has had this experience — I emailed with a very skilled Jewish outreach worker in a city with very high intermarriage rates — she told me that she could get maybe one shul in ten to include welcoming language for interfaith couples on their websites —

    and that it would be pointless for her to ask shuls to include welcoming language for adult children of intermarriage — because it would be pointless to send half-Jewish people to the few shuls that might place the announcement on their websites if she pressured them — because the shuls would not really want adult children of intermarriage.

    Ari, if you find a way around this problem, please publicize it here.

    Here is an essay I’ve written on the problem. My essay is focused on adult children of intermarriage, but some of its findings apply to interfaith couples outreach as well:

    http://www.jewcy.com/religion-and-belie … ish_people

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    Coordinator
    Half-Jewish Network

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