There is a very interesting discussion going on on a listserv for Jewish professionals maintained by our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute. I wanted to share here the (very slightly edited) posting that I put on that listserv today.
I believe it is of utmost importance for Jewish organizations and communities to offer programs targeted to interfaith couples and families. It is more than a little dismaying to see uncertainty among the Jewish professionals on JOI’s listserv.
The discussion started with a question about ads and programs that are effective in attracting hard-to-attract interfaith couples. There were several helpful program ideas and observations – that just offering the programs conveys a welcoming message, that it may take a long time for repeated messages to finally trigger a response. I agree with Dawn Kepler’s concern that there are so few couples groups available around the country and her idea that if we all try to offer them we will increase our exposure and heighten couples’ knowledge that they exist. Certainly some couples don’t want to be segregated out, but Paul Golin (the Associate Executive Director of JOI) is exactly right that hosting interfaith-specific programs is not an “either-or” equation and that programs targeted to interfaith families are powerfully important for many.
Somehow the discussion got diverted into whether the Jewish community views interfaith families as having not merely “issues” but “problems.” I agree that people won’t go where they are considered to be problems or to have problems. But programs that target interfaith families don’t have to convey that message. I completely disagree with Irwin Kula’s suggestion that focusing on a group problematizes or pathologizes that group. Every social intervention responds to a perceived need, often of a particular group. I also disagree with Irwin and Gary Tobin to the extent they are saying that intermarriage is not an issue, that interfaith families are not different, or that interfaith families no longer have issues particular to the fact of their interfaith relationships, so that programs to address those issues are no longer needed.
At InterfaithFamily.com our mission is to empower people in interfaith relationships to make Jewish choices (and to encourage Jewish communities to welcome them). Our motivation is a deeply held belief that engaging in Jewish life is a source of tremendous value and meaning that is open to people in interfaith relationships – perhaps what Irwin means by “a resource to construct one’s life” and “a toolbox of wisdom and practice.” Our theory of change holds that more interfaith couples and families would make Jewish choices if they were interested in and comfortable participating in Jewish life, and able to reconcile Judaism with the other tradition in their family; to get to that point, couples and families need to be able to learn about Jewish life, and to have welcoming positive Jewish experiences.
Of course born Jews and in-married couples also need to learn about Jewish life and have welcoming positive Jewish experiences or they won’t make Jewish choices either, but while the needs of interfaith couples overlap, they are also qualitatively different. I don’t mean to generalize — of course “the intermarried” are not a monolithic group, there is a wide range of different views and experiences among interfaith couples, and these often change over time – but as the most basic examples, many partners who are not Jewish are starting out with no knowledge about the Jewish “toolbox” and have experienced negative, unwelcoming comments and behaviors, whether from disapproving Jewish relatives, difficulties finding Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings, etc. Perhaps the most important comment on this thread is from the self-described non-Jewish spouse who is pushing for more involvement, who was made to feel more comfortable in becoming acquainted with Judaism, being with people on a similar journey. Our discussion boards at IFF are filled with questions and responses from couples who are exploring Jewish life and asking for help to resolve issues that arise because of their interfaith relationship. Pretending that interfaith couples do not have at least two religious traditions in their backgrounds does not make any sense.
I am all in favor of opening up Judaism in ways that attract everyone, as Gary suggests, and making it accessible and usable, as Irwin suggests – but responding to the particular needs of interfaith families does not conflict with and in fact is an essential support for that strategy.
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