Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
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, koofdaledshin. 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.
We’re excited to announce that we’re growing and expanding! We just sent out this press release — let us know what you think!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Edmund Case, firstname.lastname@example.org, (617) 581-6805
InterfaithFamily Announces Major Expansion of InterfaithFamily/Your Community Initiative Successful Chicago Model Opening in San Francisco and Philadelphia; Building a National Network of Local Community Programs to Engage Interfaith Families Jewishly
(Boston, MA) InterfaithFamily (IFF) today announced a major expansion of its InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative to coordinate and provide programs aimed at engaging interfaith families Jewishly in local communities across North America.
“The 2011 New York Jewish Community Study highlighted continuing high rates of intermarriage and the relative disengagement of interfaith families in Jewish life. But the Study also found that interfaith families that do engage Jewishly are comparable in attitudes and behaviors to in-married families,” said Edmund Case, IFF’s CEO and founder. “The key question is how to engage them in Jewish life and community. We are convinced that the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative is the single best opportunity the Jewish community has to do so.”
“There is growing agreement that engaging interfaith families Jewishly requires three elements: a world class web platform, inclusivity training of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and a range of programs and services for interfaith families in local communities. That was the conclusion of a consortium of national funders in 2008, and of a Task Force of the UJA-Federation of New York in 2011,” said Mamie Kanfer Stewart, IFF Board Chair.
The five-part InterfaithFamily/Your Community model is designed to provide exactly what is needed, by placing staff in local communities to publicize and connect interfaith families to local community resources and enhance their experience finding Jewish clergy for weddings and life cycle events, train Jewish professionals and organizations to welcome people in interfaith relationships, help new couples learn how to talk about and have religious traditions in their lives together, and help people in interfaith relationships learn how – and why – to live Jewishly.
Launched in July 2011, the InterfaithFamily/Chicago pilot of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative had a strong first year. “Participants in trainings report that they better understand the needs of interfaith families and learned new ways to be welcoming; 88% of responding workshop participants report they gained understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith families; and 92% of responding class participants say they felt more knowledgeable about Judaism, with 77% saying their practices changed to include such things as signing up for PJ Library, having a Shabbat dinner and visiting synagogues,” said Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago.
Building on the success of the pilot, the IFF Board of Directors has approved a new Strategic Plan that calls for bringing the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model to nine communities in four years. In September 2012, Stacie Garnett-Cook joined IFF in a new position, National Director of InterfaithFamily/Your Community, to mange growth of the initiative.
InterfaithFamily/San Francisco launched in October 2012, with a grant from, and a major fundraising effort led by, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties. Rebecca Goodman joined IFF as Director of InterfaithFamily/San Francisco.
InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia also launched in October 2012. InterFaithways, a local organization, is merging into InterfaithFamily, with a grant and fundraising assistance from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Wendy Armon will be Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia.
Case will highlight the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative when he co-leads a program at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly on November 12 titled Engaging Interfaith Families: Programs and Tactics for Increased Community Involvement.
“Our goal is to build a national organization of networked programs for interfaith families in local communities across North America, leveraging our content, Network platform, officiation referral service, and trainings, programs, workshops and classes,” Case said. “Until now, no one has been able to provide this essential missing link in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.”
About InterfaithFamily IFF is the central web address for people in interfaith relationships interested in Jewish life, with over 640,000 annual unique visitors, growing at 35% a year, accessing both extensive helpful content and connections through IFF’s officiation referral service and its Network listings and social networking functionality. Since 2010, IFF has provided resources and trainings for clergy, synagogue staff, and religious school and preschool directors and teachers. IFF’s surveys are an excellent source of information on what attracts interfaith families to Jewish organizations. Visit www.interfaithfamily.com/yourcommunity for more information on the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.
I recently officiated a wedding in which there were only a few Jewish people there (and I was one of them). I had met the now bride a few years ago, when she came to me to study about Judaism. She had grown up with Christianity and as an adult was searching. She had always been interested in Judaism, loved the rituals and traditions, and felt she might be home with the people Israel. After a year of regular study, she went to the mikveh and formally cast her lot with the Jewish people. She lit the Sabbath candles and even taught in the early childhood room in the congregation where I was the educator.
A couple of years later, this Jew fell in love with someone who was raised Christian. She came to me again to officiate their wedding. I met with this couple several times to talk about the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and to unpack the Jewish wedding liturgy. This couple participated in InterfaithFamily’s Love and Religion — Online workshop. They were able to share with other couples about how they would weave Judaism into their lives and involve their Christian family in holidays and traditions. They had a small wedding of mostly family and almost everyone there were raised with Christianity.
When I stood with them under the chuppah and explained to all present about what they were going to see and hear, my fear was that it would feel anthropological in nature. That people were observing a Jewish wedding but would not be able to participate in it themselves. I was wrong. All present understood the meaning of the open chuppah being a symbol of their home, open to friends and relatives with unconditional hospitality. All understood the symbol of sharing a sip of sweet wine to be a symbol of the beauty of creation and the beauty of what this couple was creating. All understood the seven wedding blessings to be about affirming the potential in human beings to combine love, wisdom and courage and to forge a life of joy and gratitude. All understood the breaking of the glass to be about the fragility of life and finding joy within sorrow. All understood that Judaism had become meaningful not only to the bride, but to her supportive partner and that it could be accessible and meaningful to their whole family.
What I hope for this couple is that they find a Jewish community that can also support them. I have directed them to Jewish communal institutions that provide fellowship and classes for couples just like them. I will encourage them to participate in an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by Reform Jewish Chicago. But it will be friends and Jewish lay and professional leaders who will help this couple sustain and strengthen their Jewish home and Jewish involvement.
I was meeting with Anita Silvert (who wears many hats in Chicago — she co-chairs Limmud Chicago (look for me there, details to come!) as well as directs a new program in Chicago called Chai Mitzvah). She was telling me today of her hopes to start a cohort of around eight people who are either in an interfaith relationship (either the Jewish partner or partner who isn’t Jewish) or people touched by interfaith families personally. This group would meet once a month to study Jewish texts and each would participate in social justice work throughout the year (serving a cause or charity of interest). Lastly, each would take on a new spiritual practice, guided by a mentor. As she was telling me about the program, she taught me a Rashi teaching from Numbers 5:8, “If a man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest…” Rashi, a medeival rabbi and important scholar, asks how an Israelite could possibly have no kinsmen, no family, no people. He concludes that this verse must be talking about the ger, a convert.
I could not believe how fitting it was that Anita shared this teaching with me exactly when I was thinking about this wedding of a Jew by choice. We need to make sure that all in the community have people, have kinsmen. That is our sacred and holy task.
If you would like more information about either our Love and Religion — Online workshop for interfaith couples or the Chai Mitzvah program, email me at email@example.com.
I’ve heard rabbis say that the most important part of the synagogue is not the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept but the front door. It seems that at the forefront of outreach techniques are ideas for synagogue staff and lay leaders for how to be welcoming, how to help ease the way into organized Jewish life. (Do we ever ask how we help longer time members bridge the gap between being welcomed new members and feeling at home?) In other words, when does needing to be welcomed begin and end?
You might ask yourself why there have to be manuals written teaching people how to be welcoming. The same ways we welcome guests to our home and host people at functions should translate into how we welcome people to our synagogue or community center. We smile, take someone’s coat, offer refreshments, and try to get to know the person. We talk about subjects of mutual interest, we suggest activities that would be engaging for all involved, we share news and ideas that we think the other person would enjoy hearing and learning about, etc.
The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”
This past year in Chicagoland, I have worked hard trying to spread the word about how to find and access welcoming synagogues and opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community. Yet, by and large, interfaith families are still not walking in the front door of congregations to join the synagogue as “regulars.” Many families come for a free, family holiday service but do not make the next step to join the congregation and enroll children in religious school. The following are questions I have which I am asking in a non-judgmental, sincerely curious way. If you have comments about any of these, please share.
Is it because they are just not ready to make this major commitment?
Is it because they feel they won’t truly feel like an insider there, that they won’t know enough people, know where to sit, know the customs and traditions? That they will make some kind of mistake or faux pas?
Is it because they assume the price of membership is too expensive and that the process for a dues reduction is too humiliating?
Is it because they feel they would not take advantage of synagogue activities, such as Friday night or Shabbat morning worship, adult education or social justice programs, because they legitimately don’t easily fit into their busy work and family schedules?
Is it because the partner who did not grow up with Judaism has hesitations or concerns about what joining a congregation would mean for them personally and for their extended family?
Is the goal in all of this synagogue membership? I think there are lots and lots of ways people can engage with Jewish living that can be meaningful and fulfilling. But, this blog post is focused on this one question of what prevents people who take part in family holiday programs at synagogues and community centers from joining as members.
As I have blogged about before, one of the biggest challenges to expanding the work we are doing here in Chicago is finding interfaith couples who may want Judaism in their lives but who have not yet connected with synagogues and/or clergy. We decided to get creative in our pursuit: we booked a booth at a bridal expo to see if we could meet brides who are in interfaith relationships!
I wrote this blog post last night, from the Oak Brook, IL bridal expo. I was able to sit and write during the fashion show, as I waited for the brides to make their last walk through the booths.
The InterfaithFamily chuppah booth at the bridal expo last night.
I have to say, this was a new experience! The booths around me included a department store registry, a seafood restaurant offering catering, a beauty bar that has spa treatments (including wheat-grass give-away drinks that are a lovely shade of greenish tan) and a photography studio.
These were the comments I have heard thus far:
“We are an interfaith relationship because I am Catholic and he is Protestant” or “I am Muslim and converting to Greek Orthodox.”
“Oh, my friend just married someone Jewish and his dad who is a Judge officiated for them.”
“My family has Jewish roots but my son is converting to Christianity.”
“My friend is getting married in a couple of months and still can’t find a rabbi.”
But I did not meet any interfaith couples themselves. I may not have met each of the 350 brides at this expo, but I definitely met lots of them! I got plenty of smiles, nods of approval and comments like, “It’s great that you’re here” and “We should be more open with religion.”
I wonder if anybody who takes a card for a friend will give them the card and if the friend will want to contact us. I hope so!
I think that having a presence at future bridal expos has potential to help us meet interfaith couples, but maybe this was not the right location in terms of the demographics of this area. What do you think? If you’re married, did you go to an expo while you were in the planning stages?
It wasn’t a total loss — I did see some beautiful floral arrangements and sample some lovely champagne! Mazel tov to all of these brides!
I have lead three workshops recently for religious school teachers and the same frustration came up each time. Teachers wanted me to tell them what to say when a child said x, y, or z. I veer away from giving teachers a script (I provide broad guidelines to think about) because I think each situation is different. The way each child says what they say, who the child is, how old they are, how many times the class has talked about this, etc., has to be taken into account in order for the teacher to know how to respond. However, in this blog I am going to share what I would say to a main comment that I have frequently heard uttered by children of all ages in religious schools.
“I’m only half Jewish.”
As a teacher, I would ask back, “Why do you say that?”
The child may respond, “Because my mom/dad isn’t Jewish and I celebrate Christmas and so I am only half Jewish.” (They may add that they don’t believe in God or other reasons.)
I might ask, “Do you think your parents would describe you as half Jewish?”
If a child says “yes,” I may encourage them to talk with their parents about this. I would be sure to email or call the parents after class to let them know that their child spoke about this in class and that I was happy they felt comfortable sharing with me. I would let the parents know that I encouraged their child to talk with them about these labels of identity. I would also mention that the clergy and educators at the synagogue are open to talking with parents and families about Judaism in an interfaith family and that there are lots of resources and support available to them as they figure out how to speak to their children about religion and identity.
If the child answers “no,” that their parents wouldn’t use this expression, a teacher could ask how they think their parents would describe who the child is religiously. If the child answers that their parents would say they are Jewish, a teacher could explain that maybe their parents have hoped that Judaism would be the religion and way of life they most identify with, but that this doesn’t mean that the other religion in the family is ignored or pushed away. It is wonderful to explore and experience the way one parent was raised and the way some in the family practice. This doesn’t take away from being brought up Jewish.
I would tell the child that a main hope is that we all feel whole and that we feel secure in who we are. I would also tell children that Judaism and Christianity share so much. We share sacred texts, values, core biblical narratives, faith in God, and a desire to make the world a better place. There are many prayers within Christianity and many songs that have roots in Judaism. We both love holidays, rituals, and traditions. But, there are many parts of the religions that are different. It may be hard to really be both religions. You can experience aspects of both religions, learn about both religions, come to love parts of both religions, but you might end up practicing and adhering to one religion. Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. In religious school and then in high school and college, you can continue to learn about Judaism and may find so many aspects that add much to your life. That’s one reason you are all here. We are here to learn about an ancient religion that still applies to our experiences in the world today. The stories, history, culture, language, and ethics of Judaism – all these aspects and many more – can bring joy, purpose, order, connectedness, and meaning to how we live.
When children bring up issues of identity it can be tricky for the religious school teacher to know what to say, how much to say, what would support the family and the goals of the religious school program and the congregation’s denominational ideology (whether it is Reform or Conservative, for example). This is why I encourage educators to write guidelines such as this and to role play with teachers to help teachers know how to respond to the most commonly talked about issues from going to church, celebrating Christmas or Easter to having family that isn’t Jewish to not believing in God, not wanting to come to religious school/Hebrew school, wondering about Jesus and more.
If you are a religious school teacher, let me know if you could see this dialogue taking place in class and if this is helpful to thinking through how to respond before comments are made so that you are not caught off-guard.
As you may know, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is a 2-year funded initiative which began July 1, 2011. In the first year of the grant we offered an online/in-person class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. The way the class works is that parents get login information to access the class on the computer. Each week of the class the material for a new session is added. You access the material on your own time during that week, read essays (or print them for later), hear/learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal, and more. Parents are able to interact with other through discussion boards. They have access to a facilitator so that they can ask questions about the material being learned. The facilitator responds to journal posts as well for a more individualized experience. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family – a Friday night Shabbat dinner and experience, and a wrap-up and next steps send-off.
Each of the 8 lessons is about a major parenting situation and how Jewish teachings and traditions offer insights about how to make these times meaningful and spiritual. The class explores bedtime, food and eating rituals, marking time with meaning on a weekly and yearly basis, doing good deeds, loving learning, spirituality, and personal journeys. Every aspect of this class was created with modern interfaith families in mind.
A new session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is beginning in October. It is ideal for families with preschool-3rd grade children. If you would like to join in this next session, go to interfaithfamily.com/raisingachildChicagoOct2012. InterfaithFamily/Chicago will cover the costs for anybody to participate.
The second program we offered in year one of our grant is a marriage workshop called Love and Religion – Online. The workshop took place over 4 Thursday evenings. The first night we take all of the couples to dinner in the city. This is a great chance for everybody to get to know each other in person and to talk about their recent or upcoming wedding. The next three Thursdays, for about an hour or so, we meet online. I facilitate the workshop along with a marriage counselor. We discuss how to create a meaningful religious and spiritual life as an interfaith couple and explore everything from communication in marriage to how to make major life decisions. We offered this workshop in February and May and begin a new session tonight, August 16, with 7 new couples. The next session of Love and Religion – Online will begin in October. It is not too late to join in. Sign up at interfaithfamily.com/loveandreligionChicagoOct2012.
In year 2 of our grant, we will be offering a new class, Preparing for Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. This class is ideal for families with 4th-7th graders, whether you are members of a synagogue or not. Like the Raising a Child class, parents will receive login information to access this class on the computer at their own pace. Each week of the class the material for a new session will be added. There will be essays, ways for you to hear and learn blessings, watch videos, get ideas for family activities, post in a journal and more. You will be able to interact with other parents through discussion boards. You will have access to a facilitator so that you can ask questions as you go, and the facilitator will respond both to your journal posts and on the discussion boards. In addition, two of the eight sessions include an in-person program for the whole family – a Friday night Shabbat dinner and experience, and a wrap-up and next steps send-off.
Each of the eight sessions is about a major aspect of the bat/bar mitzvah ceremony and experience. We will explore the history of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, the meaning of Torah, putting the “mitzvah” back in the bat/bar mitzvah, Shabbat morning and evening worship, ritual policies in synagogues, the enduring Jewish values to hold dear, and how to explain this to family members and friends who are not Jewish.
We are beginning to build a community of people we have met through these classes and workshops. At the Joyfully Jewish Mitzvah event this past Sunday in Long Grove, I saw a family who took our Raising a Child class – it was great to reconnect! These classes and workshops are great ways to participate in learning and fellowship in convenient and realistic ways.
As we learn from our sacred text of rabbinic writings, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), “Say not: when I have leisure I will study, lest you may not have it!”
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.
I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:
Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”
Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.
I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.
Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!
It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.
I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families. There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.
For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.
I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.
As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.
I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)
Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.
This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!
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