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By Jodi Bromberg and Ed Case
A significant upcoming convening may lay the groundwork for something missing from the liberal Jewish community for the past twenty-five years: concerted action by funders and community leaders to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life and community.
InterfaithFamily, in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Federations of North America, is sponsoring the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Jewish Reality, on Wednesday October 26, 2016 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
The goal of the Summit is to explore – with funders, federations, leaders of Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners – the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community, and begin to build consensus for increased efforts towards that end.
Jewish leaders have repeatedly expressed concern since high intermarriage rates were announced in the early 1990’s. In most fields – day schools, camps, teen engagement, Israel trips, social justice – funders and professionals have joined together to plan, support and execute major programmatic activities to strengthen organizations and expand recruitment.
The field of engaging interfaith families, however, is different, distinguished by the lack of concerted action by funders and professionals. Individual organizations – notably the Reform movement, Big Tent Judaism, and InterfaithFamily – have developed and offered successful programmatic efforts, and generous foundations, federations and individuals have made those efforts possible with financial support. But there has never been concerted action like that in other fields, apart from a proposal for joint action by several foundations in 2008-2009 that failed because of losses dues to Madoff and the economic downturn.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why arguably the single most important issue for the liberal Jewish community has not attracted concerted action. It may be that intermarriage is still viewed so negatively by so many that funders and professionals are discouraged from supporting any related efforts that are not designed to discourage or prevent it. Or, that there is simply too wide a chasm between those who wish to prevent or discourage intermarriage and those that seek to embrace and welcome interfaith couples and families – and therefore, no shared understanding of the way forward.
Recent signs, however, indicate a growing shift in attitudes that could support significant concerted action to engage interfaith families – most notably, the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in order to highlight the importance of welcoming intermarried families, followed by the Jewish Funders Network/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative to attract increased financial support for those welcoming efforts. In addition, there has been increased attention from organizations like Hillel, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Audacious Hospitality” work.
The Interfaith Opportunity Summit will now bring together everyone interested or potentially interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly – foundations, federations, Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners. The initial response to the Summit is another sign of shifting attitudes; in addition to partnering with the JFN and the JFNA, participants in the Summit program include:
Because of the importance of understanding the lived experiences of interfaith families, Summit participants will also hear from millennial children of intermarriage, young interfaith couples, and interfaith families with young children. The grantees of the JFN/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative, and other interfaith family engagement programs, have all been invited to participate and discuss their programs with interested attendees at tables over an extended lunchtime.
The Summit will provide a rich discussion of the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community. How can Jews and their partners from different faith traditions experience the value of Jewish wisdom, express their spirituality in Jewish settings, and feel included in “the Jewish people?” How can we effectively reach the spectrum of interfaith couples, from those who are seeking to those who are not, through messaging and marketing to interfaith families, and relationship building/community organizing approaches to them? What services and programs are effective entry points and ways to facilitate progress into more engagement, and what promising trends are emerging? How can we address difficult attitude and boundary issues surrounding intermarriage: privileging in-marriage, wedding officiation, ritual participation, and conversion? Can those who say they are “doing both” be included in Jewish life and communities?
The concluding plenary will tie together the preceding sessions and address what a local Jewish community needs to offer to engage interfaith families, and the appropriate roles of general programs aimed at and marketed for everyone, and programs targeted at people in interfaith relationships.
By bringing together funders and organization leaders – people in a position to make things happen – with practitioners in the field, we hope to build consensus on what increased efforts need to be taken to engage interfaith families and to facilitate the possibility of concerted large-scale action towards that goal. We hope that you’ll be there to join the conversation.
Jodi Bromberg is the CEO of InterfaithFamily. Ed Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily, is an independent writer, speaker and consultant. More information about the Interfaith Opportunity Summit program is available here, and registration is available here.
Lindsey Silken and I recently attended TribeFest which is a conference of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was an entertaining, interactive and educational celebration that drew around 1,500 Jewish young adults (ages 22-45) from across North America to the city of New Orleans. Some of the attendees are professionals at Federations, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish organizations and some are volunteer leaders or involved as young adults in the Jewish community. InterfaithFamily had the pleasure of co-leading two sessions.
Our first session was lead with HIAS. HIAS is an international Jewish non-profit that protects refugees. I am proud that the Jewish community keeps its ancient mandate to protect the vulnerable and the stranger in our midst in this way.
Why were IFF and HIAS paired to run a session? We share the mission of being welcoming and we spoke about what it means to welcome. Whether welcoming interfaith families to Jewish life or helping those fleeing persecution to get acclimated as our neighbors, we need to grapple with insider/outsider mentality, what it means to lower barriers to participation and how to quell assumptions we make about others.
Our second session involved several other organizations including JFNA and the LA Federation, Big Tent Judaism and Keshet, all working, again, to widen the doors of entry to Jewish life for the diverse range of people who may be interested. In the break-out part of the session, we lead a group which went deeper into the conversation of how to be welcoming. What does an organization have to do to be welcoming? Is there a standard formula that can be instituted across the board in Jewish life to yield welcoming success?
The people who joined our group said that in each denomination and in each circle of Jewish life, the institution would have to figure out what criteria they could uphold that would signal the most welcoming culture and climate they could. For some synagogues which are largely interfaith communities, the only way to truly be welcoming may be to have clergy available to officiate and even co-officiate weddings. If there are many in the community who aren’t Jewish who are actively invested in supporting a Jewish partner or raising children with Judaism, it may be that the only way to be truly welcoming is to celebrate them when ushering in Shabbat by lighting the candles, for example (a ritual traditionally reserved for Jews because of the language of “being commanded”). In congregations made up of a community cognizant of Jewish law, there would be other examples of being inclusive and welcoming that they would want to specifically enumerate and articulate. (We’ll share more specifics of what we came up with in a future blog post!)
It’s not enough to say that a congregation is welcoming. The community has to be able to describe what welcoming means to them. When you think about how you welcome people to your home, you know what you do, how you do it, how you feel doing it, how hopefully your guest feels and what you show and teach your children about graciousness. And a congregational family should know how they welcome both newcomers and regulars to the building, to classes and to gatherings.
Although we could scarcely agree on which things a congregation could or should do to be welcoming, everyone thought that one action that indicated “welcome” was that any couple—interfaith couples included—should be greeted with “mazel tov” when they announce their engagement.
We also had an interesting conversation about the word “inclusive.” What does it mean to include people in the life of the synagogue? By definition, does that act change the nature of the situation that existed before the person was included? Do we include people by having them join what we are doing or does adding someone to the mix necessitate being flexible and dynamic?
There were few easy answers but lots of good questions and discussion. The attendees care about their Jewish lives and the future of Judaism in America. It could have been because we were in New Orleans, but there was a palpable energy and harmony to the buzz of voices.