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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.
“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
You might find it hard to believe but I love going to church. I don’t go very often, but the times that I have been, I have found it very moving and spiritual. I have prayed and spoken with God in a variety of settings: in the desert, in the forest, in the ocean, in non-denominational campus chapels, in hospital rooms, on my yoga mat, though conversations with my friends and colleagues who are ministers and chaplains of other faiths and yes, in a church.
Sunday, January 31, 2016 I had the opportunity to worship with the community at Calvary Baptist Church and to give a sermon and the benediction. The clergy team, the choir and the congregation warmly welcomed me and I felt right at home. What helped was that I had been there before to speak to an adult education class and that my colleague at Calvary, Pastor Erica Lea, had spent a lot of time sharing with me about the congregation and the service so I knew what to expect. Not only did she let me brainstorm sermon ideas with her that would resonate with the congregation but she encouraged me to be myself and to share my own words of Torah (scripture) and to teach from my heart.
The occasion for my visit to Calvary Baptist Church was Interfaith Sunday, a service in celebration of the UN Resolution on Interfaith Harmony Week. I spoke about sowing the seeds of interfaith harmony. In the physical sense, I connected the idea of planting seeds to the Hebrew month of Shevat. There is a teaching that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (in winter) will bloom in Nissan (the month of spring time, in the time of Passover, redemption and freedom). Interfaith Harmony doesn’t happen overnight. It must be achieved by planting seeds and nourishing those seeds to blossom.
In the metaphorical sense of sowing seeds for Interfaith Harmony, I spoke about building relationships. I drew inspiration from the recent Torah portion from the book of Exodus in which we read about Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. Yitro was a Midianite priest, and he served as mentor and counsel to Moses, the leader of the Israelites.
The relationship between Moses and his father-in-law is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of interfaith harmony in our tradition. Though they come from different faiths, they understand each other’s language and liturgy, each other’s spiritual practice and each other’s laws. Moreover, they understand something universal: how important is for spiritual leaders to have support and mentorship of their own.
I have been blessed with guidance and mentorship from spiritual leaders of other faiths and I have found time and time again how valuable those relationships are in my life. As I think of the support Moses received from Yitro, I am reminded of the support I received from my high school guidance counselor, Dr. Melanie-Prejean Sullivan, who is now Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, who helped me understand my calling. I think of Rev. Sheila McNeill-Lee who was my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at Sibley Memorial Hospital when I was chaplain intern, who helped me to articulate my beliefs, the value of self-care and how to check my assumptions. I think of my dear friend and interfaith collaborator on creative expression and spirituality, Erin Brindle, who is an art therapist. I also think of my new colleagues at Calvary including Pastor Erica Lea and her team.
During my chaplaincy training, a colleague who is now a Presbyterian chaplain led us in what has become one of my favorite spiritual experiences which I recreated for the community at Calvary. At the end of my sermon, I invited all of the congregants to write their prayers on paper flowers and then bring them up to the altar and place them in a glass vase. Together we planted our own seeds for interfaith harmony by offering up a beautiful bouquet of our prayers. I truly hope that the seeds we planted at Calvary that day continue to be nourished through conversation and discussion and community partnership.
I recently went to B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp to conduct a Sensitivity Training on being respectful of kids from interfaith homes with Rabbi Robyn Frisch for the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) Kallah program. It was exciting to meet teenagers from all over the world attending this program where they can study about Judaism and learn how to work with groups of their peers. These teens are the future leaders of colleges, of non-profits and of businesses.
We began our training with a discussion of whether the teens participating ever felt “different” in their community. The conversation then moved to the topic of different ways to handle potentially awkward situations regarding interfaith families. The teens had great ideas about respecting one another and not criticizing others even if they saw someone criticizing another peer. We were very impressed when one of the teens talked about creating a program to alleviate some of the ignorance that was occurring around them.
We then discussed how even if you don’t know all the answers, asking questions can educate you and empower someone who might feel awkward or not included. The process of asking questions can make someone go from feeling vulnerable to proud of their situation. We all agreed that an awkward situation can become a learning opportunity if people use non-judgmental questions to deflate the tension.
The teens were so incredibly respectful to us and one another. They were very welcoming regarding interfaith and diversity issues. We discussed awkward situations that might happen in school or with new members of BBYO. We all agreed that respecting others and even respecting the person who may be less educated/more judgmental is vital.
I clearly remember being a participant at this program many years ago and have many fond memories. I remember being exposed to many new concepts and finding my voice as a Jewish teen. The BBYO Kallah program is a unique leadership opportunity for all teens looking to explore their Jewish heritage. I hope that InterfaithFamily helped these teens find their voice regarding interfaith issues.
A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!
Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the “Love & Religion” as our signature cocktail. We’re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.
A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, “What is your favorite holiday movie and why?” We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as “If you described your family as a food, what would it be?” We heard, “a pizza bagel,” “a potato latke.” The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.
During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.
A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. I’m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and I’m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.
Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.