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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim KeenâsÂ Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partnerâs Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.
When Jim Keen and his fiancĂ©e Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasnât sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying âyouâre my grandson now.â That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.
Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call âeternalâ issues. Not in the sense that the issues canât be resolved, because they can be, as Jimâs story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.
This book follows Jimâs journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. Itâs a deeply moving story, told with humor, and itâs an important one.
Jim Keenâs example of one interfaith coupleâs journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jimâs story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.
Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wifeâs feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, âstanding out,â ânot belonging,â to feeling âpart of.â For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples arenât alone, and itâs very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.
Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesnât say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position donât practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples havenât decided, or havenât yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.
Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.
Jim Keen doesnât promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parentsâ and in-lawsâ lives too. He still enjoys âbelonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but itâs a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.â He also rightly recognizes his and his familyâs contribution to the Jewish community: âI am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.â I love it, and I think you will, too.
Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keenâs perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family â on both sides â are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.
You can order the bookÂ here.
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŠ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŠ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŠ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
I donât have any weddings in sight â my children are married and Iâve been married for 43 years myself. Nevertheless, I loved reading Anita Diamantâs The Jewish Wedding Now.
Iâm most interested of course in interfaith couples, and highly recommend The New Jewish Wedding to them and their families too, because the book clearly is written with you in mind.
Describing changes over time, Diamant says âthe huppah, the wedding canopy, has become a very large tent, open to Jews of all descriptions and denominationsâŠ and people from different faith traditions. The status and validity of some of these weddings is the subject of intense debate â par for the course in all things Jewish â but this edition reflects the facts on the ground.â She explains that there is no chapter devoted to interfaith couples because the book âis a menu for all who wish to include meaningful Jewish choices as they plan their ceremony and celebration; choices that are the same for everyone.â
Thatâs the overall tone Diamant takes toward interfaith couples â intermarriage is happening, interfaith couples are welcome to make the same Jewish choices as everyone. To those who say the presence of interfaith couples under the chuppah is a threat to Jewish tradition, she says âthe countervailing tradition of adaptability is the reason why Judaism has survived and thrived.â The addition of new faces under the chuppah, she says, are âa healthy infusion of living waters, mayyim hayyim, and another chapter in a long, lively, disputatious history.â
If you stop to think about it, given that many in the Jewish community would not recognize a wedding of an interfaith couple as a Jewish wedding, it is quite remarkable that a prominent author revising a book about Jewish weddings for the third time would so matter-of-factly and explicitly help interfaith couples design their own Jewish weddings.
When I first read that there was no special chapter for interfaith couples, I was concerned, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the special considerations that interfaith couples do indeed have would not be addressed. To the contrary, in a few pages under the title âNon-Jews under the Huppah,â Diamant succinctly addresses the history of attitudes toward intermarriage, states that now âintermarriage is the communal normâ (I strongly agree), discusses some of the questions interfaith couples encounter, and says âCouples who can talk about religion before their weddings are much better prepared to handle knottier questions later onâ (I strongly agree). She also addresses ways to inform relatives from different faith traditions about what will be happening, and ways to include them in the wedding ceremony. I love how she casually mentions the presence of other traditions, when she talks about including phrases written in Chinese or Hindi on wedding invitations, translations of interfaith ketubot into Spanish and Japanese, and chuppot made from Scottish tartan or African textile.
I love that she talks about the phenomenon of couples having friends ordained for the day to officiate at their weddings, but gently says âyou need a rabbiâ to create a Jewish wedding. I love that Diamant encourages interfaith couples to find a compatible rabbi to officiate at their weddings, describing some of the rejection they may encounter and resources available to help them.
As Diamant says, debate is par for the course in all things Jewish. I donât agree with Diamant saying that the term âinterfaith is only appropriate if the non-Jewish partner has an ongoing connection to another religion and wants that tradition reflected in the wedding ceremony and in married life.â As Iâve said before, âinterfaithâ today doesnât mean anything about religious practice, that couples are practicing two faiths, or one and none; it just means they come from different faith traditions. I also try not to use the term ânon-Jewâ because people donât define themselves as ânonsâ and would have preferred to see the admittedly ungainly phrase, âpartner from a different faith traditionâ throughout the book.
Moreover, a not insignificant proportion of interfaith couples are looking for rabbis to co-officiate their weddings with clergy from other religious traditions; The Jewish Wedding Now is, I believe, silent about that phenomenon. As I noted above, the book is extremely informative about Jewish wedding traditions, with parts appealing perhaps more to those interested in more traditional ceremonies. I would have liked to see a nod to couples looking for co-officiation â something like, âThis is a book about Jewish weddings, not really about weddings that are conducted in Jewish and other traditions, although you can find elements of Jewish weddings in it that you might incorporate in such a wedding.â
Itâs a tribute to The Jewish Wedding Now that it would in fact be informative and helpful to the whole range of interfaith couples planning a wedding and wanting their wedding to include Jewish traditions, and itâs written in a way that makes those traditions accessible and inviting to interfaith couples.
Stay tuned for InterfaithFamily’s Facebook Live with Anita Diamant. Follow us on Facebook here.
IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâs audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movementâs own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â indeed, embrace â not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as âin,â as part of âus,â as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as âout,â âother,â not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person âisâ Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to âdoâ Jewish.
Itâs not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, âitâs wonderful that your daughter has a partner â but wouldnât you prefer that she were straight?â No, he wouldnât, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said âis she Jewishâ? right in front of my daughterâs husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be âsub-optimal.â
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenât âreallyâ Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like âger toshavâ is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they donât want their childrenâs status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more âinâ or âoutâ and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the âusâ to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have anÂ aliyahÂ excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After theÂ Cohen Centerâs recent researchÂ showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogueâs clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâs books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. Thatâs why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to âdo both.â What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors â when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion â they mostly get ânoâ for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonât co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who havenât decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donât have to recommend or favor raising children as âboth,â providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive â yes, a truly audacious â hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donât need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
Thatâs right â an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: âAt RomemuÂ theÂ diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.âÂ I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the âStrangers No Moreâ program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But thereâs more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com â one of her subtitles is âFrom Taboo to Commonplaceâ â that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says âIt was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. Thereâs a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.â One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds âto ask questions in a safe space.â
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources âbecause of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.â (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that âWhen it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selvesâŠ in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.â I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are âuncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]âŠ.â â and thatâs more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, âare not meant for [those who are not Jewish]â or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say âwe are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];â Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are âthe people who fit the demographic of the active groupâ â referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not âmeant for Jewsâ that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not âmeant for Jewsâ but instead are âmeant forâ Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are âfor Jewsâ but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionistsâ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
Thereâs an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews wonât remain forever separate, and sees her program âas a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.â She hopes her program wonât need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: âthese are the people who get usâŠ [t]his is our community.â The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemuâs benefit, âAwaken Your Voice,â on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success â it deserves to be.
On October 22, 2015 we gathered with friends and colleagues at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, to honor InterfaithFamily’s Founder, Ed Case, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston‘s President, Barry Shrage. In addition to recognizing the incredible work they have done to change the landscape of the Jewish community, we took a moment to discuss some of the top issues facing interfaith families today and to celebrate the people who help make our work possible.
Enjoy the photos of the event below (thanks to Meri Bond Photography), along with a video capturing the impact InterfaithFamily has made on individuals, couples and families, and tribute videos to Barry Shrage and Ed Case. To see the full photo gallery, go here.
March 31, 2015 is a big day in my life and the life of InterfaithFamily, the organization I founded in 2001 and have led for the last fourteen years: Jodi Bromberg, IFFâs President for the last year and a half, will become CEO, and I will transition to a new Founder role.
I hasten to add that I am not retiring and will continue to work for IFF. I will be focusing primarily on certain fundraising relationships and IFFâs advocacy work, subject to Jodiâs direction. My passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community is unabated, and there is much work to do.
But I wonât be the person in charge.
This transition is a milestone in a carefully thought out plan developed over the past three years with InterfaithFamilyâs Board of Directors. Â In 2012, spurred largely by the rapid growth of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model (see more below), I told our Board that while I wanted to continue to work with IFF, it was time for new leadership and to find a successor to be in charge of the organization. After an extensive search, we found Jodi to be the perfect combination of passion for the issue, and great leadership and interpersonal skills. Our expectation was that Jodi would learn about and take on responsibility for our operations and fundraising activities over a period of up to two years, and if successful in that interim period would be elected CEO by the Board. Jodi has done so well that last October, after only a year as IFFâs President, Jodi and I proposed that she become CEO on March 31, and the Board enthusiastically agreed.
We are well aware that the accepted business school and consultant wisdom is that founders of non profit organizations should âget outâ when successor CEOs take over. Itâs called the âgraceful exitâ strategy. We are following a minority view, whatâs called the âmutual successâ strategy, based on successful cases of founders staying on and working productively under the direction of their successors.
Many people say that I should be very proud of what InterfaithFamily has accomplished in the last fourteen years. When we started in 2002 it was me and a half-time editor, Ronnie Friedland, with a budget of about $200,000. Fast forward to 2015, and we have 24 on staff and three open positions, with a 2015 budget of $3.2 million.
IFF started as a web-based resource. We expanded organically in response to âcustomerâ demand, from personal narratives of people in interfaith relationships, to how-to-do-Jewish resources, listings of welcoming Jewish organizations and professionals, our Jewish clergy officiation referral service, and advocacy writing. By 2008, we had 282,000 unique visitors to the site.
I always felt that local services and programs for interfaith families were badly needed, and always thought about InterfaithFamily filling that void. In 2008 and 2009, our then Board chair Mamie Kanfer Stewart and I spent a lot of time working with a group of Jewish family foundations who were developing a plan to âchange the paradigmâ on intermarriage to the positive. That funder group said that three things were needed: a âworld classâ website, training of Jewish leaders to be welcoming, and a range of local services and programs. Because of Madoff and a downturn in the economy, their plan was never funded. But it laid out a road map that I was determined to follow.
The original plan was to run IFF/Chicago as a pilot for two years, refine it, and then seek to expand to other communities. But when Jeff Zlot, a lay leader in San Francisco, heard about the pilot, he said, âI want that in the Bay Area.â Coincidentally, the leaders of InterFaithways, a Philadelphia non profit founded by one of my heroes, Leonard Wasserman, expressed interest in merging with IFF. As a result, by mid 2012, I was waking up in the middle of every night with my mind racing with details of the Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia projects. That was the point I decided that we needed someone other than me, someone much better suited to manage a rapidly growing organization, to be our CEO.
Since Jodi joined IFF in October 2013 we have continued to expand, opening IFF/Boston in 2013, an affiliate relationship with Cleveland in 2014, IFF/Los Angeles in 2014, and securing funding to open IFF/Atlanta by mid-2015; another major city federation told us just this week that they expect to fund our next IFF/Your Community starting this year. We have a strategic plan to be in nine communities by the end of 2016. My personal hope for the organization is to be in twenty communities over the next five years.
I believe that the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model is the single best available opportunity the liberal Jewish community has to engage significant numbers of interfaith families in Jewish life and community. No one else is offering or proposing to offer anything that compares to our synergistic, national and local, top-down bottom-up approach of national web-based and training resources, and a comprehensive range of services and programs on the ground in local communities.
We are executing well on our very ambitious offerings â traffic to our website grew by 30% in 2014 to over 864,000 unique visitors, and if we grow at half that rate we will reach 1 million visitors in 2015. We have developed a resources and training capability that can now help organizations all over the country be more welcoming, and we are demonstrating impact in our local communities, with thousands of interfaith couples becoming aware of what is available to them in their local Jewish community, building trusted relationships with our staff, and engaging in Jewish learning experiences that build community with other Jewishly-engaged interfaith families. Because of what we do, thousands of young Jews with one Jewish parent are engaging in camps, youth groups, Israel trips and other Jewish learning experiences.
I am highly confident that Jodi Bromberg will lead IFF on this path of continued growth. She has a wonderful way of working with people and working through process that is not my strong suit (to put it mildly). She understands the need to put mechanisms and procedures in place so that the high level of activity and expansion can be controlled and managed well (I would tend to want to do everything myself). She has her own compelling personal story underlying her passion for our cause. IFFâs future will be very bright with Jodi in charge. I look forward to continuing to contribute as best I can.
I have a very long list of people to thank for their part in making InterfaithFamilyâs success and growth possible. Iâm looking forward to doing that on October 22, when IFF is having an Afternoon of Learning and a reception at which I will be honored, along with another of my heroes, CJP President Barry Shrage. But I would be remiss not to mention Heather Martin, IFFâs Chief Operating Officer, who has put up with me since 2004. Whatever I went out and promised to funders and partners, Heather always made it happen. It would not be an overstatement to say that none of IFFâs growth would have been possible without her involvement. Fortunately, Heather and Jodi have developed a great relationship, making me even more optimistic about IFFâs future.
InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case contributed an important article, “What We Know About Intermarried Families” for the Fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal ServiceÂ which is disseminated with the permission of JPRO Network, publishers of the Journal. Case discusses the answers that aren’t being discussed from the 2013 Pew report and his reaction, as well as how to respond as a community to the issues that are raised. We’re pleased to be able to share this essayÂ here.