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The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation on April 28. Ed Case and I attended along with other representatives from fellow interfaith engagement organizations. Clergy and professionals from area organizations shared the work they are doing to welcome and engage interfaith families. Interfaith couples came to discuss their journey of Jewish involvement. Here are three points that I took away:
Language is Still a Challenge: For most of the conference almost every presenter and speaker referred to people who aren’t Jewish who are partnered with a Jew as “non-Jews.” Finally, Kathy Bloomfield, a local Jewish professional, asked them to re-think this term as it can be offensive and hurtful to be described as a “non-anything.” She suggested using the phrase, “person from a different faith,” which speakers immediately adopted, one saying to Kathy “you had real impact!” An alternative I use, given that some people grow up with no specific faith or are not practicing another faith, is to just describe that partner as a “person who is not Jewish.”
It is Important that Couples Be Able to Find Wedding Officiants: One panel included a college student (himself from an interfaith home) who works for Hillel, an interfaith couple, and three rabbis (one Conservative, one Reform and one at a non-denominational synagogue). The college student talked about his work trying to engage students from interfaith homes in Jewish life on campus, the couple told their personal story, and the rabbis discussed how they work to reach out to interfaith couples. However, the conversation ended up centered on rabbinic officiation at weddings. The couple explained how painful and confusing it was when the groom’s brother, a Reform rabbi, did not feel he could officiate at their interfaith wedding. One rabbi spoke about how when his brother intermarried in the 1960s his father disapproved, resulting in severe damage to the family’s relationships; in fact he said the first time his brother said something nice about this father was when he gave a eulogy at his funeral. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf from Adas Israel, a major Conservative synagogue, described his new “keruv aliyah.” Keruv, a Hebrew word which means to draw near, is the Conservative movement’s term for reaching out to interfaith couples and families. Aliyah means “going up” and can refer either to moving to Israel or coming to the Torah during worship for an honor. In his keruv aliyah, Rabbi Steinlauf has interfaith couples come up at a Shabbat morning service before their wedding for a blessing. Because Conservative rabbis are not allowed by their association to officiate for interfaith couples, this is a creative, bold and meaningful way to publicly honor in their community the unions of interfaith couples religiously and spiritually.
JCCs Can Be A Meaningful Address for Interfaith Couples: Several Jewish Community Centers in the Washington DC area are thinking creatively about how to engage interfaith couples and families in Jewish life. Many interfaith families do not “affiliate” in the sense that they do not officially join a congregation. There are many reasons for this: Cost, fear/uncertainty about what to expect, apprehension about ever “belonging” fully with a partner who isn’t Jewish, wondering about whether the partner who isn’t Jewish will be able to participate meaningfully in rituals and synagogue communal life, thinking that children will be treated as “less than” if they have a parent who isn’t Jewish, and more. Synagogues need to become cognizant of the concerns these couples could have and be able to address these concerns visibly and clearly so that barriers can come down and all can enter with ease and less anxiety. JCCs may be a comfortable first step to later synagogue membership, or they may be a long-term Jewish organizational home for interfaith couples and families to find community, programs of interest and learning. JCCs in Washington are now offering more ways for families to experience religious learning for children and ways to mark life cycle events. Because Jewish Community Centers can sometimes be more open with more flexible ways to engage, it seems a natural setting for interfaith couples and families to explore.
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It was inspiring to be part of a communal conversation aimed at hearing what is happening already and which will set the stage to determine next steps and figuring out the most effective ways to reach interfaith couples and families around Washington DC. It was affirming to see interfaith couples and families regarded as precious to the Jewish community, as present and future links to add to the chain of Jewish tradition.
There are people that we meet that we enjoy and treasure, and then there are people who change our lives forever. When my friend Erin suggested I apply for the job at InterFaithways, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in working for a non-profit. But I figured, one never knows where a chance meeting or interview will lead. So I walked into my interview without any strong feelings about whether or not I would be offered the job. Throughout the meeting, I realized that the mission of the organization — to welcome interfaith families to the Jewish community — was something I could embrace. As it turned out, I was offered the job and met privately with Rabbi Mayer Selekman a few weeks later. We had a conversation that has changed my life.
Rabbi Selekman is not what I was used to in a rabbi. Most of the rabbis I knew were very stoic in nature. Rabbi Selekman is funny, sarcastic, and enjoys good conversation with lots of witty banter. I asked him why he had decided, back in the 1960s, to perform interfaith marriages. He said that he decided it was important that no one ever feel rejected. This answer really touched my soul: it was so simple yet so many people didn’t see it that way. In the 1960s, he was threatened by many people for his decision and even risked his career for his willingness to perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. As a result, he felt like an outsider in the Jewish community. But his congregation supported him and thrived because his kindness was so genuine. Soon other congregations took note and other rabbis decided, like Rabbi Selekman, that performing interfaith ceremonies could only lead to good things — people feeling comfortable in the Jewish faith and deciding to raise their children with Judaism. I realized that while many people were trying to preserve Judaism by rejecting those who intermarry, the reality was in fact the opposite: rejection leads to negative feelings and ultimately disassociation.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Years before, I had realized that if people were negative toward someone, they might think they are exerting control but they are actually relinquishing it. Now I knew that this concept came from a critical piece of my Jewish upbringing — kindness. We were always taught to be kind and that it is fundamental to being a Jew. It was ironic to me that for so many observant Jews, the one area where they were not welcoming was to their own people. And by trying to exert control over someone, you actually are relinquishing any influence you might have had. Through our conversation, I found it very liberating. The concept of kindness based in Judaism also included Judaism.
I now apply Rabbi Selekman’s philosophy to all aspects of my life — I try to remind myself to be kind even if the other person is being difficult. I attempt to avoid negativity (even though I am cynical by nature). I look at situations and try to be as inclusive as possible. While I am still cautious or cynical, I am doing my best to be welcoming and encouraging. Most importantly, I also teach my children the same.
As InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia takes its first steps as a new entity, I am proud to let you know that much of it started 50 years ago by a man who didn’t want people to feel rejected and wasn’t willing to let the kindness of Judaism have limitations. By knowing Rabbi Selekman, I learned that through kindness and welcoming, good things will happen. He has touched many lives in meaningful ways through his acts of kindness. I am pleased to say that I am one of the lucky ones he has influenced and I am better for it!