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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
There’s been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past 10 days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the “resident alien” who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavie’s proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbis’ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.
The Forward publicized Lau-Lavie’s proposal and invited comment to a new “conversation” about intermarriage I thought the most trenchant comment came from Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a senior Conservative rabbi who had announced that he would officiate for interfaith couples, and was expelled from the Conservative rabbis’ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavie’s idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, “too little, too late.”
“The person who is not Jewish is not looking to study for six months, make various commitments for future involvement in the Jewish community, and be known (I must say, derogatorily) as a ‘resident alien’…. Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.” Rabbi Rosenbloom says that what couples want from officiants is affirmation:
We should embrace them with love and affirmation, not make demands upon them that they cannot possibly commit to, and act as if we are grudgingly doing them a favor. What we need most is faith in the future. We need to believe in Judaism. We need to believe that the wisdom of Jewish teaching, the ethical values that are at the heart of that teaching, and lure of being part of an ancient people that is continually reinventing itself to be relevant and responsive to the changing religious, spiritual, and moral demands of every epoch, are compelling enough that many of these couples will choose to live as part of the Jewish community. We need to put fewer obstacles in their path. We need to welcome them for what they may add to our people as well as what we might add to their lives.
Susan Katz Miller also offered What Do Interfaith Couples Want From Rabbis: she says they want co-officiants, not to be forced to make promises about how they will raise children, and Jewish institutions to educate their children even if they are raising them with both religions in the home.
In the meantime, on June 16 the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and JTA reported that the rabbis at “mega” “flagship” synagogue B’nai Jeshurun in New York had announced that they too would officiate for interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples will sign a ritual document but not a ketubah. The rabbis will still hold to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness. As JTA reports, BJ is “large and trendsetting, and “has roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.”
And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage.“ He actually says, “A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.” And “In order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome “the other” into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.” The liberal Modern Orthodox seminary where Rabbi Mlotek was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, was quick to reiterate its opposition to intermarriage.
There are two important commentaries on all of the news. Shmuel Rosner, in “The rabbis’ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong,” says the issue is complicated when demography and continuity and the perspective of Jewish policy are taken into account. Pragmatically, he writes, “the Jews should know by now that ‘stopping’ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happen…” but intermarriage is a challenge that may be manageable, and may even be an opportunity, but may reduce the number of Jews and the intensity of Jewishness. Rosner concludes that the only way forward is to “let this trial and error run its course.”
If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.
The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples relationships.
Andrew Silow-Carroll has a very interesting take on the latest research showing lesser engagement by interfaith families. He says that critics of the researchers say that they “don’t see the people behind the numbers.”
These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. That interfaith couples feel judged by the “tribalistic” mainstream, and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they can’t resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.
In response to the Forward invitation to join the new “conversation” about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, “How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?” and the Forward published “We Must Embrace Interfaith Families – with No Strings Attached.” I said that all of the commentary and discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating skirted the difficult issues that have to be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage Jewishly – the need for radically inclusive attitudes and practices, the need to stop privileging in-marriage, the need to welcome people from different faith traditions without limitations.
Silow-Carroll says the intermarriage debate has “escalated” and judging by all of the commentary it surely has. Stay tuned to see how it develops next.
Postscript June 21
That was fast! Today the Forward has prominent Conservative rabbi Rabbi Daniel Gordis saying “The Conservative Movement Will Inevitably Cave on Intermarriage.” Rabbi Gordis seems to lament a series of Conservative halachic decisions that in his view gave in to social pressure – allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isn’t taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadn’t thought of: If Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say “yes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we don’t consider your children Jewish.” In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, “Not that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.”
I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit 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 movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and 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, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.
It’s 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, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s 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 “sub-optimal.”
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” 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 don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – 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 “us” 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 an aliyah 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 the Cohen Center’s recent research 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 synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s 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. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ 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 “do both.” 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 – 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 – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t 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 haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” 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 – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t 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?
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgove’s article in the New York Jewish Week, “Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem” and Rabbi Shaul Magid’s article in The Forward “Why Conversion Lite Won’t Fix The Intermarriage Problem.” Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word “problem.”
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isn’t the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposed—in fact, I often don’t know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasn’t Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word “problem” in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is “arguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewry”). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriages—the Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different background—are also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, we’ve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that they’re a problem. So, here’s a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, let’s stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that I’ve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, I’ve been especially sensitive to the language that’s used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. I’m constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who aren’t Orthodox. We hear about the “problems” and “challenges” of interfaith relationships and we see classes on “the December Dilemma” and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
I’m proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesn’t just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on “the December Dialogue” or “the December Discussion.”
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunity—an opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what it’s sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way that’s meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
I attended an informative and provocative session at Limmud Philly. This conference is held in several major cities and is a usually a day or weekend of Jewish learning. The learning includes philosophy, prayer, entertainment and socializing. It is quite an event for those that like to think Jewish!
I attended a session entitled “We Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.” The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamily’s own Benjamin Maron. Benjamin did a great deal of research regarding different synagogues and their policies regarding interfaith involvement.
I was fascinated by the discussion of prayers and who is allowed to say what from the bimah. Frequently synagogues limit the participation of the parent who is not Jewish. We discussed that the reason that some synagogues don’t want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is that the translation of the prayers are things like: “Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot” and “Who has chosen us.” The word “us” refers to the Jewish people, therefore, someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t allowed to participate.
I understand the principle of this – Jews have been through a lot. Our ancestors have been persecuted in our efforts to practice our religion and we have worked hard to educate ourselves. Those that have had a bar or bat mitzvah know that there is a lot of work and education going into this process. We feel the need to hold fast to our religion. Will someone who isn’t practicing Judaism threaten my Judaism by saying a prayer?
The children of many of my friends are becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I am familiar with the frequent scene of the parents and grandparents surrounding their young teenager, beaming with pride. I was thinking about this further. I know many families where the spouse does not practice Judaism but has agreed to raise the kids in Judaism. How do they feel during the blessings? Do they feel included, awkward, proud? Maybe a mixture of feelings and emotions? If there were a blessing from the parent who wasn’t Jewish, what would that look like? Would it be sacrilege to bless your child in their arrival in their Jewish adulthood?
As a Jew, I want anyone standing on the bimah during a simcha to feel joy! I don’t want anyone to feel excluded or simply tolerated. I want them to feel WELCOME! So now, I look at this from another perspective: the parent who is not Jewish, standing in front of the Jewish community, blessing this event is equivalent to saying, “I was not raised Jewish, but I am proud, thrilled, and elated that my child is entering into Jewish adulthood. I fully support this choice and my child.” To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their child’s Jewish journey – how great is that!?
Do I feel threatened that someone who isn’t practicing Judaism is saying a prayer and including themselves in the Jewish community? Not at all. In fact, I am elated that this parent is allowing and encouraging their child to be Jewish! While I know some of the movements are having trouble “moving” forward toward adapting to interfaith issues within our American society, it is critical that they work to keep those that want to be Jewish.
I will be attending two bar/bat mitzvahs this weekend, and I know that I will be thrilled to witness each child stepping into the role of being a Jewish adult. I love Judaism and am delighted to see someone make the choice to practice Judaism. I think that their parents should be allowed to bless their child’s arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, L’chaim and WELCOME!
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.
In the breakout session I led about preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, one of the participants was a grandparent who said that he would be helped by talking points for grandparents like him to communicate respectfully and informatively to their adult children about why different parts of Jewish life, including bar/bat mitzvah, are important to them. Sometimes we feel things in our hearts but have trouble articulating their importance.
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.
We speak a lot about the importance of welcoming interfaith families to organized Jewish life. Congregations contact us to think about how they welcome people to their community. From the messages and images on a website, to the way the phone is answered, to what happens to couples calling for help with interfaith life cycle events, to language used on flyers, community organizations work at making the barriers to entry easy to cross.
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking at an Episcopal church down the street from where I live. I have gotten to know their minister, Reverend Elizabeth Jameson, who holds office hours at our local coffee shop. There are interfaith families who are members of the church, and I was excited to speak to them and other interested people about how they could explore Judaism, especially with their children.
Worship was scheduled for 10:00-11:00 and was followed by my session. I decided to come for worship so that I could get a sense of the culture and feel of the community. When I walked in, members of the church greeted me and handed me the service booklet. The service had many elements that were familiar to me: responsive readings, songs (the service booklet included the words and music so that it was easy to follow the tunes even though I don’t read music), sitting and standing. The biblical reading was done dramatically with different congregants taking on different speaking roles. The sermon was about finding that space in life of safety, calm, and peace. They printed a welcome message to me in the booklet and Reverend Jameson welcomed me aloud during the service. There was also a time for everybody to greet the people near them. The coolest part of the worship for me was that the Shema, in Hebrew, was part of their liturgy for Lent. A parent who had taken our first Raising a Child With Judaism class was the soloist in the choir who lead it. This was a small world moment for sure! By and large, this community did everything possible to make me, a newcomer, feel welcome.
With all of this said, I didn’t feel totally comfortable because it was my first time there. I wasn’t always sure where we were in the booklet. I didn’t know what was coming next. Some of the rituals were totally new to me. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of some of the images I saw. I was a little nervous. Being Jewish and attending the service dictated which of the passages I felt comfortable saying or not saying. I was wondering the whole time if I was getting a glimpse into what someone who was not raised Jewish may feel the first time they attend Jewish worship or holiday celebrations.
Maybe rather than wordsmith mission statements behind board room doors, synagogue leadership should spend some time in other houses of worship. We are coming up to Passover, our holiday of freedom in which we think about the stranger in our midst. Try being a stranger and see how it feels. This may be the best way to really know how to welcome the outsider in.
Recently, a friend of mine told me about her experience as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage of 20 years. She wrote:
Some people have been dubious that welcoming works, but my friend’s experience is the perfect example of why welcoming can and will ensure the future of the Jewish people.
Welcoming interfaith couples is so incredibly important, I’d actually say that it’s critical. Looking at the statistics, it’s not surprising that interfaith couples are a large component of our Jewish communities. Not investing in programming for interfaith couples is a decision the Jewish community cannot afford to make. It would be akin to recognizing that children and youth make up a large component of our community, but not offering any programming or outreach to them.
The good news is that many organizations understand that we need to welcome and embrace interfaith families. There has been some improvement over the years, but it is still happening in stages and could go further. Some organizations are saying the right things and beginning to market appropriately to interfaith couples, but their work is not yet done.
Recently, a Jewish professional said that their Jewish educational program was very welcoming to interfaith families. She did not think that there was a need for any additional interfaith sensitivity training in their organization. Yet, a week later, a child in that program told her mother that she wasn’t part of the chosen people because she was not Jewish — a message she internalized during her Jewish education. There is always room for improvement.
What steps should an organization take to be more welcoming? Here are some ideas:
A lot of progress has been made, but there is much more we need to do. Saying that your organization is welcoming is a good first step but implementation is never a task that is fully complete. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions on how to attract and retain interfaith couples in your organization. We look forward to working with you!
Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30. More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.
There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.
I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:
The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.
The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.
I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.
However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.
You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.
What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?
And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.
Thanks for the publicity! Did you see the article from j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California?
By way of intro: