InterfaithFamily.com Welcomes Karen Kushner!

The Board and staff of InterfaithFamily.com are thrilled that Karen Kushner has joined us as Chief Education Officer. We are establishing a presence on the West Coast, with Karen in San Francisco, and want to extend a big and warm welcome to her and tell you about our exciting plans.

This development has been a long time coming. We’ve been talking with Karen for years about the possibility of working together, at least since the May 2007 conference IFF held for outreach professionals. Last fall we started talking with two foundations, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. They had been among IFF’s first funders, and later funded Karen’s work first with Project Welcome of the Reform movement, and then on her own as the Jewish Welcome Network. Both foundations made “bridge/planning grants” to support Karen’s ongoing work in the Bay Area until June 30, 2010 and to plan for a transition into IFF, and then made generous grants to IFF to enable us to bring her on board. Needless to say we are very grateful to our funders!

We issued a press release back on August 3 and our news has been covered in eJewishPhilanthropy, j the Jewish newsweekly of northern California, the (New York) Jewish Week, and Jacob Berkman’s Fundermentalist blog on JTA.

We think the media has been interested because the last few years have not been a time of growth in Jewish non-profits or in the field of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. We hope our growth is a sign of positive change!

The reason we felt this combination was a great strategic idea is that Karen has tremendous expertise in precisely the two areas where IFF wants to grow: Jewish education, especially for families with young children, and training of Jewish professionals and organizations on how to attract and engage people in interfaith relationships.

IFF has been recognized by others, most notably the Slingshot guide to innovative Jewish organizations, as the central web address for people in interfaith relationships who are interested in Jewish life. Our strength has been in personal narratives by people in interfaith relationships about how they resolve common issues. We started on our own to develop more “how-to-do-Jewish” resources, most notably our series of eleven Resource Guides, but it was clear to us that we needed to expand these resources based on what we heard from users, including in our 2007 online User Survey. Karen has extensive experience creating exactly these kinds of resources. She is the co-author with Anita Diamant of How To Raise a Jewish Child, and at the Jewish Welcome Network she created a series of booklets that will now be offered by IFF. Our long-term goal is to provide a comprehensive set of text, video and multimedia resources, and online classes designed to respond to the unique perspective of interfaith couples and to support their engagement in Jewish practices. No one is better suited than Karen Kushner to direct this work for IFF.

With respect to training of professionals and organizations, the InterfaithFamily.com Network helps many rabbis and other Jewish professionals publicize their and their organizations’ work with interfaith families; we have a Resource Center for Jewish Clergy that is the only cross-denominational effort to help rabbis work with interfaith couples including on the issue of officiation; and we have a Resource Center for Program Providers (which has never been staffed) designed to support program offerings for people in interfaith relationships. Karen has excellent relationships with rabbis – for example, at the request of the CCAR (the Reform rabbis’ association), she participated in leading sessions at their recent conference. Karen is ideally suited to strengthen the work of the RCJC and will direct the RCPP in offering resources, models, and trainings for Jewish professionals and organizations. We plan to become the central web address, not only for people in interfaith relationships, but also for Jewish organizations and professionals who work with them.

This is definitely a win-win combination. Adding Karen to our staff strengthens IFF’s ability to accomplish our mission to engage interfaith families in welcoming Jewish communities, and expands the reach of Karen’s skills and expertise to our national web based platform. We will be opening a new office in San Francisco, and have added to Bay Area residents, Paul Cohen and Nancy Gennet, to our Board of Directors. We’re in the process of planning an event in San Francisco on October 28 to celebrate!

I hope you will join me in welcoming Karen Kushner to InterfaithFamily.com and I’m sure Karen would love to hear from you – you can reach her at karenk@interfaithfamily.com.

Two Ways to Help InterfaithFamily.com

We are working with marketing communications consultants to help improve our messaging aimed at attracting interfaith couples and at making the case for welcoming them. The consultant, Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, is conducting a survey about interfaith relationships and current outreach efforts. They are particularly interested in input from people who have one Jewish parent and parents of interfaith children, as well as interfaith couples and professionals who work with them. Anyone who takes the survey is eligible for a drawing to win a $100 AmEx gift card! If you or others who you think might be interested want to take the survey, please go to http://www.interfaithfamily.com/about_u … rvey.shtml.

As announced in our June 22 email newsletter, our managing editor, Ruth Abrams, is going to be leaving us, so we’re looking to fill that position with the best possible replacement. Please check out the job description — if you are interested, please get in touch with us, and if you know people who you think would be interested, please forward the link to them.

One Way to Get It Right and a signal boost

How great to see another model of Jewish-Catholic intermarriage in a Chicago newspaper. Alexa Aguilar’s piece, Two Faiths Can Join To Make a Happy Family in the Chicago Tribune today, provides a welcome contrast to the debacle of the Reyes case, in which a divorcing couple fought over their child’s religious practice. Aguilar writes:

My husband is Jewish. I was raised Catholic. He went to Hebrew school, I went to Catholic school. He was a bar mitzvah, I received all my sacraments.

But we are two people who believe there are many paths to God, and who recognize that much of our faith is intertwined with our warm memories of childhood. When we decided to marry, we were intent on being a couple who would be open-minded and respectful of each other’s traditions.

I really liked the subtitle at the top of the webpage: “Interfaith marriage: One way to get it right.” Because there is more than one way to get it right, just as there are so many ways to get it wrong.

Aguilar’s family goes to Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors, the congregation where our frequent contributor Rachel Baruch Yackley has had a leadership role. (It’s more of a havurah than a synagogue so there isn’t just one leader.) That was kind of nice to see, too.

I also want to boost the signal for Hila Ratzabi‘s project, an anthology of pieces by women in Jewish interfaith relationships. She has a blog post up about it on The Forward‘s The Sisterhood blog–a nifty Jewish web resource I should mention in any case.  (I find the internet slang “boost the signal” oddly amusing, don’t you? It sounds so technical.)

My Cleveland Talk on Youtube

I gave a talk at Cleveland’s Siegal College on November 2, and they took video, which they’ve posted to Youtube. I made a playlist so you can watch the whole thing–gesticulations and all. It was a general talk on the state of interfaith families in the Jewish community, and most of the time was devoted to questions and answers.

Enjoy.

My Talk In Cleveland

I went to Cleveland to speak at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies about the current state of interfaith families in the Jewish community. I grew up in Cleveland and my mom earned a second BA in Hebrew Literature and a Master’s in Hebrew Literature at Siegal College back in the 1970s when it was the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the 1990s, after she’d completed her PhD at Case, they hired her to be the Dean. She retired as Dean of the College two years ago, but it’s still a very important place to our family.

In the morning I was invited to speak to a group of 25 Jewish educators and rabbis who meet regularly to talk about adult and family education issues. It was incredibly cool to have people there from all of the large and medium-sized Reform and Conservative congregations and the relatively new Reconstructionist synagogue. The Conservative synagogues are very creative about outreach. One of the Conservative rabbis disagreed about IFF’s approach and I am hoping to get him to write for us about it. There were also some educators from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and I got to meet Jeffrey Grover, an actor and playwright who has created a non-profit that does education on subject of interfaith families

In the evening I gave a longer presentation to 65 people as part of Siegal College’s fall series. (Only about half a dozen of the people in the crowd were my relatives, but they count–especially my father’s cousin Jo Anne Randall, who wrote a beautiful article for me about her interfaith marriage early in my tenure at IFF.) I got to meet more of the Jewish educators and outreach workers in the evening, too.

I also got to meet Elizabeth Meyer, who wrote My First Yom Kippur, and her husband. (I gave her a hug.) They are thinking of starting a group for young interfaith couples and I encouraged them to coordinate it through our site. If you have created such a group yourself, drop me a line–I would love to have an article about how to do that.

I spoke for an hour, showed off the website and took questions. The college staff took video that they are going to post on Youtube. I don’t have to summarize much, because you’re going to be able to see most of it, I think!

The crowd was very receptive to what I had to say. They were also funny. First one woman on one side of the room raised her hand to complain that I was being too positive. I said, “Well, I have a list of positive approaches, but I’m sure you’ll figure out from them what the problems are.” Then another woman on the other side of the room said, “You’ve outlined all the problems, how about some possible solutions?”

One of the comments from the audience–from a same-faith Jewish family who are South American–was about one their children being turned away from Hillel when he got to college because the person who met him at the door thought he looked Latino and therefore “not Jewish.” I remembered her son as a very small boy, it was kind of crazy when she came up afterward to tell me that he is now a PhD in Mathematics! It bothers me every time I hear or read these stories about people being effectively told to go away when they come into Jewish settings. Someday I want to do a David Letterman-style Top Ten list of what the Jewish community should not be doing if we want to retain and attract people! I do try to stay positive but sometimes it’s frustrating to know that a lovely kid like that could be turned away.

I have news for you

I have a few links for you and the first one is an interview with me. I know, it seems a bit solipsistic, but it’s kind of exciting to be interviewed by my hometown Jewish newspaper, the Cleveland Jewish News. They interviewed me because I’m going to be speaking on Monday night at Siegal College of Jewish Studies about interfaith families and my work at InterfaithFamily.com.

One of the things I want to discuss at the talk is how welcome for interfaith families can come from everyone in the Jewish community, regardless of denomination. I was thinking about this yesterday reading an article on Chabad preschools by Ellen Umansky on Tablet Magazine‘s website. One interesting aspect of the piece was how Chabad, which is a Hasidic Orthodox outreach group, is thinking about children from interfaith families:

The open-mindedness that characterizes Chabad’s activities in general is certainly evident at the schools. The directors I spoke with said they’ll admit any child whose family is interested in a Jewish education. “Look, I don’t like labeling. We have everyone; we have families with two mommies, we have everybody,” says Chai Tots’ Hecht. “We have families that, halachically, are they Jewish? No—the father is Jewish but the mom is not—but they want it, they want the Jewish school.”

It’s kind of mind-boggling to read the Jewish press on interfaith families. It seems that all these different groups of Jews–Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, secular–are quietly thinking about how to integrate interfaith families into the Jewish community while we simultaneously argue in public about how that can possibly work. It was fun to read Maskil‘s post to the Jerusalem Post blog on recent discussion of interfaith marriage. As he put it,

We need to reframe the issue. Rather than saying “Intermarriage is the greatest threat to Jewish survival, etc.,” ad nauseum, we should be saying “integrating the intermarried into our communities is our greatest challenge, and our greatest need.”

I’m really looking forward to discussing this with people from my hometown.

Slingshot

We’re very proud and pleased to announce that for the fifth year in a row, InterfaithFamily.com has been included in Slingshot: A Resource Guide For Jewish Innovation.

The Slingshot guide is “an annual compilation of the 50 most inspiring and innovative organizations, projects, and programs in the North American Jewish community today.” It’s very prestigious, because hundreds of organizations apply, and a team of top foundation professionals evaluate them; being included gives a invaluable hechsher, a stamp of approval, to other funders who are looking to find and support innovative causes. To download or order a copy of the guide, click here.

The Slingshot guide was first published in 2005, and only twelve organizations, including IFF, have been included each year. In this year’s guide, the “five-timers” are featured with an introductory article about how organizations can grow and remain relevant to the next generation of the Jewish community. We are thrilled to be included with a group of organizations like Hazon, JDub Records, Jewish Funds for Justice, Jewish Milestones,Mayyim Hayyim, and Moving Traditions.

The Slingshot guide is produced by the Slingshot Fund, which has been hosted at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and is significantly supported by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. We were thrilled to receive grants from the Slingshot Fund in 2007, the year they first made grants, and again in 2008. We didn’t get a grant for a third year in a row, but want to congratulate the fine organizations that did, including our friends at Mayyim Hayyim, the Jewish Funds for Justice, Keshet, synagogue/:2eyoxwqz">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and Footsteps.

Each year there is a “Slingshot Day” which brings together most of the organizations included in the guide and many funders. This year’s Slingshot Day was last week on October 15. There were great plenary sessions with leading thinkers from both the non-profit and for-profit worlds, including Leslie Crutchfield, author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Non-Profits, Phillip Holmes, LA Director of Blue State Digital, Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, and Adam Werbach, author of Strategies for Sustainability. There were also great breakout groups; I attended one lead by Sarah Meyer of the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation and Nancy Schwartz Sternoff of the Dobkin Family Foundation on “Defining Innovation.” Slingshot Day is a great networking opportunity, not only because of the excellent presenters, but also for the relatively rare opportunity it affords for non-profit leaders to connect with each other. We’re very fortunate to be included.

IFF Wins a Rockower Award

InterfaithFamily.com is a member of the American Jewish Press Association, which sponsors an annual conference and a journalistic competition, the Simon Rockower awards, every year. The staff at the AJPA let us know we would be receiving a Rockower Award months before I went to the AJPA conference in Chicago last week, but we didn’t know which item we’d submitted for consideration had won. Was it one of the two personal essays, Letting Go: A Lesbian Mom Brings Her Son to the Mikveh by Johanna Hammer or Back Talk by Alina Adams, or was it the website as a whole? No one on our team at IFF could decide. At first the Hammer piece was a heavy favorite, but when I asked the staff to bet on the day I left for the conference, we were evenly divided.

Everyone at IFF was very pleased to win the first place award for the best website. Here’s what they said about us:

A fabulous resource site that answers the easy and tough questions surrounding an interfaith family life. The site is easy to use, accessibly written, and discreet when necessary. This site makes a valuable contribution to the Jewish community using technology.

We competed with other website-only publications; it was the second year the prize was awarded. Continue reading

IFF in the Boston Globe

Allow us to gloat: a week after making the New York Times, we were featured in a front-page story in the Boston Globe. Philanthropic Shift: Young Jewish donors go beyond traditional groups, by Sacha Pfeiffer, focuses on efforts by 20- and 30-something Jewish philanthropists to give money to different causes and organizations than their parents and grandparents:

Federations historically have “done really wonderful things, and they continue to do wonderful things, but they don’t reach out to my demographic very well,” said Jessica Warren, 27, a New York University graduate student whose wealthy family has a private foundation. “They’re so huge and amalgamous, and they don’t hit the niche interests that a lot of people my age have.”

This thinking has benefited organizations such as InterfaithFamily.com, a Newton nonprofit that provides support for relationships between Jews and non-Jews. It has struggled to raise funds from traditional donors.

In years past, “I was despairing of our ability to get any significant funding because intermarriage is a very controversial issue in the Jewish community,” said Edmund C. Case, the online service’s founder and president.

We were specifically noted because we were one of 50 innovative Jewish non-profits chosen for inclusion in Slingshot, a guidebook for young philanthropists. We were also one of the first eight recipients of grants from the Slingshot Fund.

IFF in the NY Times

It’s the first week of December which means only one thing: TV shows and newspapers are flooded with stories on the “December dilemma.”

Yesterday morning, the Today Show had a segment featuring Jewish-Christian couples and advice from Rev. Sherri Hauser, of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Irwin Kula, best known for his recent book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. One of the couples was Mark and Helena McMahon, who we know well from her great work as manager of the Interfaith Connection at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, an outreach program for interfaith couples. Interestingly, the segment made no mention of that fact. Among the few nuggets of wisdom: “Relationships and faith are living things, so expect them to change” (Hauser) and “Conflict is always an invitation to growing” (Kula).

In today’s New York Times, I was quoted in Julie Scelfo’s A Holiday Medley, Off Key. The article looks at the push-and-pull of holiday celebrations in interfaith couples, paying particular attention to ways in which the holidays can become a competition between partners. Continue reading