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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, IFFâ€™s 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 IFFâ€™s advocacy work, subject to Jodiâ€™s direction. My passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community is unabated, and there is much work to do.
But I wonâ€™t be the person in charge.
This transition is a milestone in a carefully thought out plan developed over the past three years with InterfaithFamilyâ€™s 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 IFFâ€™s 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 â€śget outâ€ť when successor CEOs take over. Itâ€™s called the â€śgraceful exitâ€ť strategy. We are following a minority view, whatâ€™s called the â€śmutual successâ€ť 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 â€ścustomerâ€ť 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 â€śchange the paradigmâ€ť on intermarriage to the positive. That funder group said that three things were needed: a â€śworld classâ€ť 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, â€śI want that in the Bay Area.â€ť 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. IFFâ€™s 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 InterfaithFamilyâ€™s success and growth possible. Iâ€™m 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, IFFâ€™s 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 IFFâ€™s growth would have been possible without her involvement. Fortunately, Heather and Jodi have developed a great relationship, making me even more optimistic about IFFâ€™s future.
I recently went to B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp to conduct a Sensitivity Training on being respectful of kids from interfaith homes with Rabbi Robyn Frisch for the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) Kallah program. It was exciting to meet teenagers from all over the world attending this program where they can study about Judaism and learn how to work with groups of their peers. These teens are the future leaders of colleges, of non-profits and of businesses.
We began our training with a discussion of whether the teens participating ever felt â€śdifferentâ€ť in their community. The conversation then moved to the topic of different ways to handle potentially awkward situations regarding interfaith families. The teens had great ideas about respecting one another and not criticizing others even if they saw someone criticizing another peer. We were very impressed when one of the teens talked about creating a program to alleviate some of the ignorance that was occurring around them.
We then discussed how even if you don’t know all the answers, asking questions can educate you and empower someone who might feel awkward or not included. The process of asking questions can make someone go from feeling vulnerable to proud of their situation. We all agreed that an awkward situation can become a learning opportunity if people use non-judgmental questions to deflate the tension.
The teens were so incredibly respectful to us and one another. They were very welcoming regarding interfaith and diversity issues. We discussed awkward situations that might happen in school or with new members of BBYO. We all agreed that respecting others and even respecting the person who may be less educated/more judgmental is vital.
I clearly remember being a participant at this program many years ago and have many fond memories. I remember being exposed to many new concepts and finding my voice as a Jewish teen. The BBYO Kallah program is a unique leadership opportunity for all teens looking to explore their Jewish heritage. I hope that InterfaithFamily helped these teens find their voice regarding interfaith issues.
Nestled within Bostonâ€™s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyanÂ (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shulâ€™s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are itâ€”the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not.Â From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shulâ€™s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.
Our Board member, Lydia Kukoff, in Radical Choices: Conversion and Leadership, concludes:
The issue includes many other points of view and is well worth reading!