Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Last month, our Founder and CEO, Ed Case, presented at JFN2014: Jewish Funders Network International Conference in Miami, in a session called “Engaging Interfaith Families Jewishly.” It was a first for InterfaithFamily, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about such a critically important issue to Jewish life.
Weren’t there and want to know what you missed? Here’s an interview Ed did while at the conference that captures the “essence” of the session and what we spend our days thinking about: supporting interfaith families interested in exploring Jewish life.
The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.
The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.
Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?
What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?
OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.
But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.
The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky,the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”
So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?
Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we areour neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.
What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.
I recently attended a think tank talking about how to expand “our” reach to interfaith families, Jews of all hues and LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. This is the visual I made during the sessions.
Who is the “our?” Who do “we” want to reach and why? Do people want to be reached in this way and come in? In to what? In to whom?
Is the premise that the “in group” that wants these unaffiliated, differently engaged people to walk through “their” doors not the same as those outside? Thus, the in group has to learn about them and understand them so that they can welcome them better?
Relationships are based on learning about the other person, so in this way, asking questions and gaining insights into what some people in these categories consider offensive or inviting is helpful. Learning about situations that have caused pain and struggle can give sensitivity and background for when they will meet and speak.
Once people are invited in, is it to share the same experience as those already on the inside, or to help mold and shape a new experience based on the new voices and backgrounds present? Is there a core that has to stay consistent and unchanged no matter who comes in?
These were some of the questions we were grappling with. What do you think?
I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Dr. Beth Cousens, a creative and strategic thinker, who works with leaders in Jewish education and in Jewish life to help organizations ensure success. Her focus on strategic thinking, partnership and creative and relevant Jewish educational ideas have helped her to be a respected voice in the field.
She shared with us her insights about engaging and empowering young adults in Jewish life. Our focus was Millennials, ages 22-35, how best to serve them, engage them, and what to expect from their “engagement” with our institutions. For example, she explained that many Jewish young adults don’t know how to be Jewish, as adults. They don’t want to register or sign up. They are very interested in the answer to the question “What value is added to my life?” and they are very much looking for meaning. They don’t want to be segmented unnaturally; i.e. don’t offer Torah study for singles. Offer Torah study if you want to offer Torah study and welcome the singles! Or, offer a singles event. But don’t try to combine two things that don’t naturally fit together.
They are definitely looking for DIY Judaism. No longer can Jewish institutions and congregations “do Jewish” for their members. These young adults want to do for themselves! They need our organizations to help them learn how to do it.
She shared 5 calls to action:
Go to them. Help infuse Jewish content into their networks.
Stand for something. Help them live within the context of Jewish ideas. (If they are looking for friends, love, work, etc. they will go elsewhere. They come to Jewish institutions for Jewish content!)
Talk about and teach Jewish adulthood.
Organize around Judaism. (Can we have house meetings to ask them what they are looking for and work with them to create programming for them?)
Open our institutions: Create low barriers with high content.
I love the format of InterfaithFamily’s classes and workshops. Our mission falls directly in line with what these Millennials are looking for with our Love and Religion and Raising a Child offerings. We offer accessible and non-judgmental information so that interfaith families and those who support them can incorporate more Judaism into their lives. Check out our current offerings and stay tuned for changes to come in 2014!
What would you add to Dr. Cousens’ five calls to action?
I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.
In Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.
The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.
I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.
For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.
If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.
a logo for Humanistic Judaism
For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.
There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).
Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.
What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.
This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.
Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.
You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.
Recently, a friend of mine told me about her experience as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage of 20 years. She wrote:
When we got married, I asked the rabbi why it was ok with him that we were marrying and why he was willing to officiate at the wedding, and he replied, “Well, you are both good people, and I’d prefer to keep one of you than lose both of you. And maybe I’ll get both of you!” He not only kept me, we are raising three sons Jewishly. And my husband has a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for our Jewish traditions.
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:
Host a sensitivity training program for all staff about interfaith issues. (Contact network@Interfaithfamily.com to see if a free sensitivity training is available in your community.)
Host at least one event each year in a public space that isn’t seen as “Jewish.” For many, synagogues can be intimidating. Having an event in a secular setting lowers the barriers for participation.
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:
You live in the area.
Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.
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.
I love brainstorming ideas for Jewish education and engagement (outreach). One idea I’ve been tossing around is about supporting interfaith couples who have Jewish clergy present at their wedding or union. These couples are our future. These couples cared about and felt connected enough with Judaism to seek out (sometimes in a tough process) Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings.
What if every city’s Jewish community committed to supporting these couples for the first year (or two) after their ceremony? The time and resources spent continually working with these couples in meaningful ways would pay off ten-fold for the Jewish community — now and in the future.
What would this support involve?
Membership (I know — this is possibly an outdated model) at a congregation of their choosing. (We would hook them up with a Jewish professional who would get to know them and help direct them to a synagogue that would be a good fit.)
Full access to the programs at the local JCC.
A subscription series to the Jewish film festival, Jewish museum, and other cultural events for that year.
Maybe (gasp) send them to Israel as a honeymoon!?
Name and contact information on a magnet (are any refrigerators still magnetic?) for the marriage counselor at Jewish Child and Family Services.
Pay for them to take the Reform Movement’s Intro. To Judaism course or Taste of Judaism program, or Melton classes, or whatever level of continued Jewish education would be appropriate.
In exchange, we would ask them to volunteer and get involved with a Jewish social justice agency. Each segment of the Jewish community who tries to reach this age cohort (25-35ish) would decide what services they would most like these couples to know about and participate in. The couples would receive information about their options in a gift bag or maybe receive a link to a YouTube video made just for them, or something else creative (maybe an app for their phone which would keep them updated about programs and events that might interest them?). The different Jewish organizations would pay for the programs they would offer these couples.
The point would be that couples (whether interfaith or not) who wanted Judaism at this most sacred moment in their lives would be welcomed into the community with open arms. We would see their want for Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings as a sign that there’s more work for us to do. The outpouring of outreach to them would be a beautiful and overwhelming testament to the many ways to get involved in Jewish life and would present the rainbow of potential for each and every couple to gain meaning from Judaism and give back in significant ways.
The rabbi and congregation where I grew up never presented the messages that “you have to do XYZ” or “you aren’t Jewish if you do ABC.” I appreciate that. Instead, the rabbi encouraged us to learn what Judaism teaches, to explore the traditions, and to try on Judaism. If it fit, great! If it didn’t, try on different aspects of Judaism until we find what feels right for us.
What fits me may not fit you. What I’ve chosen in my life works for me and I don’t presume that it is what will work for everyone. Let me give you an example. I keep kosher. Sort of and sometimes. Yet some people may say because I added “sort of and sometimes” that I don’t keep kosher. OK, that’s their perspective.
I’m a vegetarian who will eat chicken broth in my soup. It works for me. I’ve had religious Jews tell me I should keep “more kosher.” And, I’ve had vegetarians tell me I shouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk. I don’t keep kosher for them and I’m not a vegetarian for others. I’m doing it for me in a way that feels good for me and that works for me.
InterfaithFamily supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Try something on. If it fits, wear it for a while. If it doesn’t, try something else.