What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming

The following is a guest post by Gina Hagler, reprinted from her blog, Musings of Ruth

WelcomeI’ve been part of the interfaith community for many years. I’ve felt comfortable, uncomfortable, welcome, tolerated, and most points between on the spectrum. I can tell you which things left me feeling more or less comfortable. I can even give you a definition-in-progress of what I would consider a welcoming congregation. What I hadn’t thought of before last night, is how many aspects of welcome are universal.

Why are we making it so complicated when we sit together as Jews to assess how welcoming our congregations are? Why are we trying to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – especially others who are coming to us from a world view we have not experienced firsthand? Why are we making this such a Herculean task?

Perhaps we should first think about what has made us feel welcome in new experiences. We’ve all been the fish out of water at one point or another. What made it less painful? What eased our introduction? What made us feel we could return? What made us want to return? Why isn’t this our simple first step to understanding how to put “strangers” at ease.

While I was still shaky in my Jewish identity, I took my kids up to New York several years in a row for winter break. I wanted to take them to services but I certainly didn’t know any synagogues in NYC. I wasn’t that confident that I would know exactly what to do once I got into the synagogue, but I wanted my kids to see that the services they participated in at our temple had elements in common with services at all synagogues. I did a search on synagogues in Manhattan and found Central Synagogue.

From the moment the site opened, I knew this was where we would go. The tone of the site, the readily available information, the pride the synagogue had in its history — all lent itself to the implicit expectation that of course we would want to visit and of course we were welcome. We went and sat in the way back – clearly newcomers and clearly not your standard Jews since 2/3 of the kids were Asian. People turned around to smile at us. Someone approached us to ask if we needed a Siddur as he held one up for us to see. He told us we were welcome to join them downstairs after the service for an Oneg made up of simple food.

Within five minutes of entering the building, we had been informally welcomed, given what we needed to participate if we chose to in a way that did not assume we were familiar with the object, and invited to something we may not have known about in a way that explained all we needed to know to feel bold enough to check it out. My kids felt right at home. They were delighted to hear prayers they knew and to be able to join in. They were thrilled to hear tropes that were familiar. There was no way they were leaving without the Oneg. They met some other kids. Several adults made it clear I was welcome to join in their conversations. Ever since, we make it a point to attend services there whenever we are in New York.

This synagogue was not specifically trying to attract interfaith families, or even families from ambiguous or undecided Jewish backgrounds. They were trying to attract those interested in a Jewish life, without making a distinction between faith backgrounds. As strange as it may seem, I felt more immediately welcome at that temple than I have at any other temple I’ve visited. I’m convinced it is because they were genuinely proud of what they had to offer and genuinely happy to have us.

Maybe when we’re trying to decide how to make someone comfortable at our temple, we should start by thinking about what makes us comfortable and ask ourselves if our congregation is welcoming anyone – Jewish or not – in such a way. Maybe the first step in making people feel welcome is to be welcoming.

More Debate

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a very eminent Jewish scholar and leader, has the next say in the “promoting in-marriage” debate, with The Facts On In-Marriage Advantages. He says we should engage in “truth telling” with that they will increase their chances of having Jewishly engaged children if they marry other Jews.

We were heartened to see Rabbi Greenberg say that his intended message is that  “Whoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.” The problem is that Rabbi Greenberg thinks that we can promote in-marriage and still convey that intended message, and we think he is very wrong about that.

Jodi Bromberg and I submitted this letter to the editor of the New York Jewish Week:

With enormous respect, we have never known any advocate of in-marriage to convey Yitz Greenberg’s “intended message” that “Whoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.” Proponents of in-marriage don’t typically stop at “your chances of having an active Jewish life are increased if you marry a Jew,” followed immediately by “warmth and assurance of welcome no matter what,” which might work. Instead, they insist on saying that in-marriage is preferable – read, intermarriage is bad – or that in-marriage is a Jewish norm – read, if you intermarry you are a norm-violator. That is a terrible turnoff to most young Jews – especially to the majority of young Reform Jews whose parents are intermarried. It is unnecessary and destructive to mount a campaign to promote in-marriage as justification for the “intense educational and magnetic experiential programs that enrich lives” that all of us want. As Rabbi Greenberg himself notes, those programs often include substantial numbers of interfaith families – and they could include many more, if marketed not as promoting in-marriage, but rather the joy and meaning of Jewish life.

Learn About Your Partner’s Heritage

Even if You Don’t Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partner’s Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes

Intro classWhen I was in rabbinical school in the late 1990s and in the years following my ordination in 2000 I had the great pleasure of teaching the Reform movement’s 16 week Introduction to Judaism class. I found it incredibly rewarding to have the privilege of exposing my students to the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice. While a few of the students in my classes were Jews who wanted to learn more about their religious heritage, the vast majority of students were not Jewish but had Jewish partners and they registered for the class because they were considering becoming Jewish. In those days, like today, many Reform rabbis required that conversion students with whom they were working take the Intro class as one of the requirements for conversion.

At the first class session, I would always invite the students to introduce themselves and to share why they had signed up for the class. Often, after saying a few words about himself, a student would say:  “And I plan to convert once I’ve completed this class.” Sometimes, the student who said this had been married to a Jewish person for years, raised Jewish children, been a part of a synagogue community and already knew a lot about what it mean to be Jewish. In those cases, the Intro class was the final step in a long process, and the person speaking truly knew what was involved in choosing to become Jewish.

Other times, the student who said this was someone who was dating or perhaps was engaged to someone Jewish, but he admittedly knew very little about Judaism. In those cases, I would encourage him to have an open mind and to learn as much as possible about Judaism—both in and out of class—and to defer making any decision until he had a better sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Then, if living a Jewish life was truly compelling to him, conversion would be the right path for him to take.

As a rabbi—and as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the world—I think it’s wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many b’tei din (rabbinic courts) for people becoming Jewish, and I have always found the experience to be incredibly powerful. It is truly an honor to be part of a person’s process of becoming Jewish—as long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reason—that is, because she truly wants to be Jewish…not because her partner, or partner’s parents, want her to be Jewish. To me, serving on a bet din where someone is converting for the purpose of making a partner or other relative happy would be a mockery of the conversion process. Which is exactly why I would tell students in my Intro class who were just beginning to learn about Judaism: “Take your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.” And even if the student who was dating, engaged or married to a Jewish person never made the decision to convert, they would have learned about—and presumably developed a greater respect for—their Jewish partner’s religion in the process of taking the class.

Ten to 15 years ago, when I was teaching Introduction to Judaism classes, there were lots of students in the classes. I think that this was in part due to the fact that the liberal Jewish community put a lot of pressure on Jews marrying people of other faiths to convince their partners to convert to Judaism. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Thanks to the work of many individuals and of organizations like InterfaithFamily, the liberal Jewish community has become more welcoming to interfaith couples and families. Parents who aren’t Jewish—even if they are actively practicing another religion—can be part of their Jewish child’s religious upbringing…not just driving their children to and from Religious School, but learning alongside their children, participating in synagogue and Jewish communal activities and having a role in their Jewish children’s lifecycle events. Perhaps that explains why some of the Introduction to Judaism classes near where I live in Philadelphia are having trouble attracting enough students these days. Conversion to Judaism, and the intro classes that are an essential part of the conversion process are no longer seen in many liberal Jewish circles as the “necessity” that they once were.

However, just because someone whose partner is Jewish does not intend to convert, and may intend to continue practicing his or her own religion, I don’t think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movement’s Introduction to Judaism or other similar class. In Philadelphia, for example, the Conservative Moment sponsors the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which offers a 30-week Introduction to Judaism class twice yearly to learn about Judaism. There’s tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partner’s religious heritage. For example, in a recent blog, InterfaithFamily wedding blogger Anne Keefe writes about how she, a practicing Catholic, is taking an Introduction to Judaism class not because she is thinking about conversion, but to learn more about her fiancé Sam’s religion.

I would encourage anyone who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner to consider learning more about Judaism. Similarly, I would encourage any Jewish person in an interfaith relationship to learn about their partner’s religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partner’s religious heritage.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you are in an interfaith relationship. If you are not Jewish but your partner is, have you taken an Introduction to Judaism or other similar class? If so, what was the experience like for you? If you are Jewish, have you taken a class to learn about your partner’s religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partner’s religious beliefs and traditions?

Kudos and For Shame

As we mentioned last week, the “let’s promote in-marriage” debate has reignited, and we weighed in with Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Reform movement, has weighed in with an important op-ed on JTA, Outreach to Interfaith Families Strengthens the Jewish Future. We offer kudos for thoughts like this:

While other voices will surely proclaim that endogamy is the only effective way to have a committed Jewish family, the Reform movement has something altogether different to say: Jewish commitment can be established in a variety of settings, especially with support and increased opportunity for learning and engaging. Falling in love with someone who is not Jewish is not a failure of Jewish commitment at a time when young adult lives are just beginning.

But to Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Leon Morris, we say “for shame” for their Did Moses Intermarry? Who Says He Did—and Why Do They Want To Know? Cohen and Morris certainly are entitled to take the misguided position that Jewish leaders should encourage in-marriage. But it strikes me as twisted and shameful to criticize those who want instead to promote Jewish engagement by interfaith families for holding out Moses and Tzipporah, among others, as Biblical models of interfaith couples who contributed to Judaism. The people in the “promote in-marriage” camp profess, however reluctantly, to want to engage in Jewish life those interfaith couples who do marry, but their readiness to take away these positive role models for that engagement reveal the very low priority they would give to those efforts.

Two related kudos: to our friend Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for publication of his new book, Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future. And to the Forward’s Nathan Guttman for his article, Rabbis Shift To Say ‘I Do’ to Intermarriage, which quotes at length Rabbi Daniel Zemel and Rabbi John Rosove, both of whose writings on officiation can be found on our site.

He Will Be Missed: Remembering Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr.

All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.

Edgar BronfmanEdgar had a powerful wonderful personal impact on our organization. He was a true pioneer and visionary for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgar’s attitude and foreshadowed all of his future efforts in our field: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews.

Back in 2008 I wrote that InterfaithFamily, which started as an independent non-profit in 2002, had plateaued at a funding level of $375,000 until 2006, and that I had given serious thought to closing IFF because of lack of funding support for our cause. But a tide turned in 2006, and we raised over $500,000 that year, and over $800,000 in 2007. How did this happen? Because Edgar Bronfman was the key catalyst. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder that year.

We enjoyed support from Edgar and SBF for many years after. I’ve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isn’t meant to be a place for grant-seekers to seek grants) once: because Edgar and SBF sponsored a reception at which we spoke about IFF. And I had two memorable lunches with Edgar at what I understood to be “his” table at the Four Seasons.

More important than his impact on InterfaithFamily, though, was his impact on the cause of engaging interfaith families. The importance of welcoming interfaith families was the centerpiece of his important 2008 book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance. Edgar’s son, Adam, has also been outspoken in the past on the same issues, with coverage in a 2007 JTA article, and in a speech at the 2008 GA.

But the sentiments that Edgar Bronfman spoke so explicitly and repeatedly about welcoming interfaith families have sadly been rare among Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone of Edgar’s stature who has been willing to forcefully assert the critical importance of engaging interfaith families to the liberal Jewish future. When the Pew Report generated huge discussion in the Jewish world starting this past October, the voices of the leadership of the Jewish community seemed to all be delivering the tired old “stem the tide of intermarriage” message.

No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:

If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

 

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

We can only hope that some Jewish leader somewhere will pick up the mantle Edgar has left behind and continue to champion the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

We send our condolences to Edgar’s family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.

Synagogue Can Be Your Second Home

My children are too at home at our synagogue. Their dad is the rabbi there and they feel that his office is their play place. They know every inch of the building, including where to find snacks that aren’t theirs to take. They know the staff. They feel comfortable expressing themselves during services. I have been thinking about how many other places we frequent and what this says about our lifestyle.

We know the supermarket well. Other parents think I’m crazy for schlepping (Yiddish for dragging) my 4- and 6-year-olds to go grocery shopping, but we basically enjoy the weekly trip. One or both of them ride in the cart and we eat as we shop. We follow the same path each week and we take the same items. Sometimes a new product appears and we examine it which can be fun and guess at whether we will like it (especially if it is in the gluten free section as our 6-year-old has celiac disease). We have our favorite check-out cashier and my kids love to say “hi” to Miss Sandra and pretend that they are shy.

The preschool and elementary school are also like extensions of our home. My kids are proud to show me around when I’m there. They point out artwork on the wall, we schmooze (Yiddish for small talk) with the school staff, and they reminisce about what happened in the gym that day or on the playground.

Food shopping

Food shopping is an activity

Then there are other people’s homes. We are lucky to have cousins who live nearby: Aunt Stacie and Uncle Bill’s house is a comforting, familiar place to visit. The kids know how it works there as well. They take off their shoes in the right spot, they know what they can and can’t touch, etc. They look forward to the different toys and activities that they encounter there. And of course, the people in the home seal the deal for loving this stop.

Two last places we frequent a lot (I’m embarrassed to admit on a weekly basis) are both Target and Party City. They know the aisles there perfectly. They know which stops they want to make first and they always have a treasure in mind that they have been dreaming about.

I wonder about how many “normal” (non Rabbi-Rabbi families) think of a synagogue as a home away from home? Do you walk in and know where to go? Do you know the staff and do they know you? Do you know where to hang your coat, where the bathrooms are and when the building is even open? Would you ever think of stopping in at a time other than for services or Sunday School or Hebrew School?

You could come to read a book in-between meetings or appointments. You could come sit on a couch and do homework in a quiet and cozy spot with a child between afterschool activities. Dare I say, you could stop in to say hi to the educator and clergy! You could check out the flyers you may have missed, see what upcoming events are happening and read the Jewish magazines that are typically on display.

Synagogues are usually open during regular business hours. Stop in! Stay awhile. Say “Shalom.” Bring your kids. Feeling comfortable and familiar in a spot breeds connectedness and warmth.

Creating Thanksgivukkah Memories with Beyond Bubbie

This is a guest post by Dina Mann

Turkey brined in Manischewitz. Check.
Sweet potato latkes. Check.
Cranberry dreidel mold. Check.
Pumpkin Donuts. Check.
Thanksgivukkabob. Check.

Thanksgivukkah has been the butt and the pride of the media in the past few weeks. From Conan O’Brien’s Dreidel Turkey to the worst Thanksgivukkah foods on Bon Appetit to Stephen Colbert’s denouncement of a two holiday solution. There was even a show that combined Chanukah and Halloween in a spoof worthy of a good chuckle.

Thanksgivukkah has highlighted the endless possibilities in combining two holidays that give a great amount of civic pride to Jews in America. But now that the table is set with the dynamic duo’s crimson and blue settings, how will your family do something a little different to not only capture the wonderful foods but also the spirit of both holidays?

I propose bringing Bubbie into the conversation. Beyond Bubbie, that is.

Beyond Bubbie is a website that shares photos, recipes and stories from the people who made us who we are. Every Bubbie has a recipe and every recipe tells a story. Thanksgivukkah is the perfect time to share those stories and recipes at your table. Better yet, why not cook and bake the classic treats.

At a time in life when it is so hard for extended families to get together, make this Thanksgivukkah meaningful. Instead of simply going around the table asking, “What are you grateful for this year?” ask everyone what their favorite food memory is from your family. Pre-Thanksgivukkah, ask loved ones to share their recipes on Beyond Bubbie, tag your family name and have a place where your whole family can log-on for that cranberry brisket recipe or that Hanukkah lasagna.

Knish off

At the Beyond Bubbie Knish-Off in San Francisco

Looking for an activity for kids while the turkey is being basted? Grab Bubby Ruth’s Sugar Cookies and have a bake-off. Pre-bake the cookies. Display an array of various frostings and sprinkles and have kids go to town creating dynamic cookies and memories. Have the elders in your family judge the competition.

Not into football? Ask everyone to bring an old family photo and set up a quasi-gallery in your living room. Give grandchildren the opportunity to digitize these memories by taking photos with your smart phone. Photos and stories can then be shared on Beyond Bubbie.

There is no time like the present to give the present of culinary memories. Making the foods that warm your stomach is one thing, but making food that pulls at your heart strings elevates this once in a universe occasion to a whole new level.

Dina Mann is the National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot. Please email Dina@Rebooters.net with any questions about Beyond Bubbie and ways to bring it to your community.

The Welcome Mat: Interfaith Family Shabbat

Open doorMany synagogues are holding their programs for Interfaith Family Shabbat this week and weekend. It is exciting to see the variety of programs that synagogues have created for this event. Some synagogues are having special movie screenings, others are hosting beginners’ services. One local synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple, was very creative and hosted a program entitled “Interfaith Family Shabbat Honoring our non-Jewish Spouses, Partners & Family Members: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Services (or anything Jewish) but Did Not Know Who or When to Ask.” This program invited all participants to email the Rabbi with any question prior to the service in which he would do his best to answer them. It was inspiring to see how many synagogues took advantage of the opportunity that Interfaith Family Shabbat provides to create a special program to re-energize their welcoming culture.

Conversely, a few synagogues said that Interfaith Family Shabbat doesn’t apply to their community because they are always welcoming. Without question, it is great to be committed to being welcoming throughout the year, but this is similar to celebrating Mother’s Day. We should always appreciate mothers but it is meaningful to moms everywhere to have one day when they are recognized. For an interfaith couple, a blessing or recognition of interfaith couples and their commitment to Judaism is inspiring to many who have chosen to support their spouse in Judaism.

In a society where we define ourselves with labels, welcoming of various groups will be critical. Some consider themselves “Jews” while others are “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” etc.  As long as we use labels, the need for constant and frequent welcoming will exist. After all, we are talking about walking into a synagogue, considered a haven for Jews—it makes sense that when a person walks into a house of worship that isn’t familiar, they will feel slightly uncomfortable. Even Jewish people may feel awkward in an unfamiliar synagogue and certainly in any other house of worship.

Hosts should let people know where to sit, what page the Rabbi is on, explain Hebrew references, etc. Guests may not know when it is ok to take a bathroom break or when to stand, so a helpful host could guide them in this. Hopefully, after multiple visits, a visitor will feel comfortable. But those first few visits are always slightly awkward. We hope that there will always be visitors, thus there will always be a need for welcoming!

I attended one of the Interfaith Family Shabbat events. One of the speakers said that he and his wife were greatly hurt when the Rabbi from his childhood Reform synagogue refused to marry them. He said that this interaction was so painful that he now refuses to go to that synagogue. Ten years later, he is still quite emotional about this rejection. I know that this synagogue considers itself welcoming but obviously, this person is scarred from the rejection.

After the service, many people remarked that “this community has always been a welcoming community.” Yet, there were many congregants who seemed to be enlightened when the Rabbi said “Just because someone marries someone of a different faith, they are not rejecting their parents. They are not rejecting their childhood. They simply fell in love.” There were congregants who really began to see the other side for the first time and understand interfaith marriage from a more loving perspective. It seemed that during this service, we learned that we should be more than understanding—we should welcome all people into the synagogue with open arms. Welcoming is a constant effort.

Did you attend a program for Interfaith Family Shabbat? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Learn more about Interfaith Family Shabbat in Philadelphia here, and in other communities here.

42: The Jackie Robinson Story

I was asked the other day what challenges I anticipate as InterfaithFamily moves forward with our objectives. As the great baseball player Mike Lowell quoted his father saying, “There are many injustices out there. It is what one does with that injustice that will shape a person into the character that he will become.”

Our mission at IntefaithFamily is to “support interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and to encourage Jewish communities to welcome them.” Sounds pretty good to me. So what could be the challenge?

Sticking with baseball shaping character, let us liken the game of baseball to religion. It is a joyous and meaningful game indeed, filled with thrills and sorrows, wins and losses, struggles to overcome, questionable calls (look out for obstructions) and blessings and prayers (and come to think of it, there is even a God Bless America thrown in sometimes toward the end). But let’s play out this metaphor. Where is the challenge that I anticipate?

If religion is the game of baseball and every team is a religion, who gets to play? Who wants to play? Who “deserves” to play? Who “needs” to play? Who watches the game and who is participating? Were you born to play or did you fall in love with the game?

Jackie RobinsonI had the privilege of seeing the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story, a few months ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. It is hard to imagine that professional sports were segregated for so long and it wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the “colored barrier.” The movie does not hold back in depicting how many players, EVEN ON HIS SAME TEAM were unaccepting and prejudiced at first. Some resented Jackie for making a sport into “a political situation.”

One thing that becomes clear is that Jackie just wanted to play baseball. The world had things so very upside down back then. It was revolutionary at the time for an African American to play with whites on the same field. (And just as heartbreaking to see a world filled with segregated seating in the stands—but it was one battle at a time back then). Jackie had courage and valor that we all admire, and the kind of determination one needs to overcome the prejudice of the old world. There was an unaccepting nature of how things were that constantly challenged him.

I am lucky, for interfaith work is not new at all. There are many great leaders before us that started this work and I am lucky to be part of the growing conversation. Boston itself is often at the forefront of innovation and acceptance of interfaith relationships and has offered great interfaith programming for years.

The majority of people do not like to “make waves.” It takes courage to stand up for something that you believe in, even if it is unpopular at the time. Bringing it back to interfaith families, here is the kicker: There are more intermarried Jews than non-intermarried Jews. The obstacle is people who hold back and are so set in the “old ways,” that they fail to notice our own Jackie Robinson has joined our team.

It is intermarried couples who want to play ball. Jewish communities are enriched by diversity and a multitude of expressions and practices. Interfaith relationships are an opportunity not a threat to Jewish continuity. Collaboration with others is essential to the work that we do and open communication and education lead to understanding.

I hope that when times get tough and I meet those unwilling to see how Judaism is evolving and growing to be more inclusive and welcoming, that I will always remember good old number 42: Jackie Robinson, a hero to us all. The game has only gotten better and better and it is my prayer that everyone is ready to “play ball.”

Helping My Conservative Synagogue Find Balance

The following post is by guest blogger Jodi Rosenfeld from the Philadelphia area.

JugglingI sometimes feel like I am one of many circus performers juggling a variety of hats while the audience watches to see if I drop one—but the circus is my synagogue and the audience is my fellow congregants. My goal is not to make anyone laugh or watch in awe but simply to maintain the peace while moving the show forward in preparation for the next act.

At my small, century-old, Conservative synagogue in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I was the facilitator of the Interfaith Work Group, a group that met for many months for the purpose of clarifying and then codifying our synagogue’s policy on membership for interfaith couples and families. This means I had to wear and juggle my many hats at once. And for that, I had to learn about balance.

The Interfaith Work Group was born of a conflict. The conflict began when several interfaith families were preparing for their children’s B’nai Mitzvah and the parent who was not Jewish realized that, according to Conservative tradition, he or she was not welcome to stand on the bimah. Even the father who was not Jewish but who’d served on several committees, was an active part of the community and had studied Hebrew alongside his son, could not stand at the Torah with his wife when she said the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

Then there was an aufruf for a young woman and her fiancé who was not Jewish and, even though her family had been active members of the synagogue for 50 years, not only could they not be married by our rabbi, but they couldn’t come up on the bimah to receive a blessing. These interfaith families felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. So the Rabbi changed the rules; without crossing the lines of Halacha, she declared that the bimah was accessible to all—that the parent (who was not Jewish) of the Bar Mitzvah boy could stand at the Torah and that the young couple could receive the blessing on the bimah.

And then the backlash began. Some of the elders and more traditional long-time members of the congregation felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. For decades, they had poured themselves into “the way we’ve always done things.” They felt that these changes were a watering-down of Judaism. Some got angry. Some left.

The Interfaith Work Group was a small cross-section of all of the above constituents that came together to get the facts straight (from the Rabbi about issues of ritual inclusion and Halacha; and from the Board about issues of governance), and then to clearly articulate these policies through the synagogue’s website.

Was I the “right” person, with all those hats in the air, to lead this group? I am a psychologist, which means I am trained to observe everyone’s feelings, even those with whom I may disagree. I am a Reform Jew by upbringing, which means I am accustomed to inclusion. I am the granddaughter of an observant, Conservative Jewish man, whose tallis and tefillin I wear each week, which means he is with me, in my synagogue, even today. I am a Jew married to a Jew, which means I’m one of them. And I’m an activist who fights discrimination in all forms, which means I’m one of them. I am a proponent of change yet one who wants to preserve the past.

My learning about balance came from my utter failure at facilitating the Work Group. The facilitator needed to be impartial, to lead the group without taking sides. Despite my many hats, I wanted to forge ahead with change. I wanted both Jews and those who are not Jewish but who are part of Jewish families to feel fully included in all aspects of our community. I wanted all of the young, prospective interfaith families in Chester County to flock to us, to think, “Now this is the kind of Conservative synagogue I want to be a part of.” I wasn’t particularly balanced.

What I’ve learned is that if we want to evolve as a community, we all need to be empathic toward one another. Interfaith families want more inclusion of family members who are not Jewish not because they want to water down tradition, but because they want to be more fully a part of our rich Jewish heritage. Long-timers don’t resist these changes because they want interfaith families to leave, but because they have worked so hard to help the Jewish people thrive and they are afraid that change means loss. Change always means loss. But it also means gain.

Only by listening to one another and allowing ourselves to wear one another’s hats for a moment can we truly appreciate that this change is a process of growth for us all. The reality is that we all need to be jugglers—we need to understand one another’s many motivations, question the familiar and approach one another with kindness in order to truly facilitate the evolution of our Jewish population.

The product of our labor can be found here.

Is your synagogue struggling with policy issues and halacha? Do you have a policy document? Share your policies and experiences with our community. We can all learn from each other.