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Last winter, I received a request to fill out a survey from our friends at Keshet (working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the Jewish community) and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign, working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights).
The survey, known as the Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOIE), looked at the human resources side of Jewish organizations (were workplace policies and employee benefits inclusive of all?) as well as the activities of the organizations (do we include the LGBTQ community in our resources, programming, and other materials?). The first-ever HRC study indexing LGBT inclusion in a faith-based community, it looked at over 200 Jewish nonprofit organizations in North America.
Last night, here at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, Keshet announced the results of the JOIE.
On our old website (think back before we re-launched the site in August), we very prominently featured a GLBT safe zone notice on our homepage. On our new design, that same safe zone notice rotates through on our homepage. From our “Learning” navigation menu, you can get to our LGBTQ Resource Page, with helpful links and articles for LGBTQ interfaith families.
After some follow up questions and conversations, we were tipped off that we rocked the index. Last night that was confirmed. I’d like to think that we skewed the bell curve, but I realize that’s just wishful thinking…
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
We’re excited to announce that we’re growing and expanding! We just sent out this press release — let us know what you think!
I recently officiated a wedding in which there were only a few Jewish people there (and I was one of them). I had met the now bride a few years ago, when she came to me to study about Judaism. She had grown up with Christianity and as an adult was searching. She had always been interested in Judaism, loved the rituals and traditions, and felt she might be home with the people Israel. After a year of regular study, she went to the mikveh and formally cast her lot with the Jewish people. She lit the Sabbath candles and even taught in the early childhood room in the congregation where I was the educator.
A couple of years later, this Jew fell in love with someone who was raised Christian. She came to me again to officiate their wedding. I met with this couple several times to talk about the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and to unpack the Jewish wedding liturgy. This couple participated in InterfaithFamily’s Love and Religion — Online workshop. They were able to share with other couples about how they would weave Judaism into their lives and involve their Christian family in holidays and traditions. They had a small wedding of mostly family and almost everyone there were raised with Christianity.
When I stood with them under the chuppah and explained to all present about what they were going to see and hear, my fear was that it would feel anthropological in nature. That people were observing a Jewish wedding but would not be able to participate in it themselves. I was wrong. All present understood the meaning of the open chuppah being a symbol of their home, open to friends and relatives with unconditional hospitality. All understood the symbol of sharing a sip of sweet wine to be a symbol of the beauty of creation and the beauty of what this couple was creating. All understood the seven wedding blessings to be about affirming the potential in human beings to combine love, wisdom and courage and to forge a life of joy and gratitude. All understood the breaking of the glass to be about the fragility of life and finding joy within sorrow. All understood that Judaism had become meaningful not only to the bride, but to her supportive partner and that it could be accessible and meaningful to their whole family.
What I hope for this couple is that they find a Jewish community that can also support them. I have directed them to Jewish communal institutions that provide fellowship and classes for couples just like them. I will encourage them to participate in an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by Reform Jewish Chicago. But it will be friends and Jewish lay and professional leaders who will help this couple sustain and strengthen their Jewish home and Jewish involvement.
I was meeting with Anita Silvert (who wears many hats in Chicago — she co-chairs Limmud Chicago (look for me there, details to come!) as well as directs a new program in Chicago called Chai Mitzvah). She was telling me today of her hopes to start a cohort of around eight people who are either in an interfaith relationship (either the Jewish partner or partner who isn’t Jewish) or people touched by interfaith families personally. This group would meet once a month to study Jewish texts and each would participate in social justice work throughout the year (serving a cause or charity of interest). Lastly, each would take on a new spiritual practice, guided by a mentor. As she was telling me about the program, she taught me a Rashi teaching from Numbers 5:8, “If a man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest…” Rashi, a medeival rabbi and important scholar, asks how an Israelite could possibly have no kinsmen, no family, no people. He concludes that this verse must be talking about the ger, a convert.
I could not believe how fitting it was that Anita shared this teaching with me exactly when I was thinking about this wedding of a Jew by choice. We need to make sure that all in the community have people, have kinsmen. That is our sacred and holy task.
If you would like more information about either our Love and Religion — Online workshop for interfaith couples or the Chai Mitzvah program, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m pleased to report that the New York Jewish Week has published my op-ed, What Draws Interfaith Families to Jewish Life. A considerably longer version is on the Huffington Post, A New Year To Engage Interfaith Families in Jewish Life.
Having just come off Yom Kippur’s intense period of introspection about the past and the future, it feels that the time is now right for this call for a new sustained effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community.
There’s an article in yesterday’s Miami Herald about a father and daughter. But it’s not your typical fluff piece. From a “traditional” Jewish family, they became estranged after she told him she was getting married — and that her husband was not Jewish.
Fast forward, and not only have the reconciled, but they now work together: Debbie as a cantor and her father as a rabbi. They’ve created a congregation with an explicitly welcoming message:
If you’ve just read the post Ari wrote this morning, wondering why more interfaith couples and families aren’t joining synagogues, it might be interesting to compare the two… Is the goal for people to “join,” or is the goal for people to be moved, feel connected to spirituality and religion? It seems this father/daughter duo have taken a different approach — and it’s working.
I’ve heard rabbis say that the most important part of the synagogue is not the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept but the front door. It seems that at the forefront of outreach techniques are ideas for synagogue staff and lay leaders for how to be welcoming, how to help ease the way into organized Jewish life. (Do we ever ask how we help longer time members bridge the gap between being welcomed new members and feeling at home?) In other words, when does needing to be welcomed begin and end?
You might ask yourself why there have to be manuals written teaching people how to be welcoming. The same ways we welcome guests to our home and host people at functions should translate into how we welcome people to our synagogue or community center. We smile, take someone’s coat, offer refreshments, and try to get to know the person. We talk about subjects of mutual interest, we suggest activities that would be engaging for all involved, we share news and ideas that we think the other person would enjoy hearing and learning about, etc.
Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily, wrote in a recent blog post about the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, the following:
This past year in Chicagoland, I have worked hard trying to spread the word about how to find and access welcoming synagogues and opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community. Yet, by and large, interfaith families are still not walking in the front door of congregations to join the synagogue as “regulars.” Many families come for a free, family holiday service but do not make the next step to join the congregation and enroll children in religious school. The following are questions I have which I am asking in a non-judgmental, sincerely curious way. If you have comments about any of these, please share.
Is the goal in all of this synagogue membership? I think there are lots and lots of ways people can engage with Jewish living that can be meaningful and fulfilling. But, this blog post is focused on this one question of what prevents people who take part in family holiday programs at synagogues and community centers from joining as members.
Originally written for Keshet’s blog. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in all facets of Jewish life.
The High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.
Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season — and all year long.
Here on four easy steps your organization can take right now.
1. Update your website.
2. Create a Welcoming Policy Document.
3. Make your inclusion visible.
4. Don’t assume.
For more information on making your synagogue welcoming and inclusive to all types of interfaith families, check out InterfaithFamily’s Resource Center for Program Providers.
There is a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study’s index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York’s, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism – or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.
Starting in December 2009, Interfaith Family’s annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. We’ve just published a report on the responses to those questions. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.
Interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Read the full report for the data and many comments to our open-ended questions.
The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:
That’s the approach we are taking in our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.