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I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.
Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who arenâ€™t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.
One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she â€śheardâ€ť the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.
On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid â€śnonâ€ť in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying â€śnot Jewishâ€ť verses â€śnon-Jew.â€ť The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already â€śbelong?â€ť
One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:
I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a â€śmember.â€ť
Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.
Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.
As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesnâ€™t provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldnâ€™t pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.
Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didnâ€™t know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.
We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think itâ€™s because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that canâ€™t be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.
Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.
My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would â€śpay it forwardâ€ť since people had been so good to her.
There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you donâ€™t see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us atÂ email@example.com.
Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
Itâ€™s that time of the summer when we need to register for fall activities. This blog is a request to synagogues administrators, Jewish preschool and day school directors and program providers to look at your enrollment forms, preferably with a participant who isnâ€™t Jewish to figure out how to best ask questions to get the information that is needed and to leave the one filling it out with a sense that they are meant for this program.
When we ask people to fill out enrollment forms for religious school and synagogue membership and to sign up for Jewish programs, the forms may seem clear-cut and simple to us, yet feel frustrating to the person filling it out. We need to figure out what we want to know and then try to ask questions in a way to gather that information. We need to know what we want to do with the information we collect and let the person filling out the form know why we are asking the question so that they know what information to provide.
For instance, one question that congregations usually want answered on forms is whether the parents are Jewish and if not, what religion they grew up with or now identify as. Sometimes the choices are: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular, Traditional, Other. The â€śotherâ€ť category is for someone who didnâ€™t grow up Jewish.Â Maybe some wouldnâ€™t mind checking â€śotherâ€ť to describe themselves. I imagine some would feel other and different just from this seeming innocuous registration question.
Synagogues and program leaders may need to know whether the parents are Jewish for halachic (legal) reasons in terms of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. They may want to know this to better understand the make-up of the program or congregation. Maybe they will seek to bring together people with similar backgrounds.
As we all know, the simple question of: â€śState the religion of parent 1 and parent 2â€ť can be complicated.
Here is an excerpt of an email I received which illustrates the messiness and wonderfulness of this all:
â€śI was raised in a culturally Jewish household and have never received any religious education. My father was raised Catholic, but since marrying my mother has become very interested in the Jewish faith. We often joke he is the most Jewish out of all of us despite not being raised so. My partner was raised with slightly more religious Jewish education and went to a reconstructionist temple and attended some Sunday School and Hebrew school. She had a bat mitzvah but does not currently attend temple. Both of her parents are Jewish and her dad still attends temple for high holidays. Cultural traditions are more important to her then religious aspects.â€ť
We love simple labels and easy check-offs. This helps us with tracking and data entry. However, maybe instead of boxes to check and short lines to write answers to profound questions, we need to leave room on forms for people to call in their answers. The call-in option would connect the person registering to the teacher or leader so that they could engage in a conversation of meaning.
If you are a program administrator and help create forms, visit our Resource Center for Program Providers to find best practices in terms of enrollment forms and website language.
A Reform educator in town, Vanessa Ehrlich, wrote an interesting blog post recently. She spoke about how much she has enjoyed the one-on-one tutorial sessions the Apple Store provides. They are a safe space to ask any and all computer and technology questions and receive easy to understand information that is useful and relevant in a friendly and supportive way. She wonders in her post what synagogues can learn from this model.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago will be joining with Philadelphia and San Francisco from November 15-24 to bring Interfaith Family Shabbat to each community. Philadelphia has taken part in this program for over five years with more than fifty congregations and community centers offering a program of interest over this time frame to interfaith couples and families within their community which is open to anybody who wants to join in.Â The programs have told the interfaith families who have made a commitment to that synagogue that their presence is appreciated.
Acknowledging that interfaith families have added to our community and may have questions, concerns and approaches specific to having family who didnâ€™t grow up with Judaism and are now living with Judaism is important and meaningful to many. Some interfaith couples and families come in to a synagogue or community center for the first time as a couple or new family just to attend a unique Shabbat service or workshop because of the special invitation it provides.
Some congregations and the Jewish Community Center in Chicago are already planning their program for our first community Interfaith Family Shabbat. It may be interesting if some congregations offer â€śAsk a professionalâ€ť Â in which Jewish leaders can have a table set up under a tent or in a big room and people can come and ask the right person the questions on their mind.Â From Jewish cooking advice to spiritual parenting to Jewish mediation and ethical and moral questions to current events in Israel, what if there was an open â€śFind your answers hereâ€ť type of day?Â Or at least within Judaism, it might be a â€śGet more questionsâ€ť day as opposed to simple answersâ€”this could be especially true if one expert answers questions about theology!
Check at interfaithfamily.com/chicago for the events that are being planned already for this November (as well as events happening right now in Chicago of interest).
For the first time InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area had a booth at the Jewish Community Federationâ€™s annual Israel in the Gardens event. The event, which draws 15,000 people, once again took place at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, next to the Metreon and across the street from The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Israel in the Gardens brings together folks from across the community, Jews, their friends and allies, and sometimes just a passerby. There are also those who do not support Jewish causes and/or Israel, and they can be found picketing just outside Yerba Buena, easy to ignore once you pass through security.
Before the event, we prepared ourselves to respond to individuals who may not agree with what we do. Thankfully, we had only one individual who challenged our work (or their perception of what we do). The conversation remained cordial and he walked away.
Many visitors signed up for our bi-weekly eNewsletter and an online profile on our Network. They discovered the classes and workshops that we offer, including: Raising a Child with Judaism, Preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah with your Interfaith Family, and Love & Religion â€“ Online. They were pleased to find out that we offer a clergy referral service for couples getting married and those looking for Jewish clergy to officiate at lifecycle events.
The highlights were the many great conversations with interested folks. One person walked by and just gave us a thumbs-up sign. He didnâ€™t need to stop and talk, but wanted to show his support. Another individual walked by, stopped momentarily to say â€śthank you for doing what you do.â€ť One person stopped at our table to tell us his story of getting married to a wonderful woman 40 years ago, and the challenge they faced of finding a rabbi (back then). His wife was not raised Jewish and theirs was an interfaith wedding. They did find a rabbi, and were scheduled to get married at Glide Memorial Church with an Episcopalian Priest co-officiating. At the last minute, the priestâ€™s diocese would not allow him to officiate, so they were married by a rabbi in the church. Forty years later, they are still happily married. I wish the same happiness for all couples and InterfaithFamily is here to help you succeed!
Visitors took home Forget-Me-Not seeds so that they can â€śGrow with usâ€ť as InterfaithFamily/SF Bay Area continues to impact the community. We look forward to growing with you!
I am a day school kid. I didnâ€™t like learning Hebrew much but I didnâ€™t like school much either. I have some anxious Â memories of Hebrew verb conjugation from second grade in the 1970s. Through Jewish camps and youth groups, I learned to love Jewish music. I have since recovered from day school and have picked the parts of Judaism that I like and find that I am quite happy.
When it came time to think about a Jewish education for my own kids, I had some flashbacks. But I also have some fun memories. We would have lively gatherings of the Jewish kids in the community for various holidays. Later we had youth group activities and fun parties. I enjoyed being with the kids that I had known forever. I have many memories associated with Judaism that are not necessarily religious. I attended a leadership program in high school and much of it was just funâ€”the focus was not on religion but being a good person.
My husband and I have struggled with what to do for our own kidsâ€™education. We considered day school. We considered camp. We joined a synagogue with a reputable Hebrew school. We decided to enroll them in a Jewish camp. We celebrate the holidaysâ€”decorating a sukkah is a favorite for the kids (but tons of work for me and my husband). Everyone has their own path and we are navigating our way so that our kids enjoy Judaism.
I have spoken with many people who have had a Jewish education. They often say they hated Hebrew school or day school. Still, many of them enroll their children in Jewish schools. Though some Hebrew schools have made a great effort to ensure that the new generation of students have positive experiences, it makes me so sad that some Hebrew schools have turned people off to the joys of being Jewish.
So, for the future of the Jewish people, I encourage educators to make sure that kids are engaged in the Hebrew school experience. A fun Purim spiel can be entertaining for the whole family. Spirited music, cooking classes and dressing up in costume for holidays are all wonderful ideas. Letâ€™s encourage creative and fun ways to learn Hebrew. Decorate the sukkah and learn prayers with joy instead of dread.
Religious schools must bring Judaism into the 21st century in dynamic and fun ways. The educational system of the 1950s will not ensure the future of Judaismâ€”indeed, it can be detrimental. Many parents complain that their child seems to be a round peg and the Jewish educational system is trying to force the child into a square hole. A lackluster Jewish education will adversely affect the future of Judaism. Teachers and schools must adapt to the families of today, whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, interfaith, etc. Sensitivity to the families and kids is key. Accept families and kids where they are and help them on their own journey. Welcoming kids in the door and keeping them there with a smile on their face is crucial. The entire family should feel welcomed and engaged. Hebrew school should not be tortureâ€”there are so many positive aspects of Judaism and itâ€™s time to break the cycle.
Do you have a suggestion of something that your kids loved at their Hebrew School? Please post it in the comments below. Sharing your positive experiences is a great benefit to everyone.
I wrote a piece for eJewishPhilanthropy that was published today. Itâ€™s wonderful to see the attention that Jewish philanthropists are giving to inclusion of Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews, but I canâ€™t help asking: Are Interfaith Families Included in Inclusive Philanthropy? I hope to get some positive answers!
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation on April 28. Ed Case and I attended along with other representatives from fellow interfaith engagement organizations. Clergy and professionals from area organizations shared the work they are doing to welcome and engage interfaith families. Interfaith couples came to discuss their journey of Jewish involvement. Here are three points that I took away:
Language is Still a Challenge: For most of the conference almost every presenter and speaker referred to people who arenâ€™t Jewish who are partnered with a Jew as â€śnon-Jews.â€ť Finally, Kathy Bloomfield, a local Jewish professional, asked them to re-think this term as it can be offensive and hurtful to be described as a â€śnon-anything.â€ť She suggested using the phrase, â€śperson from a different faith,â€ť which speakers immediately adopted, one saying to Kathy â€śyou had real impact!â€ť An alternative I use, given that some people grow up with no specific faith or are not practicing another faith, is to just describe that partner as a â€śperson who is not Jewish.â€ť
It is Important that Couples Be Able to Find Wedding Officiants: One panel included a college student (himself from an interfaith home) who works for Hillel, an interfaith couple, and three rabbis (one Conservative, one Reform and one at a non-denominational synagogue). The college student talked about his work trying to engage students from interfaith homes in Jewish life on campus, the couple told their personal story, and the rabbis discussed how they work to reach out to interfaith couples. However, the conversation ended up centered on rabbinic officiation at weddings. The couple explained how painful and confusing it was when the groomâ€™s brother, a Reform rabbi, did not feel he could officiate at their interfaith wedding.Â One rabbi spoke about how when his brother intermarried in the 1960s his father disapproved, resulting in severe damage toÂ the familyâ€™s relationships; in fact he said the first time his brother said something nice about this father was when he gave a eulogy at his funeral. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf from Adas Israel, a major Conservative synagogue, described his new â€śkeruv aliyah.â€ť Keruv, a Hebrew word which means to draw near, is the Conservative movementâ€™s term for reaching out to interfaith couples and families. Aliyah means â€śgoing upâ€ť and can refer either to moving to Israel or coming to the Torah during worship for an honor. In his keruv aliyah, Rabbi Steinlauf has interfaith couples come up at a Shabbat morning service before their wedding for a blessing. Because Conservative rabbis are not allowed by their association to officiate for interfaith couples, this is a creative, bold and meaningful way to publicly honor in their community the unions of interfaith couples religiously and spiritually.
JCCs Can Be A Meaningful Address for Interfaith Couples: Several Jewish Community Centers in the Washington DC area are thinking creatively about how to engage interfaith couples and families in Jewish life. Many interfaith families do not â€śaffiliateâ€ť in the sense that they do not officially join a congregation. There are many reasons for this: Cost, fear/uncertainty about what to expect, apprehension about ever â€śbelongingâ€ť fully with a partner who isnâ€™t Jewish, wondering about whether the partner who isnâ€™t Jewish will be able to participate meaningfully in rituals and synagogue communal life, thinking that children will be treated as â€śless thanâ€ť if they have a parent who isnâ€™t Jewish, and more.Â Synagogues need to become cognizant of the concerns these couples could have and be able to address these concerns visibly and clearly so that barriers can come down and all can enter with ease and less anxiety.Â JCCs may be a comfortable first step to later synagogue membership, or they may be a long-term Jewish organizational home for interfaith couples and families to find community, programs of interest and learning. JCCs in Washington are now offering more ways for families to experience religious learning for children and ways to mark life cycle events. Because Jewish Community Centers can sometimes be more open with more flexible ways to engage, it seems a natural setting for interfaith couples and families to explore.
In the breakout session I led about preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, one of the participants was a grandparent who said that he would be helped by talking points for grandparents like him to communicate respectfully and informatively to their adult children about why different parts of Jewish life, including bar/bat mitzvah, are important to them. Sometimes we feel things in our hearts but have trouble articulating their importance.
It was inspiring to be part of a communal conversation aimed at hearing what is happening already and which will set the stage to determine next steps and figuring out the most effective ways to reach interfaith couples and families around Washington DC. It was affirming to see interfaith couples and families regarded as precious to the Jewish community, as present and future links to add to the chain of Jewish tradition.
Yesterday Ari Moffic and I had the privilege of participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washingtonâ€™s Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation with more than one hundred professionals and interested individuals. It was very affirming to hear the top leadership of the Washington Federation â€“ Steve Rakitt, CEO, and Stuart Kurlander, President â€“ express their commitment to engaging interfaith families in Jewish life in the DC Jewish community. Ann Bennett, the Chair of the program, and Marci Harris-Blumenthal, the Federationâ€™s Director of Community & Global Impact, put together a great program. Our friend Marion Usher played a key role helping to design and facilitate the program.
The program started with an interfaith couple telling about their Jewish journey, starting with Marionâ€™s Love and Religion workshop and continuing to membership in Adas Israel, a leading Conservative synagogue. Several organizations gave brief presentations about their programs and resources, including our own InterfaithFamily/Your Community, the DC JCC, 6th & I Historic Synagogue, JOI and its Motherâ€™s Circle program, the Federation of Jewish Menâ€™s Clubs, and PJ Library.
Next came breakout sessions on various topics â€“ I attended one Ari Moffic facilitated on preparing for bar/bat mitzvah. It was a great discussion â€“ the mother who started the program said she had recently received the date for her sonâ€™s bar mitzvah, I believe four years in advance; not having had a bat mitzvah herself, and with a husband who is not Jewish, she was already wondering how she would include her husbandâ€™s family. One participant pointed out the opportunity for parents who had not experienced bar or bat mitzvah to learn along with their child if they wanted to, including learning how to read Torah. We got some great ideas for additional resources to put on our Bar and Bat Mitzvah Resource Page that would help interfaith families prepare, ranging from lists of questions synagogue members should ask their synagogue professionals, to tips for parents thinking about whether or not to have a bar or bat mitzvah.
After a presentation about the play Love, Faith and Other Dirty Words created by the New Center for Arts and Culture, a panel described in Ariâ€™s blog post shared their interfaith experiences. Like Ari, I was struck by how much of the concluding conversation concerned rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples after an interfaith couple told of their difficult experience. It reinforced to me how important it is for communities to make it easy for interfaith couples to find officiating clergy.
All in all it was a great conversation and we are very much looking forward to the next steps the Washington community takes. The Federation is making some of the presentations available on a new page on its website: be sure to check out shalom.dc.org/interfaithresources.
As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! To the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!
I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.
When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.
I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.
My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.
I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.
Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.
What do you think? Could this work?