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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.
We run two online courses for parents in interfaith families. One course is for parents with young children, and the other course is for parents with 4th-7th graders preparing for bar or bat mitzvah, whether in the early stages of the process of anticipating the ceremony in the coming years.
Most of the families who read through our materials are members of congregations and are actively raising children with Judaism. Many congregations offer family education around bar and bat mitzvah, to help make this rite of passage more meaningful for the full family. Congregational leaders often bemoan low enrollment or seeming disinterest in different programs the synagogue offers, but when it comes to bar and bat mitzvah, the family is lined up for each class and program, not wanting to miss anything relating to this central event for their child and family.
When I ask clergy and educators whether interfaith families have their needs met around bar and bat mitzvah, I’m met with quizzical looks. “These families are Jewish, they are raising Jewish kids, and the material we cover in family education sessions address all of our family’s questions and concerns,” I am told. I wonder though, whether for some parents who aren’t Jewish or who are newer to Judaism if there is a safe space to talk openly about their feelings.
The following are three ideas to keep in mind when planning family sessions in a synagogue. In addition, if you are reading this and you do work with synagogue families, they can always access our free, online materials to supplement and enrich all they learn at the synagogue. Anyone can email me for help accessing our materials.
Sometimes a parent who was not born Jewish or who is newer to Judaism can feel a sense of loss around bar and bat mitzvah. The loss could stem from the reality that this child is not following in the religious footsteps they took (even if that parent had wanted to raise their child with Judaism and has been enthusiastic and on-board the whole time, these feelings can creep up out of seemingly nowhere and surprise us.) The loss can be because one may not feel they can fully participate for a variety of reasons (lack of Hebrew/Judaic knowledge, etc.) Of course, not every parent feels this way. But the point is to leave room if there are some who do.
Ritual Policy Explanations
Many families who celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in the synagogue have close family who aren’t Jewish. For some of these families, they will want and anticipate these relatives having a role in the service. For some families, they will wonder about the synagogue’s ritual policy. It can be very helpful to explain how the synagogue came up with its ritual policies and how everyone in a family can take a meaningful role in the service. This should be explained to all families, as most families today have relatives who aren’t Jewish, even when both parents are Jewish.
Connections with Extended Family
Some interfaith families may have questions about how to best explain the history of bar and bat mitzvah, to give this ceremony context as well as to articulate what it means to them that their child is experiencing this rite. When speaking with family members who aren’t Jewish and or are not as familiar with the process and ceremony, they’ll want to know how to explain the significance and the meaning. Directing families to inserts that can be placed in invitations as well as creating program guides can be reassuring and helpful.
When you think about the programs you attended in preparation for your child’s bar or bat mitzvah, or when you think about what you would want in such a program and experience, what would you be looking for? If you think it would be helpful, chances are other families would think so too.
We speak a lot about the importance of welcoming interfaith families to organized Jewish life. Congregations contact us to think about how they welcome people to their community. From the messages and images on a website, to the way the phone is answered, to what happens to couples calling for help with interfaith life cycle events, to language used on flyers, community organizations work at making the barriers to entry easy to cross.
What would your community feel like to a stranger?
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking at an Episcopal church down the street from where I live. I have gotten to know their minister, Reverend Elizabeth Jameson, who holds office hours at our local coffee shop. There are interfaith families who are members of the church, and I was excited to speak to them and other interested people about how they could explore Judaism, especially with their children.
Worship was scheduled for 10:00-11:00 and was followed by my session. I decided to come for worship so that I could get a sense of the culture and feel of the community. When I walked in, members of the church greeted me and handed me the service booklet. The service had many elements that were familiar to me: responsive readings, songs (the service booklet included the words and music so that it was easy to follow the tunes even though I don’t read music), sitting and standing. The biblical reading was done dramatically with different congregants taking on different speaking roles. The sermon was about finding that space in life of safety, calm, and peace. They printed a welcome message to me in the booklet and Reverend Jameson welcomed me aloud during the service. There was also a time for everybody to greet the people near them. The coolest part of the worship for me was that the Shema, in Hebrew, was part of their liturgy for Lent. A parent who had taken our first Raising a Child With Judaism class was the soloist in the choir who lead it. This was a small world moment for sure! By and large, this community did everything possible to make me, a newcomer, feel welcome.
With all of this said, I didn’t feel totally comfortable because it was my first time there. I wasn’t always sure where we were in the booklet. I didn’t know what was coming next. Some of the rituals were totally new to me. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of some of the images I saw. I was a little nervous. Being Jewish and attending the service dictated which of the passages I felt comfortable saying or not saying. I was wondering the whole time if I was getting a glimpse into what someone who was not raised Jewish may feel the first time they attend Jewish worship or holiday celebrations.
Maybe rather than wordsmith mission statements behind board room doors, synagogue leadership should spend some time in other houses of worship. We are coming up to Passover, our holiday of freedom in which we think about the stranger in our midst. Try being a stranger and see how it feels. This may be the best way to really know how to welcome the outsider in.
In his above-mentioned book (read an excerpt here), Bronfman wrote that among Jews and the Jewish community, the
task of building a significant Jewish future requires a newly hopeful attitude. Fear of assimilation and intermarriage should not replace fear of anti-Semitism…. We must open ourselves up to new ideas and new faces and be welcoming to all who choose to participate. Openness may not be the easiest way, but it is our only way.
And speaking of enjoyment — there is nothing more enjoyable than a good story. With that in mind, we move to the Maggid section of our ceremony — a Hebrew word meaning "to tell."
Keeping with the themes of openness, new ideas, and inclusion, Bronfman has written a new Passover Haggadah, the book used as a guide for the ritual dinner, the seder.
His own family seders are large and celebratory affairs and include intermarried family members and friends old and new who are welcomed to enjoy the annual feast together.
Well-chosen readings from luminaries, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and poet Marge Piercy, highlight the story of slavery and freedom. Bronfman’s creative and interactive approach is a story for all ages, in which readers assume a character in the Exodus journey.
It also diverts from the traditional Haggadah in a way that is extremely welcoming to interfaith families. “I decided to open the door to Elijah at the beginning of the meal instead of at the end. I always found it slightly odd that Elijah was invited to the table after the meal. My wife, Jan, and I both believe it is before this joyous feast begins that we ought to invite the stranger into our homes,” he writes in the Haggadah.
In Bronfman’s view, Elijah represents a redeemed world — a world free of racism, slavery, cruelty, poverty and greed. Elijah also represents the hungry stranger. This gesture reminds us to open the doors of our hearts to those in need during this holiday season and the rest of the year.
Inviting and inclusive, and with illustrations by Bronfman’s wife, Jan Aronson, it looks like a nice new alternative for families who want to share the storytelling and keep the seder to English.
What do you think? Is this a Haggadah your family will try out this Passover?
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 email@example.com if you have any questions on how to attract and retain interfaith couples in your organization. We look forward to working with you!
Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, CA (inland, due east of San Francisco) is making headlines. Their Board of Directors has “voted unanimously this week to to recommend that the rabbinical staff and synagogue members write letters stating their opposition to the policy, along with withdrawing financial support and refusing to participate in scouting events.”
The Board policy calls for a letter writing campaign to the local and national BSA councils, as well as encouraging Temple members and other community organizations to join in the effort to enact change through letters, financial pressure, postponing participation and supporting movements such as Scouts for Equality.
The board said it would also ask staff and others to decline [writing] Eagle Scout recommendations, or allow religious awards for the BSA until the policy is changed.
So why is a boycott something a Jewish community that prides itself on being welcoming of all might undertake? Inclusion shouldn’t just be lip-service. It’s not enough to say that LGBTQ people and their families are welcome in our synagogues — they’re demonstrating that they mean it by trying to change the homophobic policies of Boy Scouts of America. Temple Isaiah knows that folks will feel most welcome within its community when everyone feels they can be recognized as their full selves.
Which has me wondering: what actions can synagogues take to show they’re welcoming of interfaith families? They can join our Network so interfaith couples/families can find them. They can show they’re involved with us by adding our affiliate badge to their homepage. They can create inclusive policies. If you work at a synagogue and want to take actions to show you’re not just giving lip service to your welcome, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers for more suggestions.
Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:
What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in their twenties and thirties is whether they will marry and, if so, whether they will marry Jews.
The fact that this concern is rarely discussed publicly by the organized Jewish community highlights the disconnect between our so-called leadership and how most of us live our lives. And it reflects the extreme reluctance liberals feel to express out loud what may be perceived as a traditional, even intolerant point of view.
I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”
We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.
Intermarriage is a deeply personal affair for American Jews, as most of us have a close relative or friend who has married out of the faith. If Eisner takes a look at the personal lives of major non-Orthodox Jewish donors and lay leaders in the United States, she will find that many of them are themselves married to non-Jews, or have children who are married to non-Jews.
How can she expect American Jewry’s “so-called leadership” to fight the battle against intermarriage when many of them have married out of the faith or have intermarried children? We are talking about people’s lives here, so a Jewish leader aggressively fighting against intermarriage will most likely risk hurting their intermarried children, friends and relatives. Like it or hate it, it is much easier to focus on Israel than to discuss an issue which so personally affects each and every one of us.
A great point to start us off. He continues,
Eisner’s alarmist language (“If current trends continue, worrying about whether our children hear an anti-Israel slur in the college dorm will be the least of our concerns”) makes intermarriage out to be a zero-sum game. But I know from personal experience that it is not. If Jewish continuity is Eisner’s biggest concern, she should first look at how the American Jewish establishment can make it easier for young people to raise Jewish families. This means highly subsidizing Jewish education and institutions, which will incentivize young Jewish professionals to get married and have children sooner.
If we accept that intermarriage cannot be wished away, then we need to ask whether the American Jewish establishment (federations, synagogues, schools, etc.) have been welcoming enough of interfaith families. Families which feel included in the Jewish community are more likely to raise Jewish children than if they are shut out. A single negative experience at a Jewish communal event or institution can sufficiently traumatize a non-Jewish spouse to the extent that they will distance themselves and their family from the Jewish community.
By the same token, a parent who rejects their child’s decision to marry a non-Jew risks that child not raising a Jewish family at all. It is much more effective for parents to actively assist their children to incorporate Judaism into their interfaith family than to treat it as an all-or-nothing situation.
Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.
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