How to Pick an Interfaith-Friendly Synagogue

  

By Jordyn Rozensky

Couple terapy

When I asked my partner who is not Jewish if we could start visiting synagogues in hopes of finding a formal Jewish home for our worship and community, he agreed immediately.  His first step was to clear Sundays on his calendar—until I reminded him that while church meets on Sundays, Shabbat services are Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the Jewish community.

We started our search with Reform synagogues within a 20-30 minute drive. We wanted a synagogue with leadership that included women, whether in the form of a rabbi, cantor, executive director or board, and we were hoping for a community where a young(ish) couple like ourselves could find community.

I turned to a rabbi friend of mine to ask how to visit a new synagogue when you’re thinking about membership. His advice:

“Folks should set their first visit in accordance to what they think they will use as members. If they don’t plan on going to Shabbat services regularly, going to Shabbat services is not a great first visit—too much potential for alienation. 

 If they are looking for religious school, go to the education director. 

 If they are looking for fellowship, contacting the membership committee, the sisterhood or the executive director is a good start. 

 If the rabbi is really important, make a meeting. “

Still a bit overwhelmed with the idea of setting up meetings, we began our research at home with a list of values we needed in a Jewish setting. Well aware that this was just the tip of the iceberg, we placed disability accessibility and inclusion, LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and the full welcoming of interfaith families at the top of the list.

Knowing that inclusion and equality is more than a yes or no answer, we put together a list of questions for the synagogue. You’re welcome to use the questions in your own search for a synagogue, but I also encourage you to think beyond these questions and identify issues that may be important to you—such as how a synagogue embraces social justice or the environmental policies of the synagogue.

Disability accessibility:

  • How have you welcomed families with disabilities in the past?
  • Are your facilities accessible for folks with disabilities? Is there access to the bima for those with mobility issues (i.e.: folks with a walker, cane or wheelchair)? Do you have large-print prayer books?
  • Are people with disabilities active participants on committees, the board, sisterhood and men’s club, in all programs and services, and on the staff?
  • Are children with disabilities welcome in the religious school? Are there bar/bat mitzvah tutors who work with students with disabilities?

 

Interfaith inclusion:

  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be fully welcome? How have you welcomed interfaith families in the past?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be allowed on the bima during our child’s bar mitzvah?
  • Will my partner, who is not Jewish, be a welcome addition to the synagogue during events or services that I cannot attend?
  • Is religious school held on Easter (or other holidays that are part of another faith) and will accommodations be made if my child needs to miss school that day?

 

LGBTQ Inclusion:

  • How is your community inclusive for LGBTQ folks?
  • Do your membership forms utilize inclusive language?
  • Do you celebrate LGBTQ Jewish heroes in your religious school? Has your rabbi spoken about LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance during sermons?
  • Do you provide safe and gender-neutral spaces and bathrooms?
  • Are there active and out LGBTQ families regularly attending services?

 

We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:

  • What are the dues? Do you offer assistance or a sliding scale for lower income families?
  • What is the dress code?
  • How often are volunteer events held? How often are community social events held?
  • Who belongs to the synagogue? Will we find others in their ’20s and ’30s?
  • Do you offer adult education programs? Are there classes in learning Hebrew or Torah study?
  • What is the schedule of services and events?

 

Armed with these questions and a better idea of what we were looking for, we were ready to start our search. From here we found several synagogues in driving distance of our home that appeared to share our values.

We’re excited for our next steps: sitting down with leadership, observing a Shabbat service and imagining ourselves as active members of the synagogue.

You Got That from Me—and My Mother

  
Leigh and mom

Leigh & her mom circa 1976

After belting out an energetic rendition of “The Bare Necessities” recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, “Where do I get my love of music from?”

I’ll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then there’s my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now I’m passing it along to Molly and my sons.

It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, I see that my mom—and her interfaith experience—have been a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.

My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didn’t really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didn’t convert.

When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their household’s religion—even if it’s not the religion they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.

I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.

That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.

My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Women’s Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didn’t) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.

I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.

Leigh and kids

Leigh with her children

Often, I see my mom and dad in my children—in the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfully—because I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. It’ll also motivate me to sing more often—and energetically.