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Answer to a Prayer: More Synagogues Welcome Interfaith Families to Judaism

This article is reprinted with permission of the Boston Herald. Visit www.bostonherald.com.

BOSTON, April 13--Although Cambridge resident Rena Mello isn't Jewish, she plans to celebrate Passover, the eight-day observance commemorating the freedom and exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, by telling the story and singing songs with her children.

"I'm very dedicated to living a Jewish life," said Mello, who was raised Catholic. "We chose to raise our children Jewish because it was very important to my husband, and I hadn't been practicing for many, many years."

Mello is one of many non-Jews practicing Judaism in interfaith families. Although the latest numbers calculated by United Jewish Communities have not yet been released, the percentage of interfaith families is expected to be quite higher than the 1990 report that found 52 percent of American Jews marry outside the faith.

Though the numbers cause some traditional Jews to worry about the future of the religion, others see the growth as a chance for renewal.

"There's a huge renaissance going on in Judaism," said Ronnie Friedland, editor of InterfaithFamily.com and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life (Jewish Lights, $18.95). "There are so many ways of being Jewish that pretty much anyone can find something that works for them."

Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton said many synagogues are reaching out to interfaith families.

"There's been a struggle since the first Jewish settlement in 1654," he said. "How does one maintain the integrity of the community but still be an active member of America? Certainly the Reform and Conservative movements have worked very, very hard to give (interfaith families) a path into Judaism as a family with the hope that Jewish continuity will be maintained."

Newton resident Amanda Lukens also has noticed a growth in support for intermarried couples.

"There's a lot to be involved in," said Lukens. "Shuls (synagogues) aren't excluding them."

The first part of the UJC study found that the U.S. Jewish population has declined from 5.5 to 5.2 million and the median age of Jews has risen from 37 to 41, raising the possibility that families aren't passing down the faith to younger generations. But Stern questioned the accuracy of the survey and said several temples strive and succeed at attracting young families.

"That demographic study is seriously flawed," he said. "It's pretty much money flushed down the toilet. When people get together to talk about Jewish demographics, the numbers depend on a lot of things. In some areas, the numbers may be declining, but in others, that might not be the case. (And) how does one even define who's Jewish anymore? Is a person who is intermarried and raising their children Jewish even though they haven't gone through the conversion process?"

Friedland said devoted interfaith families strengthen rather than threaten Judaism. A self-described secular Jew, she used to be intermarried and said her daughter has become deeply involved in Judaism, reading the Bible and taking part in religious activities.

"Young people have so many choices. They just have to find the style that works best for them," said Friedland. "Intermarriage does not mean that the children will not have a Jewish identity."

Mello said her family feels tightly connected to the Jewish community.

"They've done a really good job reaching out to families like us," she said. "We're living a pretty Jewish life right now."

Edie Mueller of Newton said many interfaith families she has encountered practice Judaism with more dedication than some entirely Jewish families. She said she also has noticed that a lot of young people have been converting to Judaism.

Brookline resident Jim Morgan, who recently converted, said people shouldn't blame the decline in the Jewish population on intermarriage, especially when many non-Jews are converting to Judaism.

"My feeling is that Judaism will survive and thrive based on the people who are active," he said. "There is a tendency to be alarmist. That's not always entirely productive. Interfaith families are a reality. Jews don't live by themselves like they used to. They're fully integrated into society."

Shunning interfaith families could cause a larger drop in the Jewish population, warned Newton resident Edmund Case, InterfaithFamily.com president and publisher.

"People have been saying that Jews are dying out forever and I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "But we need to have more interfaith families affiliate with the Jewish community and identify themselves as Jews. Some people are embarrassed that they're not knowledgeable. Maybe they had a rejecting experience they need to overcome. We have to get the word out to people that they're welcomed. People won't spend the time if it's not personally meaningful and rewarding to them."

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Cara Nissman

Cara Nissman is a journalist based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has written articles about religion, education, parenting, health, travel and books for print and online publications, including Salon, The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Parenting. See her Web site at www.caranissman.com.

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