Reprinted with permission from the New Jersey Jewish News. Visit www.NJJewishNews.com.
When the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey told its local beneficiaries of looming allocations cuts, no one responded more loudly than Lynne Wolfe, director of the UJC-funded Pathways outreach program for interfaith families. But then, no other program head faced what she was facing: An elimination of her program in favor of "new methods of outreach."
And while Wolfe's spirited and very public defense of the pioneering Pathways managed to draw local and even national attention, it has yet to change the reality: Barring a reversal of a committee's recommendation, Pathways will be disbanded at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.
Rather than renew its $90,000 annual operating budget, the UJC Allocations Council recommended May 18 to appropriate up to $50,000 "to develop new methods of outreach using professionals, lay leaders, and the rabbis in the community who are concerned that programs for the intermarried be allowed to continue," said Lynda Wachsteter, the Short Hills resident who is Pathways' chair.
"They want us to seek new funding from grants and synagogues with existing outreach programs," she told NJ Jewish News. "I am pleased that they recognized the importance of outreach programs. But they didn't think the Pathways program was effective."
"The Allocations Council had no intention of abandoning outreach programs," said Kenneth R. Heyman, the incoming president of UJC MetroWest. "But in terms of Pathways, the task force and the allocations council were looking to find the best and most effective way of delivery of outreach services to the intermarried. We wanted a bigger bang for the buck."
The UJC released a statement saying that "in a time of limited resources and serious allocation reductions throughout the community," a federation task force on Jewish life and learning that made recommendations to the allocations council "determined that Pathways is no longer achieving sufficient levels of outreach to new families and adequately intensive engagement with them to justify funding."
"They are not closing the door on intermarried families," Wachsteter said.
Nevertheless, soon after learning about the allocations cut on May 3, Wachsteter joined Wolfe, director of Pathways for the past 14 years, in a campaign to preserve the program.
Vowing to "let everybody" on Pathways' 850-person mailing list know about the program's impending demise, Wolfe and Wachsteter sent a leaflet to "Friends of Pathways" on May 12, listing the home telephone numbers of the Allocations Council members and telling recipients in capital letters "YOU MUST call" them in an appeal to save the program.
"The mailing we sent out and I signed shook up a lot of people" at the federation, said Wachsteter. "Some of them were very upset. But some of them told me 'you had to do what you had to do.' What they objected to was inaccurate information" in the leaflet suggesting that the council recommended ending "all programs" for interfaith couples.
"That was harmful to the reputation of the federation and what it supports because they do want to support outreach to intermarried families but they want a new model and a fresh approach, developing new funding resources," said Wachsteter.
After hearing complaints, Wachsteter said she "called everyone on the allocations council and apologized."
Gary Aidekman, who chaired the Allocations Council, told NJJN he "personally believed the Pathways mailing contained some misrepresentations that I don't think fairly reflected the attitude of UJC. The Council and the UJC want to continue services to the portion of our community that is intermarried."
"It got the discussion going," said Wolfe in defense of her leaflet. "They know that people out there care about this issue, and care about the way it's been done here all these years. I don't think we would have gotten the attention without that letter. We would have just died quietly."
In addition to marshalling supporters from MetroWest, Wolfe sought testimonials from leaders of the interfaith outreach movement--most notably Ed Case, the founder and director of InterfaithFamily.com. His Web site and membership organization's mission is to "empower interfaith families to make Jewish choices for themselves and their children, and encourages the Jewish community to welcome interfaith families." Wolfe sits on InterfaithFamily.com's Professional Advisory Circle.
"Lynne Wolfe is the 'dean' of agency-based outreach professionals in the entire country," Case wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. "Her many years of experience and her uniquely sensitive, welcoming ways have led hundreds if not thousands of interfaith families to make Jewish choices."
Outreach and disapproval
Case and Wolfe represent one pole in a Jewish communal debate over how best to respond to the challenge of the growing number of interfaith families.
According to Wolfe, her program has been increasingly successful in recent months drawing members of such families closer to Judaism.
"We've had 30-plus new families in our school activities, our highest number ever," she said. "We had 35 to 40 intermarried families came here as volunteers on Super Sunday," making fundraising phone calls on behalf of MetroWest's UJA Campaign.
"This year I've spoken to some 250 or 300 people. I've referred them to rabbis," she said. "I've referred them to synagogues.
Wolfe also points to more personal stories, like that of Mark Young of Mahwah. After 23 years of marriage to a Jewish woman, the Presbyterian-born Young converted to Judaism in April 2004 after attending a Pathways seminar on interfaith marriage at the Bleiwise Conference Center in Whippany.
He told NJJN that Wolfe's program was "very vital" in helping him reach that decision.
"If it is lost, it is going to be a lot harder for non-Jews who want to convert, or want assistance and support in raising interfaith families, to get the help they need," he said.
UJC MetroWest disagreed with some of the claims made for Pathways. "The Task Force found that Pathways has been less effective recently than in the past," said UJC in a statement. "While Pathways claims that more new families entered their program this year, the figures Pathways provided to the federation showed attendance in their educational program varied between eight and 32 families, and classes were reduced from biweekly to monthly. The Task Force believed that the intensity of the program has declined. Even adding in those who attend other monthly group discussions, no more than 75 families--and fewer than that with consistency over the year--participated in ongoing Pathways activities. The $90,000 UJC allocation no longer appears cost-effective."
Inside and outside the federated world, there is disagreement about whether Jewish organizations should fund any outreach services at all to families in which one partner is not a Jew.
One leading critic of that notion is Stephen Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee.
Although he would not comment on the budget battle over Pathways, Bayme told NJJN outreach to the intermarried is better done by synagogues than by federation agencies, some of which maintain a "neutrality" toward the practice of intermarriage, rather than an unambiguous stand of disapproval.
"The farther away we get from the synagogue, the greater the danger of having neutrality in legitimizing mixed marriages," he said.
Wolfe argues that while she prefers that Jews in-marry rather than intermarry, her non-judgmental approach to members of interfaith families is effective for "people who are afraid to walk into a synagogue or talk to a rabbi."
She fears eradication of interfaith outreach will lessen the number of potential converts and alienate their Jewish partners from federation and synagogue life. It is not a concern that troubles Bayme
"I don't want to write anyone off," he said, "but some losses seem inevitable."
Wachsteter said Wolfe had been an excellent administrator of the Pathways program.
"No one is more skilled at outreach to the intermarried than Lynne Wolfe. If the committee that is going to be formed to plan the future of outreach can find someone who can administer the program and do the job [as] well, I wish them every success."