Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
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January 25, 2010
Where do you find a welcoming spiritual circle? Where do you meet the people you invite to holiday meals and bar and bat mitzvah parties, and the ones who offer you comfort when someone is ill or when you lose a family member? This need for a sense of connection and belonging can be particularly critical if you are in an interfaith family, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have no local family to celebrate and support you in a Jewish way. You might want to do Jewish activities with other interfaith families, or you might want a place where people realize that there are two religions in your family, and that both are valid and important to your spiritual life.
Some interfaith families have found a circle of friends through classes or support groups that synagogues provide for outreach to intermarried couples. The class goes on for a few weeks or months, but the connections remain warm and constant for years.
Where synagogues don't provide such groups, interfaith families have begun to start them on their own. It's part of a general trend of smaller havurot or minyanim in the context of larger congregations. People have also had success building friendships through Torah study groups and regular potluck meals. For interfaith families, the key is that both Jewish and non-Jewish spouses are welcome.
In some communities, the local synagogue is too far away to visit regularly, or isn't welcoming to interfaith families, or just doesn't meet anyone's spiritual needs. Sometimes starting your own interfaith-friendly Jewish community is the solution.
We sought out examples of people in interfaith families who had founded successful micro-communities to ask their advice about how to do it. The following three interfaith groups--each successful in its own right--can provide others wanting to create similar groups the benefit of their own experience. For more information about how to get started, try the National Havurah Committee's Havurah Resources page, or the Mechon Hadar Minyan project.
Jim Brulé of Fayetteville, NY, created an interfaith havurah in November of 2007, primarily because he was looking for a Jewish Renewal community or havurah in central New York State. Finding none, he set out to collaboratively create one.
Brulé says, "The initial purpose was to bring together people who were interested in enhancing their spirituality through study, learning and friendship. The focus was--and has successfully continued to be--on Jewish approaches to spirituality."
The havurah's first members were recruited in three ways. Brulé sent emails to the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal email list and to local Jewish groups' email lists. He also recruited members by word of mouth.
The havurah's first meeting included about 15 members and the group has grown to approximately 25 members since. "We have had two recruiting phases to keep the active attendance at 15," says Brulé. "Currently, we have three members who rarely attend, and three new members who are about to attend their first meeting."
Comprised of eleven couples all aged 50-70 and three singles, every couple has at least one Jewish member; there are four non-Jewish members. Four clergy are included in the group's members: two Jewish and two Christian. People come from a wide range of backgrounds and are currently unaffiliated, Reform or Conservative.
The havurah meets monthly for two hours, most often spending its core time in text study, focusing either on the portion of the week or on some other piece of scripture. For example, currently the members are studying Pirke Avot. The group also gathers for holidays and an occasional Shabbat dinner.
The group meets in members' homes or in a non-denominational setting maintained by a local Episcopalian church. (The rector is a havurah member). Adult children of members attend at times, and, says Brulé, "Everyone considers the havurah to be an extended family."
Brulé cautions others not to expect their interfaith group or havurah to grow quickly or to "have anything happen fast."
He offers the following tips for starting a havurah successfully:
Additionally, to sustain a havurah, Brulé suggests:
To make a havurah succeed the members need mutual respect. "We have become an extended family, and it has deepened our experiences overall," Brulé reports.
The Tri-Cities area of the far western suburbs of Chicago--St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia--has become home to a slowly increasing number of Jewish families. An interest in fostering a Jewish community has exited in this area for some time. Thus, seven years ago a group of approximately a dozen people dissatisfied with their synagogue initiated discussions about the possibility of starting a new one in this area.
Rachel Baruch Yackley, St. Charles, IL, attended the monthly discussions that resulted in the formation of Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors (FVJN) in Geneva, Ill., a Jewish community group which currently has over 250 participating families and individuals. “Different needs and objectives were discussed, and ultimately the decision was made that, although it did not seem to be the time to attempt such a huge undertaking, the formation of a community-based Jewish organization was doable and could fill the interests and needs of a wide range of people,” Yackley says.
FVJN is composed of Jewish individuals and families and interfaith families with at least one Jewish spouse. The group does not have official membership; most of the participants reside in the Tri Cities and surrounding towns, but people from other areas attend events as well. "Some participants are members of Jewish congregations in outlying areas, and some are not affiliated with any synagogue," explains Yackley. "Some are practicing Jews, some haven't been involved in observing any Jewish practices, and a few have said they didn't know they were Jewish until later in life."
A board meets once a month, although members who volunteer to head up and organize activities do much of the work for the group. Additionally, Yackley, who served on the board for two years, says, "New folks, especially those with young children, who've gotten involved over the past year or two, have been instrumental in creating new offerings and getting a lot of new things going."
FVJN has a full schedule of activities. A Friday night Shabbat or Havdallah service is held once a month. These services have been lay-led until recently. "For the first five years, I pretty much did it all: created a service, led the service and the music, and played guitar. Two other members now take turns leading services, one of whom is an ordained Conservative rabbi--not with any synagogue, at this time--who moved into our area about two years ago and joined our group," explains Yackley.
Each month FVJN also offers an adult discussion group, two different children's Jewish education groups and a social group. Other activities include an annual Mitzvah Day, holiday parties and children's activities. Fundraising events are held a few times a year as well. FVJN donates five percent of all proceeds to local non-profit organizations.
The fact that FVJN "can almost be all things to all people" keeps the group successful and growing, claims Yackley. “If a participant is interested in seeing a particular component included in what we offer, he or she is welcome to suggest it, see if there's enough interest, and, if so, certainly organize it and make it happen,” she explains. “We have a little bit of almost everything, from traditional to modern. Our gatherings, mostly geared for participants of all ages, include religious, intellectual, musical, artistic, and social opportunities, and more.” When considering starting a Jewish or Interfaith micro-community, Yackley recommends not biting off “more than you can chew, especially at the onset.” She adds, “Don't let others discourage you. If a handful of people feel a need for this kind of group, then there's a need, and it's worth doing.”
As you begin forming your group, Yackley says it's important to do the following:
About 10 years ago, Sue Hoffman and Florence Gelo started an interfaith group at Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia. Hoffman, who came from a strong Reconstructionist Jewish background, and Gelo, a Unitarian minister, determined early in their relationship the importance of interfaith community and set out to create one.
With the help of the rabbi, the women emailed invitations to all the interfaith families in the synagogue's directory. Drawing on their own experience as facilitators and group leaders, they created a non-judgmental and affirming space where the couples could feel comfortable sharing their experiences and identifying and articulating their needs. "We encouraged each other to be who we were: Christians, Jews, atheists, humanists alike," says Hoffman.
Gelo and Hoffman brought their individual knowledge about Jewish and Christian practice to the group, which consisted initially of six or seven couples, and served as resources to answer questions about religious and cultural practices and the role of non-Jews in synagogue life. Hoffman says, "I read a number of books about, and written by, interfaith couples and could share my knowledge about the experiences of other interfaith couples and the creative choices they made about their relationship and how to raise their children."
Marc S. Jacobs and his wife, Peggy, joined the group about two years after its inception. "By then there were about 10 active families and many more staying in touch through an email list," he recounts.
Peggy Jacobs comes from a Catholic background and practices her spirituality outside of formal religion. At the time the couple joined Mishkan Shalom InterFaith/InterCultural Group, Marc had recently returned to Judaism after many years of Jewish disassociation. "I began to get involved in the synagogue," he explains. "[Peggy] did not have any desire to join, but was feeling left out. So, we tried a meeting of Mishkan Shalom InterFaith/InterCultural Group. We were warmly received and found it a good place to share the challenges of maintaining a positive relationship despite differing backgrounds and seemingly differing current spiritual practices."
Members of Mishkan Shalom InterFaith/InterCultural Group have included all sorts of interfaith couples as well as gays, those with children and empty nesters. Ages range from early 20s to 60s and 70s. "The group has also been racially and ethnically diverse," Jacobs adds.
When Jacobs joined the group, it still met monthly on Sunday afternoons for a pot luck, a discussion topic and individual sharing. Over the years, Gelo says, "We organized a Passover Seder and a meal before the start of the Yom Kippur fast and a December holiday celebration and gift exchange." Additionally, the group has created rituals to mark the major life events of Havurah members. It also provided an open house drop-in session for other couples during the afternoon break on Yom Kippur. Other traditional activities have included a Super Bowl party and spring focus event. Meetings are held alternately in couples’ homes and at the synagogue.
"The size of the group has gone up and down," says Marc. "For this year, we are focused on about seven primary active couples and meeting every other month."
Just as membership and activities have changed over the years, so has the group’s purpose. According to Jacobs, “The purpose today is to deepen the relationships of members, support member couples in issues that arise and provide a voice and a focus on interfaith issues in the shul.”
Initially, Gelo and Hoffman scheduled, organized, publicized and co-led the havurah’s meetings. When the group grew to over 25 people, other members assumed responsibility for tasks.
For those interested in starting their own Havurah, Gelo stresses the following:
Jacobs attributes "the loving support of the couples" in the group to this havurah's success over the years. He recommends others trying to create interfaith groups include people from many faiths. "Don't try to be primarily Jewish. Really recognize on an equal footing the values and experiences of the non-Jewish partners," he says. He also suggests starting small. "Find one or two others. Put the word out. If there is a need, people will come."