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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
Nobody has all the answers for interfaith families. Oftentimes, we're lucky just to figure out some of the right questions to ask! Each family has to figure "it" out on their own, whatever "it" is, and even when a family can learn from those who've blazed the path before them, individual challenges arrive during the course of daily living that call for improvised and impromptu solutions.
So as an organization, we walk a thin line between gathering statistics and avoiding generalizations. We know that behind each number is a loving family, a set of unique individuals. And we've learned that--while it's important to know the numbers--statistics can't give us any hard and fast rules for interfaith families, or easy answers to difficult dilemmas.
One point of agreement between the statistics we've calculated and the individuals we've interviewed is that a more welcoming attitude by Jewish institutions not only promotes greater involvement in the community by interfaith families, but by all those on the Jewish periphery. Inclusiveness transcends the issues of interfaith marriage. When a Jewish communal organization or institution welcomes the intermarried, it becomes a welcoming presence for everyone else, as well.
JOI's Executive Director Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky, an ordained rabbi and prolific writer, points to a Jewish notion of openness and inclusiveness as stemming from the experience of being slaves in ancient Egypt and a long history thereafter of being "foreigners in a foreign land." For former generations of American Jews, this notion may have fueled their approach to Jewish communal life. But the recent experience of American Jewry is different. The Jewish community today is no longer marked as an immigrant population, speaking an accented English, limited in its practice of professions, restricted by places to live, prohibited to enjoy the benefits of membership in certain social clubs. There is virtually nothing or no place off limits to members of the American Jewish community. Now that the barriers for American Jews have come down, we should not be erecting barriers for others.
The Egyptian experience is more than a historic event; it's a metaphysical idea that remains burned into the collective memory of the Jewish people, seeming to reoccur time and again. As a result of our various "Egypt" experiences, the Jewish community has learned to be more open and accepting. We must continue broadening our approach, opening our community to all those on the periphery and responding to the needs of all families and individuals who choose to place themselves within the context of the Jewish community.
As part of our work in opening up the community, we were able to lead a number of groundbreaking sessions at the most recent General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities, the largest annual gathering of Jewish communal professionals in the world. The mere fact that we were asked to create programming for the GA was a monumental acknowledgement that the interfaith issue is worthy of growing attention from the organized community. But we took it a step further--and hopefully sent an even louder message--by having discussion sessions not just with Jews marrying non-Jews, but with white Jews marrying non-white non-Jews, gay Jews marrying gay non-Jews, discussions with the parents and grandparents within an intermarriage, discussions about teen interfaith dating...all in an effort to show the wide gamut of people who want to be involved or stay involved with the Jewish community but have not yet been properly welcomed.
Usually we think of the challenges that interfaith families face when negotiating a relationship with the synagogue and its rituals. But the same issues of openness emerge with other communal institutions and organizations. Change needs to take place throughout the community and we are working to elicit such change.
The irony of history remains with us. America has successfully absorbed many generations of Jews who chose to call this country home. And Israel has figured out a myriad of ways to absorb thousands of immigrants and transform them into Israelis every year. Yet, the American Jewish community has yet to figure out how to absorb its "immigrants" -- those who have married Jews and wish to be part of the Jewish community, even if on their own terms. That's why we are here to help.