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Originally published June, 1999. Republished June 8, 2012.
"As an interfaith family, will we feel comfortable participating in the synagogue we plan to join?" wonder Ellen and David. "We are both supportive of our decision to raise the children Jewish and have found a synagogue that we enjoy. We have so many questions, so much to learn, and don't know where to begin. We want to be involved, but will people look at us differently? Will we ever both feel at home in the synagogue?"
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You might also find our booklet, Shabbat: What To Expect At A Synagogue, or video, What To Expect At A Synagogue, helpful.
Ellen and David's concerns are common to many interfaith couples as they consider joining a synagogue. It's one thing to join, yet it may be another matter to feel like you belong to this new community. What can an interfaith couple do to develop this sense of belonging?
For a moment, think of yourself as involved in a journey to a Jewish family life, comprised of a series of "stepping stones." You may want to write down your individual responses and then share these notes with your spouse. First, consider the early steps you have already taken. This includes decisions made before marriage, courses for interfaith couples, conversations with clergy, deciding upon the children's religious identity, and Jewish experiences you have shared as a family. Next, think about more recent steps. This may include becoming a member of a synagogue, sharing a Jewish experience that is new to your family or enrolling your child in religious school. Share what you wrote with your spouse, taking some time to reflect back on what you already have accomplished as a couple. Finally, discuss what steps you might consider next.
A vast array of Jewish experience is available to you; from adult learning opportunities, to initiating a new family ritual in your home, to participating in a synagogue program, to learning the "how-to's" of some aspect of Jewish living. Focus on building your own pathway, step-by-step. This approach may help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by all that is a part of Jewish life. Try out a new experience, and over time it will likely feel more comfortable. Perhaps it will become an integral part of your family life. If you are not ready for that "step," seek another.
This is an ongoing process that can enrich your own and your family's life. Let's turn back to your arrival at the synagogue doorstep. What are some ways in which an interfaith family can begin to feel a part of synagogue life? Consider the following:
Connect with others.
Begin connecting with people who make you feel welcome. Develop a network of those who can assist in finding the resources you are seeking, including members who are familiar with adult education programs, a clergy or staffperson who is particularly supportive of interfaith couples or other interfaith couples who have "been there."
Participate in synagogue programs that will help you on your journey.
Inquire about programs specifically for interfaith couples. For example, the Reform Jewish Outreach programs offered in many communities include discussion groups for interfaith couples (often titled "Times & Seasons"), Basic Judaism courses, and one-session programs on a topic pertinent to interfaith couples. Look in the resources link for specific information about programs in your community and/or contact local congregations.
However, do not limit yourself to programs for interfaith couples. Consider adult education courses, programs for families to experience Judaism together, events the pre-school or religious school sponsors for parents, and more. One "secret": do not presume that others know all the answers! Many Jewish adults come to courses because they too feel there is some gap in their knowledge of Judaism. Consider volunteering in an area that interests you. Becoming active will aid in developing your network of members with similar interests. You may feel comfortable participating in the congregation's community service projects, volunteering to help at a synagogue event, or supporting your child's education by helping at a school program.
Explore the opportunities.
Begin to share new Jewish experiences as a couple and as a family, taking the next small step along your journey. The best way to learn about Jewish living is to experience it. Do not wait for members to invite you in, rather pursue your next step. Judaism thrives both in the home and through the connection to a living Jewish community. I have had the privilege of working with many couples like Ellen and David over the course of many years of facilitating programs for interfaith couples. I have seen couples grapple with the difficult decisions as they begin their life together. Many then seek out resources, learn the information they needed and became an integral part of their synagogue's life. You too have the power to create a fulfilling environment for yourself and your family. Enjoy your journey as you begin to take those important first steps!
How can an interfaith family begin to feel a part of synagogue life?
It may seem like a daunting task at first, but each family can build its own pathway by beginning to share new Jewish experiences. Taking the next small steps becomes a process that can enrich your own and your family's life. Through making the connection to a community and by exploring the opportunities available, you have the power to create a fulfilling environment for your family as you develop your path along the interfaith journey.