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Interfaith Families Need Exclusive Programs

Reprinted with permission of Washington Jewish Week. Visit www.washingtonjewishweek.com.

Special to WJW

Should the Jewish community be responsible for providing programming for interfaith families and couples? Simply stated, the answer is yes. However, the issue is far more complicated. Recently, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington launched a communitywide initiative around the issues of affiliation and outreach. Studies have been commissioned and completed, focus groups have been held, community groups have met and plans are in place to take action. This effort is very welcome and long overdue.

Twelve years ago, when I started running workshops for interfaith couples and families at my synagogue, Adas Israel, and at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, few community leaders wanted to create programs that addressed the needs of this population even though statistics concerning the rapid rate of intermarriage were stunning. The topic was controversial, people spoke in whispers and financial support was thin at best.

This issue had to be addressed head on. With the support and encouragement of Adas Israel's Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg and DCJCC executive director Arna Mikelson, we asked what we could do and how we might approach this population.

Both institutions were willing to reach out to create programs specifically for interfaith families and couples, and each institution was dealing with an entirely different cohort. We began with a lecture series and discussion groups at Adas Israel Congregation and four-session workshops at the Washington DCJCC. These efforts have grown.

Presently, at the Washington DCJCC, we have created a full complement of programs including the establishment of the Greater Washington Interfaith Council for all community workers involved with outreach efforts. This year at Adas Israel, we have added informal groups at the nursery school where parents from interfaith families can gather for coffee with a facilitator and talk about concerns as they emerge in their families. A request to meet more often indicates that we are connecting with this group in a meaningful way.

In 2005, as compared to a decade ago, we have a very different climate. Even though the intermarriage statistics are much higher than at that time, outreach, affiliation and intermarriage are now common words on many people's lips.

The alarm has been heard and action is being taken.

The first entry point for interfaith couples and families must be with programs that are geared exclusively for them. It is this exclusive nature that helps them feel welcomed and accepted by the Jewish community. The sharing of common concerns, the exchanging of e-mail addresses and the celebration of Shabbat together on a regular basis all facilitate a positive experience for group members and encourage a new bonding with the Jewish community.

Specifically targeted events for this population allow them to begin to experience the Jewish community and begin to feel included. Time after time, this is what the participants report.

Interfaith couples and families do not constitute a monolithic group. They have varying needs and different goals. For example, the pairs who attend workshops and classes at the Washington DCJCC tend to be young--most are dating, a few are engaged and a very few are married. These couples are still determining whether and how they can manage their relationships and create a religious life together.

On the other hand, the group at Adas Israel tends to be young married couples with children attending the Gan nursery school. For this group, sending home "Shabbat in a Bag" enhances the Jewish education the toddler is receiving at the Jewish nursery school. With this type of activity, one of the central tenets of Judaism comes into the home through the child and contributes to the celebration of Shabbat for the whole family. Here we see how the child's Jewish learning is reinforced and the parents encouraged to "try on" a Jewish ritual.

All this helps to create the possibility for Judaism to become the lead religion within this interfaith household.

Now, a dozen years later, are we effective? There is anecdotal material about the effects of outreach which suggests its effectiveness. A young man in synagogue greets me, saying, "You'll be so happy to hear that our boys are going to Hebrew school, we joined a synagogue, and while my wife hasn't converted, she is more Jewish than you can imagine."

Another new father informs me that he and his wife had a meaningful Jewish naming ceremony for their twin girls. And, a woman tells me that after attending the workshop series, she feels liberated to ask her non-Jewish fiance to help her make Shabbat.

From a quantitative perspective, the latest survey from the San Francisco Jewish community notes that a full 38 percent of mixed faith families raise their children as Jewish and attributes this positive effect to a decade of attention to this population. We need more studies like this.

I do outreach work because I feel passionately about inclusion, and every time someone approaches me with a personal vignette similar to the ones above, I feel lucky to be able to do this work. Let's think of outreach to interfaith couples and families as an opportunity to pass on our rich heritage to the next generation.

Moving outreach to interfaith families and couples to the front and center of the Jewish community's agenda makes this possible. To welcome the stranger is an essential principle of our faith. Hopefully, we all practice what we preach.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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.
Marion L. Usher

Marion L. Usher, Ph.D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Behavioral Science in the District. Marion created Love and Religion: An Interfraith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners. For the past 19 years, she conducted the workshop for the DCJCC and was the facilitator for the pilot of InterfaithFamily's Love and Religion - Online workshop in October 2010.

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