Alison O'Donnell and her boyfriend Nick were determined to discuss the taboo subject of their differing faiths and religious backgrounds before they became engaged. They enrolled in a session of Yours, Mine and Ours, a program offered by the Reform Movement in the Greater Boston area, to help understand more about the issues they were facing. They were nervous about a possible conversion agenda, but were soon put at ease. In their first class, Joyce Schwartz, the facilitator, said upfront, "this is about trying to understand what you want to do as a couple, it's not about trying to make you more Jewish." O'Donnell believes that the class setting--in a "library-ish" office building--supported this "non-threatening" message.
Further along in the life cycle, Jodi and Stuart Jackson were comfortable in their secular life when their 4-year-old son began asking to bring home the rituals he learned at his preschool at the Kansas City Jewish Community Center (the Jacksons had sent him there since it was the best in the area). Since neither Jodi nor Stuart felt connected to religion, the Jacksons were uncomfortable bringing these rituals into their home. Looking for a way to balance their own beliefs with those their son was learning in school, the Jacksons contacted Tamara Lawson-Schuster, the outreach coordinator for the JCC, who directed them to a panel discussion where interfaith couples described their issues and choices. This panel was part of the Genesis program offered by the JCC "to help interfaith couples and their loved ones address areas of concern in their relationships and to explore and understand their relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community." The Jacksons were impressed with the panel, and decided to enroll in Genesis themselves.
"For us, the program was perfect," says Jodi. [The facilitators] were not there to say you should be Jewish or not be Jewish, but that kids need a religious identity and you need to work out what that is going to be."
Susan Tivol, the facilitator, "challenged and welcomed" both Jodi and Stuart, and the program introduced Stuart (the non-Jewish partner) to the Jewish community so that he became more comfortable with it, says Jodi.
"Judaism is a bonus for our family," Jodi says. "We didn't think it was an imperative addition, but we have all found meaning in the ritual and community."
Claire and Alan Krusch were already parents of school-aged children when Claire decided to attend the Introduction to Judaism class at their synagogue, Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C. A non-Jew committed to raising Jewish children, Claire wanted "a social network of people in similar situations" to help support and teach each other. Before taking the course, Claire says she felt like she had "a neon sign attached to my forehead saying 'non-Jew.'" But she says that Stephanie DiPaolo (Beth El's interfaith and outreach coordinator) and the two rabbis who helped with the course were "accepting and embracing and they made us feel it is OK not to understand." Claire found Introduction to Judaism so useful and fulfilling, that she is now in the midst of another Beth El outreach program, a prelude to conversion program called Making Our Judaism Official, or MOJO.
Outreach professionals and participants agree that comfort and communication are the key attributes of successful outreach programs and experiences. Building a strong relationship of mutual respect with the facilitator or other program participants tends to help couples feel comfortable talking about personal beliefs. One of Jodi's favorite aspects of the Genesis program was when participants split up into small groups where two couples would discuss their experiences and challenges. She and Stuart have stayed in touch with another couple they met during one of these intimate discussions. "We just wish there were more class reunions!" Jodi says.
Jodi, Allison, and Claire all say that the key factor in the success of an outreach program is not in the program structure, but in participants' attitudes. In order to succeed, Jodi says you must "allow yourself to be open and challenged." Allison highlights the need to be "committed to focusing on the relationship, not just the wedding," while Claire thinks you must be "willing to ask your ignorant questions."
The experiences of the O'Donnells, Kruschs, and Jacksons illustrate how outreach programs to interfaith couples can help couples seeking various kinds of guidance at different stages in life--whether pre-engagement, after a child is born, or when the kids are a little older. Each couple left their program with a clearer sense of what role they want religion to play in their personal and family lives, and an understanding of how their and their partner's opinions and beliefs differ.
Even now, many years later, Yours, Mine, and Ours, Introduction to Judaism, and Genesis are more than just vivid memories for Allison, Claire, and Jodi. These programs continue to shape the couples' religious lives and relationships.
For information on how to find an outreach program in your area, visit Connections In Your Area.