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Outreach Matters

April 16, 2010

In March, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) issued a statement on intermarriage during the organization's 2010 convention that stated,

While in the past the Reform rabbis focused discussion on how to prevent intermarriage, the CCAR today affirmed that intermarriage is a given and should be approached with the goal of engaging intermarried families in Jewish life and living. Rabbis can and should work to improve the effectiveness of their efforts to encourage intermarried people to embrace Judaism for themselves and their children.

If you participate or work in interfaith outreach programs, you may have been happy to see our efforts finally getting some recognition, or maybe you thought, "What took so long?" It took a three-year study by the CCAR's Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage to determine what many of us already know from personal experience, that outreach to interfaith families works.

My synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, does many things to connect with interfaith families and make them a part of the congregation. We have a lot of anecdotal experience demonstrating why outreach matters. But something interesting has been happening, we are finding that outreach to interfaith families is filling a need for our inmarried families as well. For the past year, we have seen an increase in inmarried attendance at our Interfaith Moms and Interfaith Dads educational and community events.

Why Inmarrieds Participate

It is nice to think that our outreach initiatives have broad appeal, but it begs the question, why would inmarried families want to participate in interfaith family events? Here's what we've determined.

Compelling programs. The discussions that our Interfaith Moms and Dads groups have developed are filling the need for education on Jewish topics for all parents, not just interfaith ones. Programs such as How to Talk to Your Children About God, What is a Mitzvah, How to Celebrate Shabbat in the Home and Dealing with Prejudice were created from questions interfaith families asked, but are in fact, of interest to all our parents raising Jewish children.

Jewish connection. Our Interfaith Family Chanukah Story Time, created so interfaith families could celebrate and connect during the holiday season, had strong attendance by inmarried families. Seeing that families in general want Jewish connection, we opened our Passover matzo making and Yom HaShoah Holocaust museum visit to the entire congregation.

No one else is addressing the issues. Our interfaith groups are covering topics that other synagogue groups are not. That's not a bad thing, the temple calendar is filled with so many learning opportunities that there isn't a need to have multiple groups talking about the same thing.

It's a non-threatening environment. Our groups provide a safe learning environment. An inmarried mom said she felt embarrassed that she had questions about mitzvahs. In a setting where many of the other the participants weren't raised Jewish and so didn't expect themselves to know about Jewish concepts, it was safe for this mom to say, "I don't know."

Younger congregants aren't as apprehensive about intermarriage. Our younger families are more accepting, probably because it is more common among their peers. As one inmarried mom told me, "I wish I could attend every Interfaith Moms program. You do such cool stuff."

How Intermarrieds Feel About Inmarried Participation

While it's great to be cool, these programs are designed for intermarried parents in order to help them embrace Jewish choices and feel comfortable within our temple community. How do they feel about inmarried participation?

Welcomed. Nothing seems to say you belong like a few inmarrieds crashing an interfaith party. When one of our rabbis came with his family to the Chanukah Story Time, not because of official clergy duty, but to participate in the activity, our interfaith families thought that was great.

Inmarried participation also helps our interfaith moms and dads feel less like outsiders. They see that having two Jewish parents doesn't alleviate the challenges of raising Jewish children or creating a Jewish home. They often realize that we are navigating the same issues and our families are more similar than different. In other case, the differences facilitate discussion. And at other times, it's just a way to make friends in new circles.

So, why do we need interfaith outreach, if the inmarrieds and intermarrieds seem to want similar programs and enjoy learning from each other? Because many of the interfaith families that attend our outreach groups aren't ready to participate in general congregational programs. For them, joining our support groups is a first step in engagement in Jewish life and is often made when a baby is born or a child is in pre-school. Initially, our groups are these families' main connection to temple.

Being with other intermarried families is also a way to get to know a small group within our very large congregation and a way to build connections in an environment where the other families look like them. In many cases, we are the starting point for figuring out this Jewish family thing. As group members become more comfortable they often get involved with non-outreach programs, especially as their children grow.

For us, the commingling of inmarrieds and intermarrieds at outreach events is a surprising bonus not a reason to eliminate programs. A study published in 2008 by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that "Jewish socialization in the form of Jewish education, experience of home ritual, and social networks plays a far more important role than having intermarried parents, in determining Jewish identity, behavior, and connections." Our interfaith programs do just this, engage our intermarried and sometimes our inmarried, families in Jewish life, teach Jewish home ritual and build Jewish social connections. If we had set out to create parenting groups that reached both sets of families we probably could not have designed something as successful as what has developed organically. For us, outreach matters.

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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Jane Larkin

Jane Larkin lives in Dallas with her husband and son and is a member of Temple Emanu-El. She is chair of the temple's outreach committee and a former leader of the Interfaith Moms group. She writes a parenting blog for InterfaithFamily.

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