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52 Synagogues, One Goal

Originally published by Philadelphia Jewish Exponent under the title, "Interfaithways--Helping Interfaith Families to Make Jewish Connections" Reprinted by permission.

Oct. 30, 2008--Gari Julius Weilbacher is personally and professionally committed to fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim (welcoming guests) to the Jewish community. The managing director of InterFaithways, who is married to a man raised in the Catholic faith, strives to help interfaith couples and their extended families make positive Jewish connections.

This is the central theme behind InterFaithways' second annual Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend, to be held Nov. 14 to 16, 2008, at 52 synagogues throughout the Delaware Valley. All participating congregations have committed to offer special free programs including Shabbat dinners; performances of "Two Become One: Reflections on Interfaith Families," an interactive performance piece by Theatre Ariel that sparks discussion about identity, holiday celebrations, religious rituals and family dynamics; ceremonies honoring and blessing interfaith families raising Jewish children; and educational speakers and resource materials.

Her Goal: Outreach

rosesThe common chord behind all of these programs is inclusion. Weilbacher, who came on board in July, emphasizes that "My goal for the organization is to reach out to the whole interfaith family; mom and dad, their parents and their children, and encourage their comfortable participation in Jewish life-cycle events and holiday celebrations." It is a strategy that has worked well for her own family, she said, explaining "my in-laws overcame their initial concern over the fact that our two daughters were not being baptized and rejoiced in the girls' bat mitzvahs."

Not that there haven't been challenges over the course of the Weilbachers' 17-year marriage, such as a well-meaning gift of an Entenmann's cake during a Passover visit or a cousin's Rosh Hashanah wedding. However, the entire family has learned to respect and celebrate each other's faith.

"It's been a positive, learning experience for all of us," said Weilbacher, explaining that "my daughters, Hannah and Molly feel fully included in their cousins' Holy Communion celebrations, despite not accepting the host, kneeling or crossing themselves."

Day-School Educations

The family attends Shabbat services most every Saturday morning at Congregation Beth Am Israel, a Conservative synagogue, and enrolled their daughters in the Perelman Jewish Day School "where they received a solid grounding in Jewish ethics and values," said Weilbacher, who was pleased that the school administration respected and accepted her daughters' dual heritage.

"When our Jewish institutions open their doors wide to interfaith families, they are building a solid foundation for Jewish tomorrows," added Weilbacher.

InterFaithways founder Leonard Wasserman expresses his belief that "when the Jewish community engages in education and outreach efforts to interfaith families, there are many positive results." Statistics from the 2005 Greater Boston Community Survey indicate that a full 60 percent of Boston-area intermarried couples are raising their children in the Jewish faith, and that the number of people living in Jewish households in the region has increased by 55,000 since 1995.

These results contrast sharply with New York's last demographic study which documented that 30 percent of intermarried couples are raising their children as Jews, 36 percent in Pittsburgh's last study, and the 33 percent to 39 percent in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

Some sociologists attribute these surprising statistics to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston's support for programs that welcome interfaith families, and the Federation's efforts to create more welcoming synagogues and communal organizations in the Greater Boston area.

Threat or Opportunity?

The children referenced in the Brandeis study fully identified as Jews. They were enrolled in formal Jewish education at the same 92 percent rate as their friends with two Jewish parents.

While many see intermarriage as a serious threat to the future of the Jewish community, Wasserman views it as an opportunity. "When these families feel accepted by and comfortable in the Jewish community there is a potential for them to affiliate Jewishly," he said.

Rabbi Rayzel Raphael has served as rabbinic director of InterFaithways since the organization's inception in 1999 as an outreach effort of the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia. Raphael, who also serves as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation of Woodbury, N.J., has helped to expand the organization's presence as a source of education, support and connections for mixed-faith couples and families. Her work involves straddling the fine line between condoning intermarriage in the Jewish community and welcoming those who choose to integrate Jewish customs and traditions into their lives.

Hands-On Approach

Raphael takes a hands-on approach to making mixed-faith families feel welcome and comfortable. "I open my house for Shabbat dinners to introduce couples to this beautiful Jewish ritual and to create a safe place for them to talk to each other about such sensitive issues as planning a wedding, navigating religious holidays and parenting," she said.

While the Interfaith Family Shabbat is InterFaithways' signature event, the organization provides a number of programs throughout the year including: discussion groups; workshops on couples communications, parenting, Jewish holiday celebrations and other topics of interest; and training and consultation to rabbis, educators and other Jewish professionals to support institutional and attitudinal change in the Jewish community.

Next summer, InterFaithways hopes to sponsor a trip to Israel. "Many American Jews are passionately connected to Israel," said Weilbacher, who believes that this enthusiasm can be highly contagious. "It is exciting to revisit Israel, literally and figuratively, through the eyes of someone not raised as a Jew."

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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 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.

Lynn B. Edelman is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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