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People To People: Ann Arbor Interfaith Families Say Their Community Is Especially Welcoming

This article is reprinted with permission of the Detroit Jewish News. Visit www.detroitjewishnews.com.

When Theresa McMahon and her husband Barry Fishman moved to Ann Arbor in 1997, they were delighted to find a warm and welcoming Jewish community with a variety of options for experiencing Judaism.

McMahon, raised Catholic, feels lucky she and her Jewish husband live in a community where she doesn't feel the pressure of categorical distinctions between interfaith families and non-interfaith families. As a writer for InterfaithFamily.com, a Web resource for interfaith families on Jewish life, she knows it isn't as easy elsewhere. "I think that Ann Arbor does afford a more welcoming community," she said, attributing the environment both to the liberal university atmosphere and the openness exhibited by individuals around her.

"Our neighbors are from New York City--Jews who keep a kosher house--and yet they were completely welcoming and accepting of us as an interfaith family," she said. "They always invite us to dinner one of the nights of Passover. They're very inclusive, which made us feel like we could go ahead and be part of this community."

Fishman and McMahon are raising their two daughters Jewish. Claire, 6 and Emily, 4, attend Temple Beth Emeth's religious school. The family takes part in the Reform temple's services and programs.

McMahon finds support within the community from other families in similar situations. She often shares holiday celebrations with families she connected with by chance through a book club. Its core members are women in interfaith families raising their children Jewish.

"We got to know each other through our kids, and when we looked around the table we realized that was something we all had in common," she said. "That core group still meets, and the families still get together."

Jewish Continuity
While there's still more work to be done, the Ann Arbor community at large embraces diversity and shared experience, said Jeff Levin, Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County executive director. The Jewish community is no different. "This is not a community that tends to talk about intermarriage as 'the problem'--we focus rather on how to create a community and a culture so compelling, so enveloping, that both Jews and non-Jews will want to be a part of it," he said.

No statistics are available for Ann Arbor's rate of Jewish intermarriage. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey shows the national intermarriage rate for Jews who have married since 1996 is 47 percent, a rise of 4 percent from a decade ago. The study counted 5.2 million Jews in the United States.

Intermarriage often leads to assimilation. Only a minority of interfaith couples--33 percent--are raising their children as Jews, up 2 percent from a decade earlier, according to the NJPS.

More than a decade ago, "Jewish continuity" became a national concern. A great many federations, Jewish community centers and synagogues began outreach programs then. A resurgence of such programs can be seen today.

In Detroit, for example, the Jewish Federation operates the Interfaith Connection to welcome interfaith families through a variety of programs. Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic synagogues, in general, are welcoming to interfaith families. Conservative congregations are beginning to look into outreach programs.

Like Jewish community centers nationwide, the JCC of Washtenaw County is trying to respond to the needs of its interfaith community. Noreen DeYoung, JCC Early Childhood Center director, is working with Temple Beth Emeth Rabbi Robert Levy to develop an outreach program.

"We're going to start by polling people we know are in interfaith families to get them to tell us what they'd like to have happening so we can gear it more towards exactly what they want," she said.

DeYoung said there has been talk of a need for this kind of program, which would work to help families sort out how they want to incorporate Judaism in their families and their homes. "I think each family is unique in how they handle it and what they choose to do," she said. "You have to work with the families, wherever their comfort level is."

People to People
Rabbi Levy said the secret to working with intermarried couples is the same as working with anybody else--it's about putting statistics aside and working with people. "You just treat them as decent human beings, not as objects to be captured into the orbit of Jewish life or statistics to be won over, or victories for the grandparents or the grandchildren--just decent human beings trying to put together their lives," he said. "The greatest mistake the Jewish community makes is seeing it as winning families. It's not a question of winning families, it's a question of serving people."

Rabbi Levy sees categorizing the intermarried as a problem. "This means on one hand we want to serve them and on the other hand we're treating them differently," he said. "The main service they need is to be welcomed in."

At his temple, programming is not usually aimed specifically at intermarried families, but to all. He emphasized including and not isolating families.

"The key to being inclusive is to be so inclusive that you forget you're being inclusive, and that goes for the various different groups," he said. "The welcome needs to be so welcome that it's not an effort, it's just who you are."

But occasionally, Beth Emeth offers programs specifically designed for intermarried families. He said some issues, such as how to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, might be addressed more comfortably in a setting that is restricted to intermarried families.

December Dilemma
This month, traditions can bring up tough questions for many interfaith families. Some Ann Arbor families say they have the holiday situation fairly sorted out. "We've thought a lot about this," said Bonnie Keen. "Basically, we're raising the kids Jewish, so Jim helps us celebrate Hanukkah and we help him and his family celebrate Christmas.

"When it's time for Christmas, Jim does get a tree--something that was really important to him and tied into his childhood memories of Christmas, but the girls understand that it's Daddy's tree and we're helping Daddy decorate his tree."

Bonnie and Jim use celebrating a birthday as an analogy to explain Christmas to their daughters, Gabby, 7, and Molly, 4. "It's not your birthday, but you're helping someone enjoy theirs and you can participate in whatever the birthday activities are and you go home with a loot bag," she said.

Though religious identity certainly comes up in December, Keen sees the discussion as a year-round project. "We do all the other things throughout the year so they understand they're Jewish," she said. "So when Christmas comes around they understand it's not their holiday but they feel secure helping Jim and his family celebrate."

Ann Arborites Alan and Angela Harris keep the symbols for Hanukkah and Christmas in different rooms. Ian, 5, and Jack, 3, help their mom decorate her advent calendar leading up to Christmas but definitely know they are Jewish year-round, Angela Harris said.

"We're very open with the kids and we just say that we all celebrate Hanukkah because they're Jewish and their dad's Jewish and we have Jewish people in our extended family," she said. "We also celebrate Christmas because I'm Christian and we have Christians in our extended family, and that's not confusing at all to them."

The family is involved with the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County and Beth Israel Congregation (Conservative).

"When we were expecting our first child, we met with Rabbi [Robert] Dobrusin," Harris said. "He was just so supportive and explained to us that the children would have to go to the mikvah, ritual bath, for both of our kids. He just made me feel really comfortable and included, even though I'm Christian."

Rabbi Dobrusin's congregation welcomes many interfaith families and he talks with people about what might be good choices for them.

"I think we're clearly interested in helping families find their place in the Jewish community. If it's with our congregation, great. If it's somewhere else, we want to help them understand their choices and let them know we're always here to talk.

"It's been the major intention of the congregation to hope people see that we want to be welcoming and serve people's needs, whoever they are, and I think people, in interfaith families as well, find us a place to celebrate the Jewish tradition," he said.

Rabbi Dobrusin acknowledged there are ritual restrictions, as with all Conservative synagogues, with regard to how people who are not Jewish can participate in the service. For example, a non-Jew may not read Torah.

He said Ann Arbor is somewhat unique for a community its size. It is able to offer many choices for people in a variety of situations to experience Judaism.

Harris said within the Jewish community, she isn't even aware of who is intermarried. This is different from places she has lived before. "It just seemed like it was more of a dialogue" in other places--"'Oh, so and so, she's not Jewish,' that kind of thing, whereas here I don't think people are interested in defining people that way," she said.

Alan Harris doesn't use the term "interfaith" to describe himself or his family. "I don't say: I'm American. I'm Jewish. I'm 5 feet 7 inches. And I'm interfaith," he said. "That's not an adjective I use to identify myself because in this community there's no reason to. [Here] people don't pigeonhole you into a category."

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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Karen Schwartz

Karen Schwartz is a freelance writer and University of Michigan student living in Ann Arbor.

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