Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.
The Next Wave
Nine months ago, when "Both Sides of the Family," a small theatre production about intermarriage, began really filling seats, turning a small theatre into an over-packed firetrap, it was every actor's dream-come-true. But the play itself isn't Broadway-bound, or even off-Broadway bound. It's bound for Akron, Ohio, and the 3,500-member Jewish community there.
Which is fine with Jeffrey Grover, the play's co-star. Where there are Jews, there are interfaith couples--lots of them--and they have flocked to see Grover (Jewish) and his co-star (not) perform additional shows in the Cleveland area.
|"Both Sides of the Family," a touring two-person play about an intermarried Jewish man and an intermarried Christian woman, is one of a number of innovative forms of outreach that has appeared in recent years.|
"People said, 'Wow, this really raised a lot of emotions and thoughts that we normally don't verbalize,'" Grover said recently. "Many people were quite moved by it."
With "Both Sides," Grover had not only produced a work of drama; he had also tapped a market. And he's hardly the only one. Twenty-five years after the Reform movement pioneered outreach to interfaith families through classes and discussion groups, new, innovative forms of outreach are sprouting up. Some, like Grover, are using old media for new messages. Some are utilizing cutting-edge technology.
"You won't believe what we're doing," said Chuck Goldman, whose Reconstructionist synagogue, Shirat Hayam, in Marshfield, Mass., now offers interfaith-friendly sermons through the temple's homepage. "We set our rabbi up with a computer, an iPod, and a digital microphone," he recalled recently. And voila: interfaith podcasts.
"The podcasting did some really amazing things," he went on. "People who are interested in our congregation--we really cater to interfaith families with kids--can see firsthand what their kids would be learning as bar-mitzvah students."
With podcasts, you don't have to schlep to temple, he pointed out. The Empowering Ruth listserv, an online community for women who've recently converted, is just as simple (just register and log on). Same with the half-Jewish Network, an online resource/meetinghouse for children of interfaith couples.
You don't need an iPod (or even an iMac) to sample the bounty. Most big cities host Jewish film festivals, where movies like Mixed Blessings, which wrestles with issues germane to the million or so interfaith couples in America, are claiming spots. "Interfaith couples are so grateful that it's not judgmental," said Jennifer Kaplan, the director of Mixed Blessings (which drew 300 viewers at both the Atlanta and Calgary Jewish Film Festivals). "When couples approach me, they say, 'Thank you so much for doing this; it made us feel like we're not alone.'"
"I certainly hoped to change the climate in terms of clergy and organizational life," she went on. Indeed, a number of new books and films represent progressive attempts to reframe the discussion about intermarriage. The New American Judaism, a new book by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Blecher, recasts intermarriage as a boon for American Judaism; and a recent article in PresenTense magazine cites the "biblical" case for intermarriage. (Moses did it, and he was hardly alone.) Those two share shelf-space with Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, a 2007 paperback by Paul Golin and Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and a collection of memoirs by half-Jewish writers, Half-Life.
Within the next year, several different groups will take interfaith couples or families on trips to Israel, including the Interfaith Connection of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. And the country's newest Jewish museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is crafting its exhibits around the idea of being equally accessible to Jews and their non-Jewish friends and partners.
All this diverse activity suggests, on the one hand, the growth and maturation of outreach, and on the other, a need to reach contemporary audiences in new ways. Several studies in recent years have shown the draw that cultural events and locations, like films, plays and museums, have, in contrast to synagogues, which many young Jews consider parochial and intimidating. The traditional introductory Judaism class taught in the temple basement may not have the appeal it once did. And just as proponents of outreach have capitalized on the opportunities that new technology has created, so have the opponents of intermarriage. Type in "intermarriage" into Google, and half of the top 10 search results are virulently anti-intermarriage. But this doesn't discourage those on the frontlines of outreach.
"It's not about negatives here," said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which earmarked $375,000--its largest sum ever--to interfaith outreach in 2007-'08. "It's about creating a beautiful, meaningful Jewish life and making it available to everyone who wants to come in."