What do interfaith couples want from the established Jewish community? Some people in the community believe that these couples want to be left alone to manage their religious life by themselves. Others believe that the choice of a non-Jewish spouse is a rejection of the Jewish community. I do not believe either to be true.
Through my eight years of working with interfaith couples and families, I have learned that interfaith couples and families want three things from the Jewish community: acceptance, respect for both religious backgrounds, and information. These couples are tired of being excluded and want to be part of the ongoing communal process. This information is very important because it differs from what the elders in the mainstream Jewish community are saying and it places the burden directly on that community to shift from an exclusive point of view to an extending and inclusive position. Interfaith couples' request, to be accepted, valued, and included, points to new tasks for Jewish institutions: to create a variety of ongoing activities and learning opportunities. It is not enough to run workshops, develop learner Shabbat dinners, and teach classes on how to make a Passover Seder. These programs, while helpful, are limited, and continue to separate interfaith families from the mainstream Jewish community.
The challenge remains how to incorporate interfaith couples and families into the fabric of the already existing institutions. We need to reach out and make a difference. Consider what the Jewish community has done when each wave of new Jewish immigrants came to the United States. Everyone became involved: the social service agencies, the synagogues, the community centers, and the educational institutions. Imagine what might happen if we harnessed that kind of person power for the interfaith couples and families, creating, in effect, a "Welcome Wagon." It is time to stop wringing our hands and to celebrate the arrival of this wave of "new immigrants."
In addition to acceptance, interfaith couples and families desire to create and structure a religious life that is respectful to both individuals' backgrounds. My interfaith workshops have all been given under the auspices of traditional Jewish institutions, namely a Conservative synagogue and the local downtown Jewish community center. Given those settings, I assume that each couple wants to have Judaism as part of their religious life; indeed almost all of the couples with whom I have worked wanted Judaism to be "the lead" religion. Since two people from different religious backgrounds also have two heritages to deal with, even when a conversion takes place, religious programming must be careful to use language that reflects the couples' reality and is respectful of both their heritages. Thus, the notion of "Judaism as the lead religion," still recognizes that more than one religion will be a part of the family's larger religious life. This understanding supports interfaith couples in their struggle to develop a religious life that satisfies them both.
And finally, interfaith couples want information about how to lead a Jewish life. They want to know how to incorporate meaningful rituals into their lives and thus, they ask questions about finding a rabbi to convert their children, have a brit (ritual circumcision) for their sons, create a naming ceremony for their daughters, marry them, and participate in all the other life passages marked by religious ritual. I have found that having a sympathetic clergy member participate in the workshops is an integral factor in fulfilling this need. The clergy's presence provides an important opportunity for interfaith couples to interact with a representative of the mainstream community, and to increase their understanding of Jewish rituals.
Although many American Jews consider interfaith marriages a problem, I see this as an opportunity. It is up to us, as a community, to help frame the agenda and to present Judaism as the complex and inspiring religion that it is.