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What We Can Learn from Interfaith Families

This article originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.

No one can be surprised by the year 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey intermarriage data. Whether measured the same as in 1990 or more restrictively, whether the 2000 rate is 54 percent or 47 percent, the Jewish community continues to experience a huge amount of intermarriage. The important issue remains whether we will respond positively and seek to increase the numbers of interfaith families--33 percent in 2000, up from 25 percent in 1990--who raise their children as Jews.

There is a Talmudic dictum, "go and see what the people are doing" (Eruvin 14b). The InterfaithFamily.com Network has done that in a qualitative way, asking interfaith families who have made Jewish choices to tell why they did, what those choices mean to them, and what helped them on their journeys. The results of its essay contest, made possible by the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, are available on www.InterfaithFamily.com. Here are some lessons from more than 130 deeply personal narratives:

1. Many Jewish partners and many children of intermarried parents express a very strong Jewish identity and commitment to Jewish life, and many non-Jewish partners are extremely supportive of their families' Jewish involvement. Two of our intermarried writers founded synagogues; one child of intermarried parents is in rabbinical school, one plans to be a rabbi, and two were president of their college Hillel. One writer said she did not have an "interfaith family," she had "a Jewish family in which one parent is not Jewish"--a concept the Jewish community would do well to understand, accept and welcome.

2. Many people--including Jewish partners, non-Jewish partners, and children of intermarried parents--say that because they are in interfaith families, they cannot take their Jewish involvement for granted, but instead have to make conscious decisions about what is important to them. Too many Jews--including those married to other Jews--are unaffiliated and apathetic. But many intermarried Jews have had to ask themselves if and why Jewish life is important to them, and this questioning has led to increased participation as they find Jewish life an incomparable source of meaning and fulfillment.

3. Many parents recognize the importance of giving children one religious identity, and there are particular aspects of Jewish life that appeal to people in interfaith families and could be promoted in outreach efforts. Many committed Christians are comfortable choosing Judaism for their children and family because Jewish theology is not inconsistent with their beliefs. Many interfaith couples find Shabbat observance to be particularly meaningful, and many appreciate how Judaism values questioning and struggling for answers.

4. Many interfaith families resolve the fact that there are two traditions in their family by viewing their children as having two cultures but one religious identity. Participation in Christmas celebrations should be viewed in this context. Without exception, our Jewish writers experience participation in Christmas celebrations not as having religious significance, but as honoring and respecting the tradition of the non-Jewish partner or parent. One writer said, "My daughter doesn't have to banish one part of herself to embrace another. I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn her into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life."

5. The Jewish community's efforts to increase the involvement of interfaith families should abide by Dr. Phil's maxim, "every interaction either contributes to or contaminates a relationship." Interfaith families respond positively to welcoming interactions. Such as, when family members express love and welcome. When people in synagogues encourage them to visit and join and participate. When rabbis express gratitude to non-Jewish partners or compliment them. When rabbis officiate at their weddings, even on condition that the couple agree to raise their children as Jews.

Conversely, "it may be the poor reception which intermarried couples receive, rather than intermarriage itself, which creates a barrier to be overcome before couples can even consider raising their children Jewish."

6. Many interfaith families respond positively when they know that other interfaith families are involved, and to outreach programs designed for them. Participating in a program enabled one writer "to meet other couples, make friends with people who are facing the same issues we face, and feel comfortable branching out into other communities of Judaism in a synagogue." Writers told numerous stories of the powerful impact of Stepping Stones programs (parallel parent and young children education, for unaffiliated interfaith families), "how-to" adult education programs (because they didn't "have the tools to make a Jewish life together"), and programs designed to help couples communicate about religious differences.

7. Interfaith families connect with Jewish life at varied times and in random ways, a variety that highlights the importance of always standing ready to capitalize on opportunities to welcome. They connect before weddings, when children are born or start school or reach Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, when they go to college, and later. They read articles and books; they see advertisements for outreach programs in Jewish newspapers or parenting magazines or in emails forwarded by friends or in Temple bulletins; they find a welcome as a young adult at their college Hillel, or as a young mother in her child's Jewish pre-school; they are put in touch with someone who welcomes them.

Traditionally, kol yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. To strengthen the Jewish community by increasing the participation of interfaith families, every Jew also should be responsible to be aware of and sensitive to, and to take advantage of, every opportunity to invite interfaith families into Jewish life. Or, as one writer put it, "to put a bit more faith into interfaith marriages."

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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