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June 16, 2011
The Contra Costa Jewish Day School (K-8th grade), where I serve as the Rabbi-in-Residence, was founded in 2001 and is located in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Like much of Northern California and especially the Bay Area, there are a high proportion of interfaith families found throughout the wider Jewish community here. Therefore, it is not surprising that a significant number of the nearly 100 families that send their children to our school are interfaith families. Interfaith families constitute approximately 28% of our school community and are a normal, accepted and, in every way, an unremarkable but important part of the constituency of our school.
As a community Jewish day school, we are not affiliated with any particular denomination of American Judaism. However, we have found, and worked to ensure, that families and children from the entire spectrum of Jewish life are an integral part of our wider school community.
The head of my school, Dean Goldfein, has also written about the deep involvement and significant role that interfaith families have played in our school in a 2007 article for InterfaithFamily.com, "Jewish Community Day Schools Welcome Interfaith Families."
One of the ways that I, as the rabbi of the school, work to ensure a welcoming, pluralistic and inclusive atmosphere is by how I and my fellow Judaic Studies teachers present the material we teach about the Jewish tradition. Whenever we teach any subject that explicitly deals with any particular element of Jewish belief or a faith system, and whenever we teach anything having to do with specific customs, rituals or mitzvoth (commandments), I preface my teaching by stating nearly verbatim the following "sound byte" or encapsulation of our school's philosophical approach to teaching about Judaism:
Just because I am a rabbi, and this is a Judaic Studies class and this is a Jewish day school does not mean that you have to do or believe exactly what we are learning about on this topic. If you or your family do happen to observe this practice or believe this particular idea, that does not make you "good" Jews or any better than anyone else. Conversely, if you or your family do not practice or believe this particular idea, that does not make you "bad" Jews. I don't think there are any such people as "good" or "bad" Jews. Rather, I teach you these practices and beliefs so that you and your family can decide for yourselves how to express your Jewish identity as you grow and learn more. It is not my job as a rabbi or Judaic Studies teacher to tell you what to do or believe — that is your job and responsibility! My job is to teach you about the Jewish tradition so you can make your own choices!
While there will always be differences of beliefs and religious practices among the various denominations within the Jewish community, I strive to ensure that everyone feels welcome and accepted in our school and community, no matter the level of their particular Jewish practice or belief. And this is especially true for interfaith families who may be struggling with how to articulate their unique blend of religious perspectives and practices.
Another way that I endeavor to ensure that families from all different religious backgrounds, and especially interfaith families, feel welcome and an integral part of our school community is through adult education or parent learning. We have varied our approach and presentation over the years, from direct, on-going classes to short, once-a-week drop-in sessions to stand-alone guest clergy at community workshops. But the one thing that we have never departed from is our belief and commitment to the idea that the more educated our parents are about Jewish life the stronger these families will be as participants and leaders in our school community and the wider Jewish community.
What I have discovered through my own direct involvement in teaching our parent community is that those parents, especially from interfaith families &mdash whether the Jewish or non-Jewish parent — who make the effort to increase their familiarity, comfort zone and knowledge of Judaism have become volunteer leaders in our parent community and often become the very models of Jewish living and commitment that we encourage everyone to emulate. In fact, one father in an interfaith family in our school community has served several years as the head of our Parents Association and has also written about his experiences for InterfaithFamily.com in "Our Interfaith Reform Family Finds a Comfortable Place in a Jewish Day School."
While there is a vast spectrum in our parent community of families who observe Shabbat, kashrut and other Jewish holiday practices to varying degrees of traditional practice, interfaith families fall throughout this span. It is not accurate to falsely stereotype interfaith families in our school community as the least religiously involved or knowledgeable. In fact, often just the opposite applies. And given our school's religious practice policies regarding kashrut at school (we provide kosher lunches on various days of the week, but families can only send vegetarian or dairy bag lunches to school) and Shabbat birthday parties (in which we strongly encourage our families to avoid planning parties on Shabbat and Jewish holidays to ensure everyone might be able to attend), it is rarely possible to even identify interfaith families in our community.
In short, interfaith families are a normal, accepted and, in every way, an unremarkable but important part of the constituency of our school community. In fact, as an institution committed to welcoming as broad as possible the full gamut of the Jewish community, we serve as a valuable vector providing a hospitable channel for many families to become more formally and deeply engaged with other Jewish institutions such as synagogue membership and connection to Israel and Jewish federations.