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Sensitizing Educators

Updated May 2012

As the number of interfaith marriages continues to grow (currently 50% of Jewish young adults find their partners in other religions), the numbers of interfaith families will increase to 66%.

If you think about a bar or bat mitzvah class with 20 teens as an example, you will see how this happens. Ten of the teens (50% of twenty) will find their partners in other religions and form ten interfaith marriages or partnerships. The other ten will marry each other (statistically speaking) and form five Jewish-Jewish homes. From those twenty teens we have fifteen couples and 2/3 or ten are intermarried. This is the future.

In the past 15 years, there have already been more children born to one Jewish parent than two Jewish parents. From the above example, if each couple has two kids, that's 20 kids from interfaith homes and only 10 from Jewish-Jewish homes. These statistics may be startling to religious educators.

The challenge is to make these children and their parents comfortable and well integrated into the community.

Here are some suggestions on how to achieve those goals:

  1. Religious schools (and synagogues) need to have clear policies about the welcome of interfaith and intercultural families. What positions can they hold in the school, on boards or committees? What ritual roles can they take? If there are roles they cannot hold, the reasons need to be stated explicitly in respectful language. InterfaithFamily.com has Recommendations for Creating a Welcoming Policy Document, which offers models from Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues to help you write this policy.
  2. Teachers need to be sensitized to the experience of children who live in an extended family where there is more than one religion. Teachers may be the first Jewish professional that a parent meets. The teacher's attitude toward multicultural and interfaith families may determine whether there are Jewish choices for this family.
    • Teachers need to examine their own feelings about intermarriage and intercultural families and be in line with the policies of the community.
    • Teachers who are in families with interfaith/intercultural family members will be an asset, and can be both role models and resources to other teachers.
    • Children from interfaith and intercultural families love both parents, so any negativity towards other religions will be hurtful.
    • Children may speak about celebrating other religions' holidays with family and should not be embarrassed or shamed.
    • Children with confusion about their religious identity should be offered a family meeting with the principal or rabbi.
  3. Schools and synagogues need to send out a clear message of welcome to interfaith families.
    • Put a clear and explicit welcome on your organization's website and in advertisements. Take a look at the Recommendations for Creating a Welcoming Website for some great models.
    • Photos on walls and in advertisements need to model a diverse Jewish community.
    • Avoid the use of Yiddish, Hebrew and all "insider" jargon that assumes a level of understanding. Many parents will not have this and it will send a message of "you are not welcome."
    • All forms should use inclusive language and not assume all parents are Jewish, married or heterosexual.
  4. Preschools and supplementary religious schools serve an increasingly important role in educating parents. Family education and communications from the school to the family will be vital in connecting the family to Judaism. Providing handouts and links to more resources is a gentle way to encourage Jewish practice.
     

Acknowledge the universality of many Jewish values that are echoed in other religions.Here are some links to articles at InterfaithFamily.com that will give teachers a sense of the issues for these families. They are both by Sheila Goldberg, a wonderful Jewish educator and consultant: Will Christopher McNulty Feel at Home in a Jewish Religious School? and Is There a Place for Jesus in Our Religious School Curriculum.

Here is an article written by a mom of a black Jewish girl, helpful to religious school teachers in understanding the experience of a child who feels like an outsider. The author includes a very extensive list of children's books which will open this subject up to young children. See Debbie Popiel White's Yes You Can Be Black AND Jewish.

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." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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.
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