November 28, 2011
About eight years ago, a small group of Jews, along with several non-Jewish spouses, gathered to discuss developing a formal group of some sort. My husband Mike and I were part of this group, looking to help bring Jews together in a community so lacking a Jewish presence that each initial participant felt she/he was "the only one."
Those exact words — "I thought I was the only one" — have been heard over and over, as more and more people find Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors (FVJN) and participate in this community's many activities.
Some of that feeling may stem from the fact that many of FVJN's Jewish participants (there isn't a formal membership) are in interfaith marriages/partnerships and families.
My own husband, who is very involved in FVJN — serving on the Board of Directors and volunteering on large undertakings throughout the year — is Catholic. When we belonged to a Reform synagogue, not being Jewish meant that he could not do certain things, mostly related to touching the Torah, but also in regard to leadership positions within the congregation. But with the creation of FVJN, Mike is able to be involved in and support what is a vital part of our family. We feel that we now have the best fit for us, in terms of a religious community.
From the get-go, whether for monthly services, holiday events, social gatherings, religious school and more, one of the highest goals of FVJN has been to create a welcoming Jewish community in the Tri-Cities (St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia, IL) and nearby towns, with an emphasis on including non-Jewish family members as well.
Chuck Evans of Geneva, who is in an interfaith marriage with his Jewish wife, Mim, has always felt like an equal member of the FVJN community.
"When I was at a former Conservative synagogue, I felt there was this (attitude of) you're the second part, on the outside edge of the family's participation. I've never felt that with FVJN. I've never felt like 'you're not Jewish so you're excluded from participation,'" said Evans. "It's been easy to be part of it."
This fairly informal religious group is located between two traditional synagogues, both established approximately 100 years ago: one formerly Conservative (now unaffiliated) synagogue to the north, and one formerly Orthodox (also now unaffiliated) synagogue to the south. Both are about 30 minutes away from FVJN. There is also a Reconstructionist synagogue and a Reform synagogue about 40 minutes east, and a Reform synagogue about the same distance to the west.
Some FVJN participants maintain memberships at these synagogues, but many do not. Among the 300 or so households who have signed up with FVJN, there is a very broad spectrum of participants, from those who grew up in observant, traditional homes, to those who have not been involved in a Jewish community nor Jewish practices for years. The exact number of interfaith families is unknown, but estimated to be more than half.
Nancy Sohn, president of the FVJN Board of Directors, states that FVJN has multiple practices which create an open and accessible place for Jewish and interfaith families.
"We use lots of English, and explanations of Hebrew and Yiddish terms in services and announcements," said Sohn. "We state, in most all announcements of activities, that they are interfaith-friendly. We include non-Jewish people who are part of interfaith families on the Board. We also permit non-Jewish children to attend FVJN's (Jewish) religious education classes."
Whereas synagogues follow very specific policies and practices regarding participation of non-Jewish family members, FVJN has "no restrictions, as long as non-Jewish participants are not proselytizing to attendees at FVJN events," explained Sohn.
FVJN has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception only 8 years ago. A prime example of this is the group's religious school, Fox Valley Jewish School (FVJS), which opened September 2010, with about 15 children, in preschool through 8th grade. Expecting some growth, the school committee (and the group as a whole) was floored when, by the middle of the school year, enrollment had increased to over 40 students. This includes a family of Christian children with Jewish ancestors.
The rapid growth of the religious school, as well as of the group as a whole, is attributed to FVJN's "openness to the practices, beliefs, interests and values of the various members of our Jewish community, as well as by our non-exclusionary practices," Sohn said. "We offer varied kinds of events, for the more and the less religious, for various ages, and for people of various interests: social education, religious, sexual orientation. We are nonjudgmental and willing to try offering new opportunities and events."
It's obvious that FVJN is fulfilling its commitment to being interfaith friendly, but Sohn sees room to build on current efforts, mainly by soliciting volunteers from among non-Jewish family members, and offering more Jewish educational opportunities for those interested.
"I feel like at FVJN, the unit is the family, not the individual (members of the family). I think the focus of the organization is right and the openness to participate in activities is there," said Evans. "This organization, as a whole, lives up to its name. It's inclusive and easy to be a part of it."
We've learned a lot from our community's practice. Here are some tips for a successful interfaith group:
- Incorporate English, with explanations of Hebrew terms, holiday names, etc., wherever possible.
- State in announcements those activities that are interfaith friendly.
- Encourage active participants to go out of their way to welcome new people at all gatherings.
- Permit non-Jewish children to attend the organization's religious education classes.
- Encourage non-Jewish participants to volunteer and to join the Board of Directors.
- Offer Jewish educational activities for interested non-Jewish family members.
- Practice openness and non-exclusion.