Including Interfaith Families

By Rabbi Rachel Cowan


This is the third in our recent Dialogue and Debate series of articles which originally appeared in the”Virtual GA” website of the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly, We first reprinted an article by our publisher, Ed Case, entitled “Let’s Encourage the Jewish Journeys of Interfaith Families,” and then a response by Elliot Abrams entitled “Let’s Be Clear on What Outreach Means: A Response to Ed Case.” We are proud to reprint an edited interview conducted by Ed Case with Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Director of the Jewish Life Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a pioneer in the field of outreach to those in interfaith marriages. (Written November 2000)

I agree with Ed Case that it is an open question how inclusive of families with interfaith marriage the leadership of the Jewish community is willing to be. I still find a lot of ambivalence on this issue. Some people will talk about outreach to the unaffiliated, but not outreach to the intermarried. They seem to have a lingering belief that if they talk about interfaith marriage, it will happen.

On The Cost Effectiveness of Allocating Resources to Outreach to the Interfaith Married

Elliot Abrams’ argument that it is not cost effective to allocate scarce resources toward outreach to interfaith marrieds who have not expressed interest in the community is questionable. First of all, there are many people who don’t contribute to the community because they’re in interfaith marriages and feel they don’t have a home there. Nobody’s tried to tap that source of money. I believe strongly that the issue is not that we have limited resources, but how we raise funds. When we have good programs we find resources for them. Second of all, the moment you start to say, “Those in interfaith marriages who have expressed an interest in coming in are worth spending on, but the ones who haven’t aren’t,” it’s too judgmental. We need to replace the Dan Elazar model of the community as having a core and outer rings because it has such a hierarchical, judgmental quality to it. We need to take into account the complexity and diversity of people’s identities and the ways different people respond differently to challenges. Who knows who among those in interfaith marriages are expressing interest, and who is it that is hearing the interest expressed? Most families have some people who are very drawn to Judaism and some who aren’t. It’s very fluid. The community needs to think holistically about being attractive and open. A community that is open is going to be more attractive. A community that is very judgmental and frightened, with barriers, is not going to be attractive, except to those already inside. The issue is so much more complicated and subtle than whether resources are wasted on people who aren’t yet expressing interest.

On Ritual Participation By Partners of Different Faiths in Interfaith Marriages

I think that it is completely proper for a religion to say that it has certain specified, defined practices and ritual forms. If I want to take communion, I should become Catholic. If I want to have an aliyah, then I should convert. I don’t have a problem with that. But the underlying attitude and the care with which that attitude is conveyed is critical. If I were the rabbi and the parents of a child, from an interfaith marriage, becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah came to me, I would call them both up, and give the partner of a different faith something to read, a way for them to participate meaningfully at that moment, standing over the Torah. If the community, the rabbi, and the family have a complete sense of comfort and love, the rabbi can say “Look, these are the rules. We’d love you to participate, and here’s how you can.” There are times when people will be really upset about not being allowed to participate fully, but it can be explained perfectly well. To me the problem is when a different attitude, that I very often detect, is conveyed — a certain subtle attitude that persons of another faith are going to hurt our Torah. The Torah can’t be hurt by anybody, and any suggestion of that attitude in this situtation is very negative.

How Judaism is Affected by Interfaith Marriage

Clearly Judaism is influenced by its surrounding context. Judaism in America has been affected by being in a Christian country and it is being changed now by the exposure to Eastern religion. That’s good, it’s how change always happens. But I don’t think that Judaism is being affected by interfaith marriage in the sense that it is becoming less Jewish. Instead, my experience is that by and large you have a lot of people bringing new energy and new interest in. If they are going to relate to Judaism, it’s going to be to Judaism as a religion. People who come into Judaism with a background in a different religion tends to be more, not less, interest in the theology and meaning behind the religion.

How the Community Feels about Converts and Conversion

The thing that I like about Gary Tobin’s “proactive conversion” approach, is that he’s saying we should be proud of what we have and we should be offering it to people. But the community is ambivalent about conversion, about whether they like it or not, about whether they actually ever think that people who convert are Jewish. People are also concerned about not wanting to impose. We started a program called Derech Torah a long time ago. It’s now at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and at Y’s all around the country. It’s an introduction to Judaism. It doesn’t have a conversion agenda, but it talks about the topic; and if people want to convert, it connects them with rabbis. It makes conversion very possible, but it isn’t forcing it, and it’s a very good learning experience. The important thing is to create context, create serious community life, serious learning, and then encourage people to come in. That can perfectly well exist in a program like the one at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, where they have conversion classes, but also many interfaith families come who don’t convert. These families feel accepted and valued for who they are. For the people who do convert, there is a special aliyah and a special program at Shavout.

On Synagogue Interfaith Marriage Policies

I think it’s totally ridiculous for a synagogue not to announce an interfaith marriage. That’s not going to influence a single person to interfaith marry or not interfaith marry. It’s just going to make people feel like they and their children are being judged. It’s just as bad in synagogues where they don’t announce the death of a parent of a partner of a different faith in an interfaith marriage, or offer condolences. People are part of your community; if something wonderful or sad happens, you celebrate or you sympathize.

On “Ger Toshav” Status for Participating Persons of Different Faiths

I can’t imagine someone saying, “Oh, good, I got to be a ger toshav.” But you can have a concept of it. In our history we’ve always had people in our midst who haven’t converted, but have been part of us. Today people who haven’t converted, but take part in our community life, who bring food for the kiddush, who serve on the bikkur cholim committee, have status by virtue of what they’ve done. Let’s not give them a little ger toshav button, but we ourselves can feel enriched by knowing that we’ve always had people like this, and we’ve always welcomed them, and we’re taught by our tradition to honor them. It’s more about educating the community than anything else.


About Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Rabbi Rachel Cowan is the Director of the Jewish Life Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.