Interfaith Families and Synagogues

By Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon


Begin with a couple from your congregation: she is Jewish, not very religious but strongly identified as a Jew, he is Christian, non observant.

Today, Jews marrying non-Jews are not doing so in order to escape from their Jewish roots. They do not consider themselves to be Jewish failures and are often resentful of their condemnation by much of the organized Jewish world. Most significantly, the non-Jewish partner is often seeking a spiritually dynamic life and is quite open to Jewish living and observance. The partner is often not a practicing Christian and finds Jewish observance, values, and traditions appealing and meaningful.

Intermarriage is dramatically changing the American Jewish culture. New Jews-by-choice as well as those non-Jews actively living a Jewish life require new institutional responses to their needs. In addition to a new population of those not born as Jews, many unaffiliated Jews are seeking a newly defined spiritual home but feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in the traditional synagogue institution.

Institutional Change

The traditional program and design of the American synagogue is not conducive to welcoming and integrating these new members of the Jewish community. The American synagogue has been built around an assumed collective ethnic memory, experience, and loyalty. Jewish identity was largely determined by birth, and few leaders or thinkers anticipated an American culture in which significant numbers of non-Jews would seek to become part of the Jewish world, whether through formal conversion or voluntary lifestyle.

Even in synagogues where an active Outreach program is in place, Outreach is seen as a specific program that has no real effect on changing the culture of the synagogue itself. One cannot expect a radically different population within Jewish culture to fit into a traditional institutional model. Significant institutional change is necessary in order to create a synagogue that is welcoming to these new members of the American Jewish community. Traditional forms of Jewish education, worship, and funding often act as entrance barriers to this group. If success of Outreach programing is measured by affiliation rates, the primary institution of Jewish identity must be transformed.


The traditional Jewish supplementary school is widely recognized as a failure. Better textbooks, higher salaries for teachers, or improved curricula cannot solve endemic problems based on fundamental design. The supplementary school program does not work for most Jewish families. It is even more of a problem for families in which one parent was not born as a Jew. Only the American synagogue maintains a Sunday morning program that actively separates children from parents. No person born as a Christian knows a model of parents dropping off their children for religious education.

Indeed, throughout today’s American culture, parents are spending more time with their children in weekend activities. Dual professional couples seek opportunities to participate in programs with their children. Children’s museums, cultural centers, art and natural history museums all have successful family education programs usually meeting on weekends. The synagogue has an opportunity to build upon this trend and create exciting educational opportunities for parents and children to experience Judaism together.

Rather than a drop-off religious school, synagogues must offer quality family-based religious learning. In particular, parents need to be empowered to transmit Jewish values and traditions to their children so that the educational process can be centered on the home, with the religious school as supplementary. This kind of education program must develop beyond holiday workshops for families. The ideal curriculum should engage all age groups in challenging learning on the same or complementary topics, but at age appropriate levels. The goal is to have the family unit continue its learning, discussion, and engagement after they leave the synagogue building. Serious adult learning models the notion of Jewish study as a lifelong enterprise. The synagogue must also transmit the spiritual power of learning. Separately or in coalition with other synagogues, serious text study should be offered.

Sukkat Shalom as Model

Sukkat Shalom offers a model of a synagogue dedicated to transformation. Congregation Sukkat Shalom was formed initially from an Outreach support group that had been meeting for eight years. By 1995 that group had grown to approximately twenty households and had offered group support discussions, family educational programs, holiday and Shabbat observance, guest scholars and discussions, and occasional worship events. Congregation Sukkat Shalom was established with the clear mission of being a congregation of welcome and acceptance to a diverse community. Sukkat Shalom has attempted to transform the nature of the American synagogue in areas of Outreach, family education, worship and observance, and funding.


Sukkat Shalom’s education program involves the entire family. Parents and children join together twice a month to explore stories, values, and traditions. A combination of parallel and joint study deepens the learning experience for all. The primary goal is to establish a model in which the family is the key learning unit. The curriculum is largely text based with children learning the key biblical stories while parents are exposed to serious text study complementary to their children’s learning. Older children explore values and ethics through the same biblical tales. The goal of the Family School is to enable the entire family to find stimulation and challenge within Jewish thought.


Worship is experienced in an intimate setting conducive to meditation, poetry, and song. Creative readings both in Hebrew in English are intended to deepen the spiritual search. At least once a month the community gathers for a Shabbat meal. With songs, blessings, prayers and food, Shabbat as sacred meal is shared. The worship service may include elements of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Hassidic, and Renewal traditions. A key goal is to foster a spirit of Shabbat as intimate, home observance through the synagogue as model. Shared meals within the congregation allow all members to experience Shabbat as sacred time.


At Sukkat Shalom members are asked to make voluntary yearly pledges to support the work of the congregation. Guidelines are suggested, but each family is free to determine its own level of giving. The leadership of Sukkat Shalom feels that this system has produced similar financial results as the more traditional dues system without the aspect of resentment often expressed by synagogue members elsewhere.


Sukkat Shalom is attempting to transform the nature of the traditional American synagogue. As a community built on inclusiveness and respect for diversity, the congregation has gone far beyond individual and specific programs of Outreach or support. All aspects of the congregation are affected by the mission to imagine a radically new synagogue for a new community.


About Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.