S.F. Interfaith effort successful, study shows

The outreach efforts of San Francisco's 15-year-old Interfaith Connection are triggering increased Jewish involvement and nearly doubling synagogue membership among interfaith families, according to a survey released last month by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute.

The study found that synagogue membership among those who had contacted the Interfaith Connection grew from 14 percent at the time of the initial communication to 27 percent at the time the survey was completed last summer.

In addition, nearly half of those who were still unaffiliated with a synagogue responded that they planned to join one.

Moreover, while 41 percent said they were "not at all involved in Jewish life" when they first encountered the Interfaith Connection, only 7 percent were uninvolved at the time of the survey's completion.

"That's a dramatic change," said Egon Mayer, sociologist, author and founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. "It doesn't mean they all became intensely practicing Jews or their partners converted, but in their own frame of mind, they see themselves as much more involved than not at all."

Rosanne Levitt, who launched the Interfaith Connection in 1986 and applied for the grant that funded the survey, said the survey shows the outreach program seems to be working.

"It's nice to have validation," said Levitt, who directs the program for interfaith families, based in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and has led more than 50 groups for interfaith couples.

"Statistics show the percentage of people who join a synagogue or plan to join a synagogue are comparable to that among couples in which each [partner is] Jewish."

Levitt also noted that not all of those who had contact with Interfaith Connection and were part of the survey had actually participated in its classes and workshops. Yet they still wished to stay in touch with the outreach program.

Apart from its high intermarriage rate — variously estimated at between 60 and 75 percent — San Francisco was the obvious place for a survey on interfaith programs, according to Mayer.

The Interfaith Connection is "the longest-running outreach program in the country and the most established," he said. "They were doing this long before it became the fashion around the rest of the country."

Questionnaires were sent out to 2,700 interfaith couples in the Bay Area and 346 came back. The study, completed during the summer, was released last month.

Discussing the response, Mayer said: "It's not as high as one would like, as one always wants greater numbers. But in looking at who responded, we didn't find any particular bias; there were people in all categories."

Respondents, he added, ranged from people who had become active in the Jewish community as a result of their participation in the program, to those who made initial contact but never followed through.

The survey was funded by a grant from the Jewish Connection Partnership — a coalition that includes the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund — under the auspices of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

Said Mayer: "We wanted to look at not only what is successful, but what turned people off and what they didn't like. Outreach is only as good as your willingness to learn from the people you're trying to reach. If you're not willing to find out what it is they want, you're not going to be successful in giving them service they value."

The results showed that the program, which consists of workshops, lectures, discussion groups and holiday celebrations, made a significant impact.

"The findings speak to the power of this kind of program," Mayer said. When programs like Interfaith Connection first began, there was "this large question mark hanging over them. Do they really accomplish anything? Does it matter whether you reach people or not?"

On the surface, the 27 percent synagogue-membership rate among those who had contact with Interfaith Connection may seem small, since the implication is that 73 percent may not affiliate with synagogues. However, Mayer asked, "What numbers of the American Jewish population in general are members?"

Levitt said the percentage of interfaith couples in the survey who join — or plan to join — a synagogue seems to be as great as that among Bay Area couples in which both partners are Jewish.

What surprised Levitt most about the survey is that while more than half of the respondents had attended an Interfaith Connection class or workshop, a large number had not. Yet they nonetheless wanted to remain on the mailing list, "felt connected to the program and took the time to respond."

Such connection, she said, is vital. In her own experience, Levitt had frequently called a woman on her mailing list who had expressed interest in programs on raising children in an intermarried family but could never fit the classes into her schedule. "She thanked me for calling. Every time I called it reminded [the couple] that they needed to talk about [the topic], so they would. They recently joined a synagogue."

For those involved in interfaith work, the message is "Don't give up," said Levitt. The existence of these programs is important even to those who never attend.

However, not all couples who come to Interfaith Connection maintain that connection, said Mayer. He pointed out that many couples sought out the outreach program just to find a rabbi to marry them. Once that goal was achieved, they had no further contact with the program.

Nonetheless, while people's lives don't become completely transformed, Mayer said, "there is a significant minority for whom this kind of programming really alters their relationship with the Jewish community."

Furthermore, he added, most respondents who went through the program had positive things to say about it. Many were glad that someone had called them, which made them feel they were welcome in the Jewish community.

Plans are in the works to focus on similar programs around the country. Buoyed by the rise in synagogue membership among participants, Levitt agreed with Mayer that the existence of such programs gives out a message of welcome, which she said is particularly critical in the Bay Area.

"In many cases, the Jewish partner is not from this area and they don't even know they're welcome to participate in the community," Levitt said. "Just the idea of having the program — even if people don't come — gives them the message that they're welcome to join us."