Interfaith program shifts focus toward entire Bay Area

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For years, Dawn Kepler based her program “Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach for Interfaith Couples” out of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Last week she left the federation, returning to the place where she began — Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica — to continue her work with intermarried couples. And now, she’s casting a wider net.

“In the East Bay I was doing this balancing act of responding to all areas and still being [a federation] program,” she says. “Now I can be a Bay Area-wide program.”

Says federation CEO Loren Basch, “Dawn has dedicated herself to outreach, with a special emphasis on interfaith programming, but generally everything she does is good for everybody. She’s a Bay Area resource on her way to being a national resource.”

Kepler sees the move as a chance to expand her counseling, educational and outreach work. With the intermarriage rate hovering at around 50 percent, she predicts her services will be needed all over the region.

Quoting the late founder of the national Jewish Outreach Institute, Egon Mayer, Kepler says, “Being against interfaith marriage is like being against the weather.”

Though intermarriage retains a measure of stigma in some Jewish quarters, Kepler believes attitudes are changing. Building Bridges, she says, aims to bring into the Jewish fold Jews who may feel marginalized, whether due to intermarriage, having only a Jewish father or being biracial, unaffiliated or secular.

“We tend to mentally shrink down the community,” Kepler adds. “Our core is larger, but we have to invite them in.”

One hopeful sign to her is a shift in attitude on the part of younger Jews — especially the children of interfaith couples — who view intermarriage differently from their parents and grandparents.

At a recent meeting with this year’s Kohn interns (Jewish undergrads who spend the summer interning with local Jewish agencies), Kepler asked for a show of hands: How many could say intermarriage did not touch their immediate family.

Of the 27 students gathered, only one raised a hand. Even the two Orthodox interns kept their hands down. A third of the young people reported that at least one of their parents was not born Jewish.

She says one prejudice she often confronts is that Orthodox rabbis oppose her efforts. Kepler quickly disposes of that notion. “I found Orthodox rabbis and congregants really understand we live in the Bay Area, that we are this thriving, cutting-edge community, and there’s no better place to be if you want to engage people interested in exploring and making meaning of life.”

Among her Orthodox allies are Rabbi Judah Dardik of Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel and Rabbi Josh Strulowitz of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco.

Kepler is not the only one working locally on interfaith and intermarriage issues. Helena McMahon of the S.F.-based Interfaith Connection and Karen Kushner of Project Welcome are two other longtime advocates.

As part of Kepler’s plan to broaden her outreach, next month she will host a conference — she calls it a think tank — on interfaith and intermarriage. Attendees will be coming from across the country.

Beyond that, Kepler will continue to teach classes, sit on panels and, mostly, counsel intermarried couples and individuals who want to connect with Judaism, but don’t know how — people who are at risk of, as she puts it, being “swept down the river of indecision.”

Just as important to her is working with the Jewish community to press the need to welcome interfaith couples and other Jews on the margins.

“We have to balance our communal fear,” she says. “The question is what do you do? Circle the wagons? Shoot arrows at interfaith couples? Behaving defensively doesn’t invite engagement. We have to be proactive. They need somebody kind.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.