Four views: Is interfaith outreach still necessary?

Interfaith outreach began decades ago. Today, it seems that every synagogue and major Jewish organization is doing it — or at least paying it lip service. Is interfaith outreach still around? What state is it in now? And do we still need it? Below and on page 24 are four different perspectives on the present and future of interfaith outreach.

‘Post-welcoming’ — no ‘them,’ just ‘us’

That’s how we think about welcoming at The Kitchen. Anyone who wants to “do Jewish” is welcomed with open arms. Note the emphasis on doing, not being. Our interest is in helping people do Jewish in meaningful ways; we are not interested in birth certificates (bris certificates, if you will) or pedigrees.

We think about it like this: If you aren’t interested in trying anything Jewish, the ride is pretty much over. By the same token, you could be Santa Claus himself, but if you decide to jump on the Jewish train, and are open to seeing where it takes you, then the ride has just begun.

When you start paying attention, you’ll note that (in San Francisco in 2016, but particularly at The Kitchen) we are all in modern families: gay, straight, transgender, people of any ethnicity, people of all faiths. We include Jews by birth, Jews by choice, those in the process of conversion, those who are still deciding whether conversion is right for them, and those who, along with the Jewish members of their family or partnership, have been embraced by The Kitchen.

If we, the emerging future of the Jewish community, are going to focus on the important stuff — connection to Jewish life, willingness and desire to do Jewish — then we really need to reorient ourselves from worrying about how a person identifies to what that person wants to do.

And if we can successfully navigate that communal reorientation, “interfaith outreach” will quickly become a term that has outlived its usefulness, one that should be retired sooner rather than later. Such outreach is premised on a set of false, even illusionary, assumptions:

1. There’s an “us,” somewhere holding the center, firmly ensconced on the inside of the Jewish community that welcomes an unformed “them” who are interfaith and somehow on the outside.

2. There exists a majority of Jewish couples and families who are not intermarried.

3. Interfaith couples prefer to have programming that serves only them, that sets them apart from the rest of the community as a unique population to be served differently.

It turns out, there is no intra-married majority; no “them,” only an “us.” So, when we are asked each year by InterfaithFamily to participate in their Interfaith Shabbat program, we politely decline. The program is amazing — it’s done such incredible work. But we feel it’s totally wrong for our community.

At The Kitchen, we’ve taken to calling ourselves “post-welcoming,” in that the very act of welcoming demands an in-or-out mentality. Doing welcoming requires an intention, an expenditure of energy to overcome the inertia of insularity, a recognition that maybe you’re not actually all that welcoming ab initio. True welcoming requires redefining the very boundaries of what comprises in or out in the first place.

If we’re going to be serious about interfaith work, one might follow the example of our friends at Romemu in New York City, who have an Episcopal minister on staff. That’s walking the walk, truly carving out spaces where one can hold deep tradition and deep questioning in the same breath. In too many other cases, interfaith outreach is a series of thinly disguised attempts to pressure people into choosing Judaism instead of embracing them in this moment as full members of our communities. In other words, interfaith outreach is most often just an effort to make “them” more like “us.”

Finally, it is worth noting that I am far less concerned about the Jews or those of other faiths on which this conversation is centered than I am about the Judaism that will exist for those who will choose it down the road. No matter how much we welcome or “reach out,” no one is going to join us unless we present a convincing argument for the added value and meaning we can offer. Making that larger case for Judaism as a vehicle of meaning, whether to interfaith families or to any unaffiliated Jew, is an area with which most American Jewish communal institutions seem to be struggling.

If a rich Judaism is to persist, we’re going to have to serve the seekers, Jewish or not, no matter their birth or background, who believe Judaism has wisdom and meaning to offer them. We/they are the present and the future.

Yoav Schlesinger is the executive director of The Kitchen, a startup synagogue in San Francisco, and the former executive director of Reboot, a national network of Jewish cultural creatives.

Welcoming isn’t enough; we must offer support

I facilitate monthly meet-ups for couples with one Jewish partner and one from a different background. Month after month, this is the most common refrain I hear: “It was so empowering to hear other people’s stories — to know that we are not alone!” How could they possibly feel alone, you might ask, when interfaith couples are soon to outnumber endogamous ones? Because people don’t talk about what it takes to make an interfaith family work.

Our communal response to intermarriage has drastically improved, but even some of our most welcoming Bay Area institutions are not perceived by couples as being the inclusive places they aspire to be.

A quarter of Americans marry someone of a different faith, and they get little to no support as they navigate bringing two or more backgrounds together to make one, strong family. The adults who attend our workshops know that all of their stories will be honored — not just the Jewish ones. Their unique struggles will be understood, and their joys celebrated.

But elsewhere, the couples I work with report feeling a qualified Jewish welcome, dependent upon raising Jewish kids, converting, giving up the Christmas tree or other family traditions. Some are fine with those terms; others are not. Many express feeling that Jews do not see them as vital additions to the community, but rather, look past them to the potential of their progeny to save the Jewish people.

When offered a safe space, these couples speak honestly with their partners and manage expectations for religious childrearing. They worry about offending in-laws on both sides. They explore why certain traditions are important individually, and communicate that to each other. They uncover why they might have knee-jerk reactions to particular practices, traditions and beliefs.

We spend most of our time laughing about the common pitfalls they all face, celebrating the open-mindedness that is the hallmark of all their unions, and, yes, at times cathartically retelling horribly offensive comments they have heard, knowing that the others can laugh, comfort and guide from a place of empathy. They know that in this space, they will not be judged.

Thankfully, we have begun the hard work of transforming Jewish spaces into places where interfaith couples can feel at home. Today, many such couples choose to live mostly Jewishly, and many of them do not even want to be labeled “interfaith.” They are simply Jewish families.

But this does not describe everyone. We need to engage in some broad efforts to engage anyone and everyone, while also investing energy to meet the specific needs of couples from different backgrounds. Some couples want to blend in, while others seek guidance and worry about how the partner who is not Jewish will feel in those Jewish spaces. Even in the most welcoming of places, there is a need for deeper listening and learning about the inner dynamics of interfaith couples. As one local lay leader told me, “There is no one who can’t be better at this.” Inclusivity of any kind is rarely a done deal; it is an ongoing process.

When the couples we work with are interested in exploring Jewish institutional life, they look at whether they are reflected in an institution’s website, programs, mission statement and images. Even just seeing the word “interfaith” on the calendar or home page is enough to signal that this is a place they both might feel at home. Couples have internalized the longstanding assumption that Jewish communities and families are hostile to them; even one mention to the contrary has the potential to break down barriers.

Do couples from different backgrounds need a personally engraved invitation to be part of Jewish life? Not all do, but why would we miss the opportunity to engage anyone who does need that welcome spelled out explicitly?

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at [email protected].

Myths get in the way of outreach

Interfaith outreach is not a viable activity anymore. It was institutionalized in the late 1970s by the Reform movement’s then-president Rabbi Alexander Schindler. It went strong for several decades, and it did more than simply put a smiling face on synagogues. The Reform movement created a vibrant agenda of programs, books, materials, articles, studies and an annual gathering to train synagogue members in effective methods. But all that began dissolving in 2003 when the Union for Reform Judaism tightened the purse strings and started trimming outreach from its budget.

Rather than true interfaith outreach, what we have now are paltry, uneducated efforts that consist all too often of little more than self-described “liberal” Jews trying to prove that they are all the things that liberalism loves: welcoming of diversity, accepting of different lifestyles, etc. The focus is too much on, “I’m good and my opponents are bad. So come to me.” Note that the prevailing pronoun is me, not you.

To listen to many Jewish groups tell it, mainstream Jews have embraced interfaith families. But I’m not so sure. I still hear comments like, “I can always tell them from us” or “His mother is Catholic, so he’s not really Jewish anyway.”

No, we have not all embraced interfaith families. Yes, we do need interfaith programming. Sadly, very few organizations even realize how lacking in expertise they are.

Here are some of the myths of interfaith outreach:

• Don’t all synagogues do interfaith outreach now? No, very few do. As far as I know the only synagogue in the Bay Area with an outreach committee is Beth Am in Los Altos. I think it is the determination of their senior rabbi that keeps this interest alive.

• Doesn’t everyone know now that interfaith marriage is accepted by mainstream Judaism? No, in fact people who are outside of the active Jewish community, unattached Jews and non-Jews are the most likely to cling to the parochial views they saw in a movie.

• We’re all welcoming now, aren’t we? Including a sentence on your website saying, “we welcome interfaith couples, LGBT, etc.” is not sufficient. A lesbian Jew once showed up at my Oakland shul and told me that she’d driven from Concord. I asked her why she’d come all the way to Oakland when there are many liberal, welcoming congregations closer to her. “I looked at photos and events on all the websites. But yours is the only one that walks your talk.”

• No one but the Orthodox cares about interfaith anymore, right? Wrong. Jewish leaders and professionals, as well as Jews on the street are sadly likely to say something that is hurtful or dismissive without even realizing it.

• Do we need programs directed at members of interfaith families? It’s just like teen programming. Any group has special interests and unique concerns. Interfaith couples seek factual information, sometimes pushing us to research questions that we have previously failed to consider. For instance, they need to know more than what the different streams of Judaism teach and believe about intermarriage and patrilineal children. The facts must cover the psychosocial impact on children who are raised in interfaith families and navigate the varied messages that they are taught.

If we want to support healthy, happiness-producing practices in interfaith families we have to stop worrying about our own image and start providing solid facts and effective practices for our interfaith families. We need to remember that “they” are in fact “us” and deserve nothing less that we would want for ourselves.

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families.

In Silicon Valley, interfaith outreach remains essential

Interfaith outreach, adapted to the needs of today, is still critical to attracting new members to synagogues and welcoming, integrating and retaining them over time.

Our experience with programs and surveys here at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills has shown us that Jews raised in secular homes and non-Jews share many of the same educational needs. Nobody, especially a Jew by birth, wants to feel ashamed for not knowing the prayers, Hebrew terms and local customs. And most interfaith families don’t want to be singled out as the “other,” even though the stigma attached to intermarriage has lessened dramatically.

So what does interfaith outreach need to look like now? We believe it has an essential part to play in attracting unaffiliated Jews with non-Jewish partners. Beth Am has a standing interfaith outreach committee that is listed on the synagogue’s website along with its mission. Note that conversion is not one of its goals, although people who express interest in conversion are eagerly supported.

The committee supports interfaith couples and families on their Jewish journeys. We started at the beginning, rewriting the membership application to be more inclusive. The committee sponsors occasional Friday night services that replace the sermon with a question and answer session. We published flowcharts (this is Silicon Valley after all) for visitors and bar/bat mitzvah guests explaining the Friday and Saturday morning services. We cosponsor holiday cooking classes with Beth Am Women and teach how to lead a Seder. None of these activities is intended solely for interfaith families.

What we do offer to meet their specific needs are practical programs such as Mothers Circle, which supports non-Jewish moms raising Jewish children, and grandparents’ classes on maintaining relationships in extended families of different faiths. Having a variety of interesting programs and a multi-level educational curriculum helps interfaith families feel included and develop the personal relationships needed to become fully integrated into the community.

To retain interfaith families, the synagogue needs to ensure they feel appreciated. The interfaith outreach committee monitors evolving demographics and interests to encourage non-Jewish members to participate in the life of the congregation as fully as possible. For example, non-Jewish parents are given a blessing to recite in English so they can participate in their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. At summer services, the Friday night sermons are given by congregants; sometimes speakers share their interfaith experiences. During High Holy Days one year, all non-Jewish parents who were raising Jewish children were called up to the bimah. It was a very large group, and afterwards more than one congregant was heard saying, “I had no idea she/he wasn’t Jewish.”

Louise Stirpe-Gill is a Jew by choice who created an interfaith marriage when she converted after 20-plus years of secular marriage. Carol Kantor Douglas, a Jew by birth married to a non-Jew, and Christine Witzel, a non-Jew married to a Jew, also contributed to this piece. All three are members of the interfaith outreach committee of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos.