News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that the smiling couple in the photo, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman, are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
That’s right – an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: “At Romemu the diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.” I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the “Strangers No More” program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But there’s more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
A growing number of initiatives are giving intermarried couples a Jewish framework disconnected from synagogue services and outside the walls of legacy Jewish institutions. Instead of drawing them to Judaism with a preconceived goal, these programs allow intermarried couples to form community among themselves and on their own terms.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com – one of her subtitles is “From Taboo to Commonplace” – that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says “It was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. There’s a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.” One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds “to ask questions in a safe space.”
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources “because of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.” (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that “When it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selves… in America that means being inclusive of non-Jews and other friends.” I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61% of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that intermarried couples are “uncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for non-Jews….” – and that’s more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, “are not meant for non-Jews” or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say “we are not meant for non-Jews;” Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are “the people who fit the demographic of the active group” – referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
[O]rganizers of the independent initiatives, and intermarried couples themselves, say even a welcoming synagogue can still be an intimidating space. The couples may not know the prayers or rituals, may feel uncomfortable with the expectation of becoming members, or may just feel like they’re in the minority.
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not “meant for Jews” that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not “meant for Jews” but instead are “meant for” Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are “for Jews” but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionists’ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
There’s an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews won’t remain forever separate, and sees her program “as a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.” She hopes her program won’t need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: “these are the people who get us… [t]his is our community.” The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemu’s benefit, “Awaken Your Voice,” on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success – it deserves to be.