Let’s Encourage the Jewish Journeys of Interfaith Families

July 13, 2006

The planned theme of the Renaissance Pillar programming at the GA is “Jewish journeys.” Improving programs at the steps along life’s paths that can reinforce Jewish identity and continuity — Jewish camping, day schools, Israel trips, etc. — will be emphasized. No matter how much we strengthen and improve these very worthwhile initiatives, however, we realistically must anticipate continuing significant rates of intermarriage. Will the Jewish journeys of interfaith families be recognized at the GA? How will the leadership of the community respond to them?

The Jewish Journeys Of Interfaith Families

InterfaithFamily.com — a biweekly Internet magazine — highlights these journeys. Built around a common theme that faces interfaith families, writers who are themselves intermarried describe their own experiences. Rabbis or outreach professionals also provide an “expert” perspective on the issue at hand. Readers are invited to discuss these articles in a “virtual” community with comments and questions posted on bulletin boards. Thousands of readers are reading these articles and discussions every month.

Here is some of what we find about interfaith families today:

They are relieved and grateful to find a place where others similarly situated share their experiences. For example, we often meet, “virtually,” intermarried parents struggling to make their non-Jewish relatives comfortable at Jewish lifecycle ceremonies, and intermarried parents raising their children as Jews who also want to honor their non-Jewish relatives at holiday times. One reader wrote, “It gave me inspiration to know I’m not the only one trying to do this.” Another said, “Just seeing that issues are addressed makes people feel welcomed, that the non-Jewish spouse can participate with the Jewish spouse in his or her faith.”

They are looking for welcoming information — about rituals and lifecycle ceremonies, about conversion, about welcoming rabbis and synagogues. “It’s so hard to find positive interfaith articles/books/information out there.”

They want their children, and themselves, to feel included. “If Judaism is to survive, the children of interfaith marriages must be embraced in the synagogues. If they aren’t, they surely will be in a church.” “I want to participate in the synagogue with my children, and for them to see that I am comfortable and accepted there. How could they really feel wholly Jewish unless the community I’ve chosen for them accepts me, and therefore them?”

They too often experience hostility and rejection from among the Jewish community. “It’s hard to love a Jew and feel such anger and resentment as a result of it.” “I am considering raising my children Jewish . . . [but] I am afraid of how people will treat them because of my religion. This fear is based on my treatment by some Jews . . .”

These comments plainly demonstrate that many interfaith families have a very strong interest in living Jewishly. Many of the non-Jewish partners in interfaith relationships are enthusiastic contributors who want to help create a Jewish home. It is not uncommon to find unconverted non-Jews who are actively involved in their synagogues, even in leadership positions, and raising their children exclusively as Jews, even sending them to Jewish day schools. The non-Jewish partners in these interfaith families enrich the Jewish community.

The Community’s Response

Recently, a Mr. “R.S.” posted this message on InterfaithFamily.com:

“I am a Jew despite being the child of a non-Jewish mother. I formally converted under Conservative auspices shortly before my Bar Mitzvah. I married a non-Jew in a wedding officiated by a justice-of-the-peace since the available rabbi declined, but our wedding had elements of Jewish tradition. My wife and I are raising our children as Jews and have joined a Reform shul. While this may seem hopelessly watered down, assimilated, and invalid in the eyes of some, the fact is that accommodation rather than rejection of intermarriage has led to at least two more generations of my family identifying as Jews, respecting Torah, lighting Shabbat candles, observing our festivals, and having feeling when saying the ‘Sh’ma.'” (emphasis added)

One would think that the community would want to encourage intermarried parents to live Jewishly in this way. Unfortunately, the posting elicited the following hateful response: “As for performing mitzvos with ‘feeling’: You and your family are still not Jewish, so it doesn’t matter if you think you are. Stop lying to yourself and the rest of the Jewish world.” Although extreme, this attitude is not much different from that of the head of a major Jewish foundation, who told me that outreach to the intermarried was not a high priority because “everyone in our family is married to Jews,” or another who said “faithless Jews, why should we care about them.”

The degree to which the Jewish community’s professional and lay leadership is willing to be truly inclusive of interfaith families is still an unanswered question. Few if any federations have followed the Boston CJP’s pioneering funding of outreach programs. Outreach is not a major priority of Jewish foundations. The Conservative movement bars intermarrieds from positions of leadership and the children of non-Jewish mothers from its camps. Even the Reform movement is promoting conversion and the restriction of ritual practices by non-Jews.

InterfaithFamily.com believes:

  • that the vitality of the Jewish community in North America in the 21st century depends in significant part on engaging interfaith families, given the common occurrence of intermarriage.
  • that the community should do whatever it can to encourage the intermarried to have Jewish families and children.
  • that strategies of welcoming and encouragement are effective, while strategies of prevention are alienating and counter-productive.
  • that intermarriage should be re-framed as an opportunity for the community to encourage more people to participate in living Jewishly.

Admittedly, too few interfaith families engage in Jewish life. Our readers’ comments suggest some reasons: not knowing that any part of the Jewish community welcomes their involvement; a perceived lack of knowledge about Judaism; rejecting experiences from the Jewish community and family members. If the community wanted to reach out to and encourage interfaith families to become involved with Judaism and Jewish life, there are clear paths to pursue.

Accessible, non-judgmental education about Judaism and Jewish traditions should be made available to interfaith families. The Internet is an ideal introductory medium for reaching and providing these families with engaging information available at their convenience and an initial experience of “virtual” community in a non-threatening environment.

Internet-based communication — “virtual” community building — is only a first step, and must lead to face-to-face participation in local communities if interfaith families are to engage meaningfully in Jewish life. That critical path would be facilitated if every local Jewish community made an organized effort to develop a comprehensive program of outreach (as was done in Seattle in 1997), and if Jewish clergy, communal professionals and lay leaders were trained in how to address sensitively the needs of the interfaith families who take steps into their local communities.

Ultimately, however, these families will become involved in the community depends on whether the community chooses to welcome them. This requires a positive attitude toward inclusion of interfaith families among both individual Jews and the professional and lay leadership of national organizations, including the religious movements, federations, JCC’s, family service agencies, and others. Will the community make the necessary adaptive attitudinal changes required for a genuinely proactive, positive response to intermarriage?

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.