I am a product of the big three: I grew up at Har Zion in the last days of the Wynnefield shtetl; I graduated from Akiba Hebrew Academy; and I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos. In addition, I was born in Israel, my parents were actors with the Habimah theater in Tel Aviv, and my brother is a Conservative rabbi.
And yet, as I was graduating Akiba, my husband, Mike, was valedictorian at St. John the Baptist on Long Island — in Suffolk County. In fact, he and his brother Duke were the altar boys tapped to do the nuns' funerals because their choreographed movements were so precisely perfect.
I am here to say that the inoculation theory against intermarriage does not always work. And as the managing director of InterFaithways: Interfaith Family Support Network, I cannot tell you what will "work" to stave off intermarriage in 2010.
But here is what I do know:
I know — because the Philadelphia Federation's 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" told me — that 50 percent of intermarrieds identify Jewishly. But from that 50 percent, only 13 percent are connected to the Jewish community. Therein lies the sweet spot. How do we connect these already identified families to Judaism and the Jewish community, and lessen that gap? What do we do, how do we treat, what messages do we send these folks?
InterFaithways supports interfaith couples and families in their expression of Jewish life, and partners with communal and religious organizations to welcome these families. This month, our citywide Family Shabbat Weekend expanded to include two weekends of programming at Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative congregations.
In the four years since we were founded, we have seen some congregations smoothly integrate interfaith families into their community, while others open-heartedly explore how to do so with integrity. The issue is on the table, and InterFaithways remains a local resource to the couples, families, rabbis and synagogues on this contemporary journey. Nothing about it is simple, and we recognize that.
We also recently presented a look at intermarriage through the lens of pop culture. Funded by a grant from Goldstein's funeral home, InterFaithways presented a film montage depicting intermarriage on the silver screen, from Woody Allen to Ben Stiller.
What's next? How do we engage these folks and meaningfully connect them to the community they identify with? We need action and full-bodied experiences — not only classes or lectures or studying the studies about the "problem."
Focus groups with young families told us that they want bowling nights and interfaith cooking classes (kreplach and wontons, collards and kneidels). They want family music and play times, an interfaith-friendly Tot Shabbat for their kids and more. And how about a a tikkun olam havurah that does the mitzvot we teach newcomers?
So what happened with Mike, the former altar boy? After sending our two daughters to day school and going to shul religiously for 11 years as an interfaith family, our journey led us to a congregation with the kind of open hand that invites, saying "come closer, come closer."
After two years of attending Torah study, he finally "got" what Judaism was about. Minutes after his immersing in the mikvah for his conversion, someone came running down the hall saying that they needed a 10th person for a minyan.
All eyes turned to Mike, and there he was. He counted. In fact, you could say that his whole journey literally counted. It mattered.
However, while conversion was the right decision for Mike, I want to be clear that it is not InterFaithways' goal for any intermarried couple or family. Our goal is to welcome these multireligious, multicultural and multihued families into the community as they are, with open doors and open hearts.
And me? Why do I do this work? I often sit proudly and imagine that I look like my Orthodox grandmother sitting with my family, knowing that I am the matriarch of the Jewish Weilbachers.
Gari Julius Weilbacher is managing director of Inter Faithways: Interfaith Family Support Network (www. interfaithways.org).