Creating Community for Young Interfaith Couples

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Jewish groups catering to students and young professionals have begun programming for interfaith couples in hopes of creating a welcoming community where they can feel comfortable navigating the complexities of their different backgrounds.

When Michael Vogel and Fernanda Loya first met a year ago, they were instantly smitten with each other.

But they also quickly discovered a major difference that could potentially stand in the way of their budding romance — he’s Jewish and she’s Catholic.

“We realized we had incredible chemistry and really cared about each other and were a great fit, but we also immediately jumped to, ‘Well, what would we do if we were together and had a family?’ ” said Vogel, who grew up in Elkins Park, where he attended Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, and Gratz College’s program for high school students.

Ultimately, Vogel, 35, and Loya, 29, decided it was worth navigating those complicated questions to continue their relationship.

With a new focus on reaching out to young interfaith couples, several local Jewish groups hope the two — and others like them — will be celebrating many more years together with some kind of Jewish connection.

A recent swell of programs aimed at interfaith couples — not just those who are already in long-term relationships or marriages — extends beyond the synagogues to organizations that engage young professionals, such as the Collaborative and The Jewish Graduate Student Network. Several of them, from discussion forums to an interfaith Shabbat dinner, were planned in conjunction with the annual InterfaithFamily Shabbat. That event first began eight years ago as a locally initiated Shabbat weekend filled with activities promoting awareness of the challenges facing interfaith families, and has since grown into a nationwide program. This year, more than 64 local Jewish organizations and synagogues and several dozen others in four other U.S. cities are holding various events throughout the month of November.

The goal is to make sure that interfaith outreach continues far beyond this month, said Ross Berkowitz, executive director of Tribe 12, a group funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that works to encourage Jewish engagement.

“We started having a conversation that this should be ongoing, and we’re still really in the beginning stages of figuring out what that means,” said Berkowitz. “Hopefully, it can mean a lot and we can create really successful programming and really engage people and make them feel that the Jewish community is supportive of both their participation in the Jewish community and of their choices — whatever those may be.”

To help guide them forward, the Collaborative, a social group for Jewish 20s and 30s under the Tribe 12 umbrella, asked interfaith couples and young professionals raised in interfaith families to discuss the type of programming they would like to see in Philadelphia at a recent “Cocktails and Conversation” event co-sponsored with InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, which also receives Federation funding.

We wanted to “begin a discussion of what they would like to see,” said Robyn Frisch, the director of InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia and a congregational rabbi at Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai, an unaffiliated synagogue in Northeast Phila­delphia. “We’re really trying to focus more on that demographic, not just people who have kids and families.”

“They’re really interested in more substantive discussions, they’re interested in getting together for dinners, “ she continued. “People were really open about sharing their stories.”

Berkowitz agreed and expounded on the task before groups like InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and the Collaborative in reaching out to interfaith couples.

“It’s a group of people that aren’t as comfortable in a Jewish happy hour kind of scene — they’re looking for smaller events that also contain meaningful conversation,” Berkowitz said. One of the biggest challenges is finding the best way “to reach out to people in a way that doesn’t feel stilted, that doesn’t feel like you’re talking down to them?”

It’s difficult, he continued, to make sure that people know that a Jewish organization is truly welcoming. “Welcoming is a very overused word in the Jewish community, where everybody uses it but not everybody necessarily understands it or understands what is welcoming to different people.”

Berkowitz’s point resonated with Vogel and Loya, who said they had searched for groups encouraging dialogue among interfaith couples when they started dating.

Their first stop was InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia, which supports interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. In March, they decided to try InterfaithFamily’s “Love and Religion” workshop, meeting both in person and online with several other interfaith couples to discuss a wide range of issues.

“I was initially very reluctant to go because I didn’t know if we were going to get a lot out of it,” said Loya, who emigrated from Mexico four years ago and now works in purchasing for a bakery. Because of the opportunity to have conversations with other couples experiencing similar challenges, “it was definitely one of the most helpful things that we’ve done as an interfaith couple,” she said.

Loya said she thinks “it’s great that the Jewish community is doing this,” and noted that the workshop represented her first real encounter with the Jewish community.

More so than dealing with family and friends, whom Vogel said have been accepting of his relationship with Loya, or tolerating each other’s individual religious practices, the main issue the couple is wrestling with is how they would go about raising children. Both the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia workshop and Collaborative event helped the pair connect with others struggling with the same issues.

They found it particularly helpful to talk to people who were raised in an interfaith family.  “You actually hear what it was like for people who had interfaith parents and that they came out OK and happy,”  said Vogel, the owner of Philadelphia Woodworks, a facility that offers membership and classes for local woodworkers, including several classes such as mezuzah-making that cater to the Jewish community.

One such example is Joshua Stone, the son of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother who converted to Judaism when he was 8 years old. Now 29, Stone said his upbringing has helped him navigate his own interfaith marriage with his wife, Reshma, who is Hindu.

About a year into their marriage, the two joined the “Love and Religion” workshop at the suggestion of Frisch, who was the rabbi that confirmed Stone when he was in 10th grade.

Echoing Vogel and Loya, the Stones, who live in North Wales, Pa., said their biggest concern is how to raise their baby, who is expected in January.

“The only thing in concrete is we’re not going to tell our child straight out, ‘You are Jewish,’ or ‘You are Hindu,’ ” Stone said, recalling that as a child he would receive Christmas presents in Chanukah gift-wrapping from his maternal grandmother. “We’re going to let them explore and ask questions and make a self-identity.”

Sometimes, Stone asserted, compromise isn’t necessary when certain traditions overlap between faiths. For example, similar to the Jewish chupah, Hindus marry under a wedding canopy called a mandap, and both religions call for the breaking of an item — in Judaism it is a wine glass and in Hinduism it is a clay pot — that symbolizes in part longevity. The couple was married by a Hindu priest and had a Jewish adviser present who is close with Stone. Stone is the outreach and education coordinator for the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases at Einstein Medical Center.

Although efforts to reach younger interfaith couples has become a relatively new priority, one of InterfaithFamily/ Phila­delphia’s “Love and Religion” discussion facilitators said she’s already noticing a community start to emerge.

“It’s a generation that’s saying, ‘I am a lot of things and I don’t have to be one thing — don’t put me in a box;’ and it’s also a more diverse and welcoming world,” said Tami Astorino, who is herself Jewish and in an interfaith marriage of nearly 20 years. “So the Jewish community’s response has to be — how can we support you in that journey, how can we make Judaism a part of that?” That approach, she said, is better than: “How can we get you to choose Judaism?”

Astorino works as group leader and trainer for Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, a program run through the nonprofit Moving Traditions that uses Jewish teachings and practices to give girls a place to discuss gender issues with their peers.

To Astorino, who said she and her husband are raising their children Jewish, the biggest challenge facing these couples is when they want both of their religions to be a real part of their children’s lives.

For any interfaith family, choosing to identify with one religion can be “a struggle,” but it’s even harder to do both, she said.

For all their success at navigating their interfaith relationships,  Stone, Vogel and Loya said they still found value in attending programs aimed at helping younger couples like themselves engage in real dialogue — and they’d like to see even more. Stone suggested that organizations such as the Collaborative and InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hold introductory courses on the basics of various faiths.

Berkowitz said the Collaborative is gearing up to sponsor more interfaith-focused programs this month. The next step, he said, will be figuring out how to maintain the momentum gained from all the InterfaithFamily Shabbat programming in November.

“We’re a Jewish organization; there is a goal there that we would like people to be more involved with the Jewish community, but I’m not going to tell anybody ‘This is what you’re supposed to do,’ ” Berkowitz said. “A goal of this is to make sure that people are exposed to a positive experience in the Jewish community, so that there is a choice and that they’re fully informed.”

Upcoming Programs
Nov. 14
Collaborative Interfaith Couples Shabbat

Nov. 14
Hillel’s Graduate Student Network
will host a Modern Day Shabbat:
A Dinner For Those Who Grew Up In Interfaith Families.

For other InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia programs this month, visit
interfaithfamily.com/philadelphia.

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