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Finding the Path to Inclusion for Intermarrieds

July 15, 2010 By:
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From left: Randee Tecklin, Jan Tecklin and Arnie Weiner discussed various interfaith matters this past winter as part of a Grandparent's Circle.
Just a few months ago, InterFaithways seemed like the next big thing.

The one outlet in the region devoted exclusively to helping interfaith families feel more welcome in the community had secured prior funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. With the release of the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" -- and its startling statistics on intermarriage and ethnic identity -- the group was primed to take it to the next level.

It submitted several grant requests to the Federation seeking funding for new projects that officials of the group said were crafted with the challenges posed by the local population study in mind.

But when Federation leaders approved a new round of allocations earlier this month, InterFaithways' proposals did not make the cut, and the Federation's dollar investment in the group suddenly dropped to zero.

The news has raised questions about the future of the three-year-old group, as well as the direction of programs aimed toward interfaith families.

"We were significantly saddened by a lot of the decisions that were made," said Rabbi Mayer Selekman, vice president of InterFaithways, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sholom in Broomall and one of the first rabbis nationwide to perform interfaith weddings. "There is a significant desire for, as long as we can, to continue the work that we think is important. It's man the torpedoes, full steam ahead."

Analyzing the Success Rate
For their part, Federation leaders say that the decision to no longer fund InterFaithways does not reflect a lack of concern about engaging interfaith families.

Ira M. Schwartz, Federation's CEO, suggested that Federation may direct far more resources in the future to engage interfaith families once it has had more time to analyze the population report and what has worked well in other cities.

"If we invest dollars, we want to make sure that there is good reason to believe that we will be successful," he said, adding that the ideas that have been tossed around include setting up a Federation interfaith task force and organizing a gathering of experts on the subject.

The population study found that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews. It also found that the children of interfaith marriages are far less likely to attend Jewish camp or visit Israel.

In the past, as the warning bells about intermarriage grew louder, the focus of many Jewish entities was to find ways to convince young Jews to marry within the faith. Now, there's been a growing acceptance that the phenomenon can't be reversed, and that synagogues and other organizations need to transform themselves into more welcoming institutions so as not to lose them for good.

For the most part, the debate is now concentrated on how to accomplish this, and whether interfaith engagement should be its own endeavor or be part of a broader effort to engage unaffiliated families, a group that includes interfaith and fully Jewish families. And should the work take place in synagogues? Or in a more neutral, public space?

Locally, many questioned whether or not InterFaithways was the group best equipped to tackle the challenge. A host of key decision-makers at Federation clearly felt that, at present, it's not.

Gail Norry, co-chair of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, the body that decided not to fund InterFaithways' grant requests, wouldn't comment directly on her board's decision. But several sources close to the process said that, in part, it was because the organization did not provide convincing data showing that its programs worked.

Gari Weilbacher, InterFaithways' executive director, said that the impact of some of its programs are hard to quantify, and that compiling data is difficult for a tiny group on a shoestring budget. "Is there no place for a small organization to grow?" she asked. "Does that mean that we don't get a chance?"

She added that waiting to act so long after the population study doesn't make sense. "We're not the only organization that read the study, listened to the presentation and made very specific grant applications. What is going to happen to that study, and how is it going to be actualized?"

Other Ways to Engage
Schwartz, who is not directly involved in the allocations process, said that the decision to withhold funds from InterFaithways is "not an indication that we are not interested in this subject -- or in working with InterFaithways. They may need to restructure themselves, which is fine. For several years, they were the lone voice in the wilderness."

After the Jewish Life and Learning Center board decided against funding InterFaithways, it then requested $50,000 for unspecified interfaith programming from Federation. But that funding didn't make the final cut when those involved in the allocations process had to make tough choices, given that the available dollars had declined by 14 percent from the previous year.

But Norry said that it would be a mistake to think that Federation isn't devoting any resources to this subject.

"We are concentrating on supporting programs within our existing agencies which are a little more measurable and offer a little more bang for the buck," she said.

One area will be the Kehillot, which received nearly $850,000 and is expected to play an expanded role in interfaith programming as part of its broader outreach. (Federation is currently talking with the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership for the organization to take over management of the seven community-building Kehillot from Federation.

Another avenue might be the expanded "Engaging Families: PJ Library and Beyond" program, which is also run locally by ACAJE/JOP, and is receiv-ing $200,000 from Federation, up from $25,000 in the last funding cycle. In the past, PJ Library catered to families, including unaffiliated and interfaith ones, by mailing free books geared to babies and children on a monthly basis to private homes.

But now, the enlarged initiative will include "public space" programming -- events outside of a synagogue -- centered around the books, as well as a program in which an educational consultant will be able to visit a select number of homes to help families better understand Jewish practices, such as Shabbat and other holidays.

"In a lot of our testimonials, parents say, 'I'm learning along with my child because I wasn't raised Jewish,' " said Judi Wisch, community-outreach coordinator for the national PJ Library, based at the Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Mass.

For its part, InterFaithways is grappling with how to move forward, now that it lost half of its $150,000 budget. A year ago, Federation had given the group $75,000 for an 18-month period.

In the near-term, Leonard Wasserman, the founder and primary donor of InterFaithways, said that the organization will undergo a rebuilding period. Programming will be curtailed, but not stopped, as it looks for other funding sources, he said.

Its signature event, the InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend, which takes place in November and has more than 50 participating synagogues, will continue as scheduled. Wasserman, who last year donated $40,000, pledged to fund the group, which has three part-time staffers, for the balance of the calendar year.

"We will go forward," said Wasserman, 84, who nevertheless lamented Federation's decision to cut the group's funding.

Wasserman and others said that InterFaithways had been encouraged by Federation officials to consider merging, either with the Jewish Family and Children's Service -- where it received its start before becoming independent -- or with ACAJE/JOP. But Wasserman said that InterFaithways' leadership was concerned that its work would get lost as part of a larger organization.

The group's most extensive endeavor, in which it cooperated with 30-some rabbis to help make their congregations more welcoming, had received mixed assessments from participants.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman of Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, said that InterFaithways has worked with her board to craft specific policies about the roles non-Jewish members can play in synagogue life.

"Just the presence of InterFaithways is helpful to interfaith families in Philadelphia," she said.

But Rabbi Eric Rosin of Kesher Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in West Chester, said that his institution had already been taking steps to serve the needs of interfaith families, and got little or no new direction from the group.

He also noted a philosophical difference: "Interfaithways was more committed to reducing the distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish members, and we are more committed to making the richness of our tradition clearer and understandable."

But Selekman said that InterFaithways is about trying to help synagogues become as welcoming as they can within the context of their own movements, and not, for example, about trying to convince Conservative rabbis to officiate interfaith weddings.

"I understand rabbi's beliefs and commitments, and I honor them," he said. "We want everybody to recognize the reality of interfaith marriage." 

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