In the aftermath of the Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” many Jewish professionals are wringing their hands and looking for an answer to the question: “How do we engage our constituents more Jewishly?” After all, according to the study, fewer than half of all Jews are members of a synagogue or Jewish organization. And to many in the community, the rise in intermarriage is terrifying; to some, it’s even the death knell for American Jewry.
But Jewish engagement and intermarriage are not mutually exclusive. According to the study, most interfaith families feel a strong connection to their Jewish identity. Eighty-nine percent of intermarried Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Sixty-seven percent of the intermarried say that being Jewish is “very” (31 percent) or “somewhat” (36 percent) important.
Fifty-nine percent say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. And 61 percent say they are raising their children with some Judaism in the household, though it’s hard to discern from the study how the details of each individual’s Jewish practice plays.
It’s also important to remember that interfaith relationships and Jewish commitment are not monolithic. Just as households of in-married couples run the gamut of observance or identification, so do their interfaith counterparts.
Nonetheless, there is work to do in engaging people in interfaith families in Jewish life, and opportunities and challenges that come with that. Only 22 percent of interfaith families reported in the study that their children were involved in some type of Jewish programming. And only 20 percent of people in interfaith relationships are affiliated with a synagogue or other Jewish organization, though 42 percent made a donation to a Jewish organization in 2012.
While the Pew study doesn’t give us a road map on how to increase interfaith families’ participation, our surveys at InterfaithFamily give us important insights. We periodically survey visitors to our website on the way they experience Judaism. Our surveys are not scientific, but no one else is asking these questions, and the responses shed light on these important issues.
Overwhelmingly, interfaith families tell us that the two things that attract them to synagogues or Jewish organizations are (1) explicit words of welcome in organizations’ membership materials, newsletters and websites; and (2) welcoming attitudes by organizational leadership, such as rabbis expressly stating that they welcome interfaith families.
Here in Philadelphia, we have been working to engage interfaith families for several years — initially, through the work of visionaries like Leonard Wasserman, z”l, and his wife, Dorothy, who founded InterFaithways, and Rabbi Mayer Selekman. They all recognized the need to reach out and welcome interfaith families. InterFaithways merged with the Boston-based InterfaithFamily last fall, creating InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, which continues the work.
Seven years ago, InterFaithways began Interfaith Family Shabbat, which gives synagogues the opportunity to join each other in building inclusive Jewish communities. The event was the brainchild of Bill Schwartz, who now serves on the national board of InterfaithFamily. This year, for the first time, the organization is expanding beyond Philadelphia, to Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, creating the beginnings of a national Interfaith Family Shabbat. In Philadelphia alone, we have more than 45 synagogues participating!
From Nov. 15-24, participating synagogues will offer a wide range of programming, such as a panel of interfaith family members; a grandparents’ coffee; a “Movie Night” showing a film with interfaith scenes; or a “beginner’s service” for community members who aren’t familiar with Shabbat services.
By participating, synagogues signal their acceptance of different types of families. Synagogues also show prospective members that they welcome the participation of interfaith couples.
Organizations that participate in Interfaith Family Shabbat receive a badge for their websites and promotional materials to help families who are looking for a synagogue that’s welcoming. We encourage you to attend an Interfaith Family Shabbat program, and to let the clergy know that you support welcoming interfaith families. In addition, we provide sensitivity training for staff, review synagogue polices and offer classes and resources for interfaith families.
Through these efforts, we can make strides toward improving interfaith family engagement in the Jewish community.
Jodi Bromberg is president of InterfaithFamily and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. To find participating synagogues, go to: www.interfaithfamily.com , click on Connections and then Philadelphia.