Change May Be Afoot in the More “Conservative” Communities


It’s been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most people’s attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.

When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72% rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isn’t much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blog’s creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8% of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that “ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,…” He also says “cases of full Orthodox conversion … are now quite common.”

Most of the blog post is a guest post by “Ruvie,” a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his son’s marriage to someone who was not Jewish – feelings that aren’t that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.

Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. “All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.” “This is something new and growing in the MO community.” He refers to estimates of 5% to 20% intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.

Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:

Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children – or they fight and alienate their children.

Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:

On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism? [A]nd lastly a certain amount of guilt.

It is very clear that Ruvie’s son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.

It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with ­­­his son:­­­

My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.

Ruvie’s conclusion: “There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Let’s begin now.”

The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members, is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that “the current standards don’t make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregations” and that “the language of ‘only Jews can be members of a synagogue’ makes it seem like a non-Jew who is connected is not a member of that community.”

Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: “What we’re trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.” But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.

It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community towards more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.

There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew College’s new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.


Late 2016 Round-up: Major Convening, Major Research… What’s Next?


I think it’s safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.

On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.

The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Bromberg’s and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal “narrative shift” about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.

The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews,” when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.

The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among  over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.

In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJP’s welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

I added a new “Reports” section on this site with summaries of important studies, including the officiation research, the JPPI definitions of Jewishness report, and the 2015 Boston Study.

We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.

Continuing Promising News from Boston


Every ten years since 1965, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Boston federation, has conducted a community study. The 2005 study electrified the Jewish media with the finding that 60% of interfaith couples in Boston were raising their children as Jews. The 2015 Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis, reveals a wealth of information that strongly supports continued programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that identifies five groups with distinctive patterns of engaging in Jewish life and community; the Index is promising as a basis for future targeted programmatic efforts.

A detailed review of the 2015 Study can be found here. The highlights on the extent of intermarriage include:

  • there are 248,000 Jews in Boston, making it the fourth largest community in the US as defined by federation service area (after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), representing 7% of the area population, and having increased 4.6% since 2005.
  • 47% of couples in Jewish households are interfaith couples, 53% are two-Jewish couples (of the latter, 5% include a convert).
  • Of Jews in Boston, 8% are Israeli, 7% are Russian born or speaking, and 7% are LGBTQ; 70% of married Russian Jews are in interfaith relationships, 20% of Israeli Jews and 69% of LGBTQ Jews.

The highlights on the impact of intermarriage include:

  • 69% of children of intermarried couples are raised with Judaism, 57% exclusively Jewish, compared to 94% of children of inmarried couples:
    • 42% are Jews by religion, compared to 65% of children of inmarried
    • 15% are Jews not by religion, compared to 28% of children of inmarried
    • 12% are Jewish and another religion, compared to 1% of children of inmarried
    • 21% have no religion, compared to 5% of children of inmarried
    • 10% are another religion
  • 27% of the intermarried (37% of the intermarried with children) are synagogue members, compared to 57% of the inmarried (64% of the inmarried with children).
  • 21% of children of the intermarried are getting part-time (19%) or day school (2%) Jewish education; 83% of the intermarried with children attended services in the past year, 100% list Hanukkah candles, 93% attended a Seder, 59% light Shabbat candles sometimes, 22% follow some Kosher practice; 60% of the intermarried donate to Jewish causes; 86% are concerned with worldwide anti-Semitism; 72% feel very much (16%), somewhat (34%) or a little (22%) emotionally connected to Israel.
  • Interestingly, the intermarried score higher than the inmarried on volunteering for all non-Jewish causes, including education, poverty/social justice, medical/health, arts/culture and political activism.

The Study notes comparisons between intermarried and inmarried Jews on numerous other Jewish behaviors and attitudes, all summarized in a table in the detailed review.

The Study creates an Index of Jewish Engagement based on a statistical “cluster analysis” of fourteen Jewish behaviors, and identifies five patterns: the Minimally Involved (17% of all Jews) and the Immersed (15%) at the ends of the spectrum, and three middle groups: the Familial (24%) who engage primarily through family and home-based behaviors, the Affiliated (26%) who engage through family and communal organizations, and the Cultural (18%) who engage through family and cultural activities. Of the intermarried, 27% are Minimally Involved, 30% are Familial, 28% are Affiliated, 11% are Cultural, 5% are Immersed.

The apparent motivation for creating the Index was the feeling that dichotomies like “engaged/not engaged” and “religious/not religious,” and comparisons between denominations, “are inadequate descriptors of contemporary Jewish behavior.” “Boston Jewry is characterized by diverse ways of being involved in Jewish life…”  The Index was designed to identify opportunities for increased engagement that can be targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

The Boston Jewish Community, led by CJP, has been probably the most welcoming to interfaith couples and families of any American community; CJP has been funding programs targeted to engage interfaith families since the late 1990’s. The 2015 Study, like the earlier one in 2005, confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of the welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors.

Of course more needs to be and can be done, and the Study suggests several opportunities. One is the high percentage of intermarried Russian born and speaking Jews at which programming might be directed. Another is the relatively low percentages of intermarried couples who send their children to Jewish pre-school (12%, compared to 27% of inmarried), overnight camp (7%, compared to 27%) and on Israel trips (8%, compared to 37%). The growth market that these programmatic efforts need to focus on clearly is the children of the intermarried.

The percentages of intermarried couples in the various groups identified by the Index of Jewish Engagement, and the behaviors associated with those groups, also suggest avenues of opportunity. If the community wanted to move intermarried couples from the Minimally Involved group (27% of the intermarried compared to 17% of all Jews) and the Familial group (30% of the intermarried compared to 24% of all Jews) towards the Affiliated and the Cultural, then the organizations (around which the Affilated are involved) and the cultural activities (around which the Cultural are involved) could focus on efforts to attract and welcome more intermarried couples.

The Study doesn’t flesh out much about what some important categories mean. For example, 3% of Jewish adults are Jews “of multiple religions” and 12% of the children of intermarried couples are Jewish “and another religion.” The Study doesn’t report on any data that might illuminate what those labels mean or the behaviors of the people so described. Hopefully, more will be forthcoming.

Finally, the Study reveals some promising data on changing attitudes. The percentage of Jews who feel it is very important that their grandchildren are raised Jewish is 46%, higher than the percentage who feel it is very important that their children marry someone Jewish (31%). Even in the Immersed group, only 63% said it was very important that their child marry someone Jewish – but 85% want Jewish grandchildren. By welcoming and providing programming designed to attract and engage interfaith families Jewishly, the Boston Jewish community clearly is helping to make that desire an increasing reality.

Are Rabbis Who Refuse To Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?


published by The Forward and on eJewishPhilanthropy
reprinted with permission

The Cohen Center’s new study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, is a game-changer. The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.

Addressing the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages was a major focus of InterfaithFamily’s (IFF) work since it started fifteen years ago. In the early years, IFF published many first-person accounts of the hurt and rejection couples experienced; one of the most striking articles from 2002 is titled Why I Am a Unitarian – you can guess the reason why. But no one seemed to pay much attention.

In early 2008, a study by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, confirmed that the negative experience many interfaith couples had seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, I thought, people would pay attention to research by a respected academic – but it didn’t happen.

In March 2010, the CCAR, after three years of study, released a report that acknowledged the opportunity to engage interfaith families Jewishly through rabbinic outreach, and said that a range of practices, including officiation under certain circumstances, was “respected.” But it also said that encouraging in-marriage was important because of the greater likelihood of continuity, and left standing the CCAR’s 1973 resolution that officially disapproves of officiation because intermarriage is “should be discouraged.” To my knowledge, no one knows how many Reform rabbis officiate for interfaith couples; most published comments say “about half.”

InterfaithFamily never argued with rabbis who said that their position on officiation was based on their relationship with Jewish law. But it’s clear that the opposition of many to officiation is based not on theology but on demographics: the belief that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.” I vividly remember meeting a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me she didn’t officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven Cohen’s research showing that intermarried couples were not Jewishly engaged. When prominent Conservative rabbi David Wolpe explained in 2013 why he didn’t officiate for interfaith couples, the first reason he gave was that “invariably” in an intermarriage the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less. That’s why the new research on the impact of officiation is so important.

When Len Saxe discussed the new study at the recent Interfaith Opportunity Summit, one of his slides generated an audible gasp among the attendees: 85% of intermarried couples who had only Jewish clergy officiate at their wedding are raising their children Jewish, compared to 94% of in-married couples who have Jewish clergy officiate, and 23% of intermarried couples who have other officiants. Moreover, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants are synagogue members, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other officiants.

As careful researchers, Saxe and his team don’t claim definitive causation, but the association between officiation and later Jewish engagement is striking. “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

After this research, Reform rabbis who don’t officiate are refusing to take action they are permitted by their association to take that leads to interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. That can’t be a tenable position any longer, and it’s time for the CCAR to change its official position.

But this isn’t just a Reform issue. At the Interfaith Opportunity Summit, several Conservative rabbis expressed deep concern about their association’s position on officiation. One said, “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A prominent Conservative rabbi earlier this year said it’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. The new research supports efforts to change the RA’s policy from within.

It’s time for Judaism’s religious leaders, instead of making interfaith couples feel that their relationships are disapproved, to truly embrace them. What could be more welcoming than a rabbi embracing an interfaith couple at the nodal moment of the wedding? Rabbis should be leading the effort to change the dominant narrative away from ambivalence about intermarriage and the legitimacy of the intermarried.

With 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly are essential. They cannot succeed without a dramatic shift in attitudes towards the positive.

Welcome Intermarried But Maintain Norms Preferring In-marriage? A Review of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity


logoThe Jewish People Policy Institute has issued a rather amazing report, Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, a project headed by Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay. The report is based on the 2016 Jewish World Dialogue, which involved surveys and discussions in which 715 highly engaged Jewish leaders from around the world participated. The JPPI is a prominent Jerusalem-based think tank chaired by Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross and Leonid Nevzlin.

I describe the report as amazing because of the realistic and somewhat positive tone with which it describes intermarriage, and because of the great emphasis it places on being welcoming. At the same time, the report expresses a profound conundrum: whether it is possible to be genuinely welcoming of intermarried families, and also maintain communal norms that prefer in-marriage over intermarriage. I don’t think the Dialogue participants or the authors of the report go quite far enough to support the genuine welcoming that I believe is needed.

The Importance of Welcoming

The main finding of the report sets up the conundrum: there is remarkable consensus among engaged Jews regarding the need for the Jewish world (1) to be inclusive and welcoming toward all those who seek to participate in Jewish life, but also (2) to maintain selective communal norms. (emphasis added)

“Twenty-five years after the American National Jewish Population Study revealed the substantial increase in intermarriage in an open society, most Jewish leadership groups strive to seed, nurture, and strengthen a broad range of quality Jewish cultural and educational programs and a communal environment that welcomes all who seek to participate.” (emphasis added) (9)

The main recommendations of the report include striking support for programmatic efforts to welcome and engage interfaith families:

  • to “seed and support programs that reach out to Jews with weak identities and/or those whose Jewish status may be uncertain but still seek to learn and engage in Jewish life.”
  • “[T]he government of Israel, Jewish federations and philanthropies should continue to invest, both to encourage as many Jews as possible to intensify their engagement with Judaism, and also to create a welcoming environment.”
  • to “acknowledge those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, in terms of behavior and self-identity, but have not yet undergone conversion and become fully fledged members of the Jewish people.” (10-12)

The endorsement of the need to be welcoming to people in interfaith relationships is extremely heartening, especially considering that the report is a product of an Israel-based think tank and involved many Israeli participants. Even in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations, the emphasis on welcoming is striking: “Jews around the world expect Israel to offer a welcoming environment to all those wishing to participate in Jewish life and identify with the Jewish people.” (9)

Attitudes and Norms

The rub with being welcoming comes with what communal norms are to be maintained, and whether that can be done while still being welcoming. “[N]orms are needed to maintain the Jewish people as a collective, and prevent it from disintegrating into a fragmented and diffuse collection of groups and individuals.” (10)

The key chapter “Jewishness Meets Intermarriage” starts with a brief review of statistics showing high rates of intermarriage, such that “[M]ost Jews understand that the Jewish community, except in Israel, is gradually becoming one for which interfaith marriage is normative…,” together with surveys showing that intermarried families have a weaker connection than in-married families to the Jewish community and to Judaism. (67-68)

Dialogue participants were asked a series of questions that ascertain their attitudes towards intermarriage. The first question was whether the Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews, whether because doing so might succeed, or to make a symbolic declaration that in-marriage is preferable. Even though the participants expect intermarriage will continue to be a significant feature of Jewish life, more than 80% believed the community ought to encourage in-marriage.

The authors note that these participants “want the community to invest in measures that according to their [own] assessment are not going to completely alter the trend of intermarriage (some might still hope that the trend can be somewhat reversed).”  (68-69) The authors also note that it is not clear what the programmatic implications of encouraging in-marriage would be: “after trying to promote it for many years, no magic bullet has been found for this endeavor – only maintaining a certain communal norm, welcoming all people, and providing opportunities for Jewish learning and living. Essentially, doing everything possible to encourage distanced Jews to intensify their involvement with Judaism.” (69-70)

Dialogue participants were also asked whether intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism. The authors aptly summarize the argument: If non-Jews intermarry and agree in higher numbers – “as they do” – to raise Jewish children, the Jewish community no longer “loses” Jews to intermarriage, it “gains” non-Jews and their children who become part of the community. But again, “Even as they see a reality that cannot be reversed, and even as they hear the many success stories of integration of intermarried couples into the community, and even as they hear some of their leaders celebrate intermarriage as an opportunity for growth – they remain doubtful.” (72)

The authors locate the source of this hesitation in the studies that show lesser engagement among intermarried families. Many of them cannot overlook the studies that repeatedly show that intermarriage leads to a lesser engagement with Judaism and are not certain that is it within the community’s capabilities to bring interfaith families to the level of engagement of in-married families. (72)

Dialogue participants were not asked whether being Jewish requires a commitment to Jewishness alone (whether religious or peoplehood exclusivity). The authors say this is a question in need of exploration, as there is a growing share of Jews who do not see their Jewishness as exclusive. (75)

The one communal norm the report addresses is Jewish leadership: while many Jews want intermarried families to be full participants in Jewish life, they still have an inclination to preserve some symbolic features that point to the advantage, from a communal viewpoint, of in-marriage over intermarriage. (75) Thus, “Jews want their religious leaders to be unquestionably Jewish, and most of them want their communal leaders to be Jewish.” There is less agreement on whether a communal leader must have a Jewish spouse. (86)

The authors make an interesting comment about the “leader as role model” argument: “The question of ‘leader as role model’ becomes significant… only when the encouraged ‘model’ is an in-married Jewish family. Clearly this is what most Dialogue participants believed to be the case.” This is a very clear example of an underlying attitude that supports maintaining a norm.

The Conundrum

I have argued elsewhere that it is extremely difficult if even possible to encourage in-marriage and at the same time genuinely welcome the intermarried. Expressions of preference for in-marriage risk making those who intermarry feel that their relationship is sub-optimal and disapproved. The authors recognize this when they raise the question, “What if encouraging in-marriage alienates intermarried couples – an alienation that Dialogue participants were acutely worried about.” “Obviously, a strong desire to be ‘welcoming’… could be complicated by a campaign to encourage in-marriage.” (70) Similarly, if leaders don’t see the potential benefit from intermarriage, they will be less inclined to make efforts to engage interfaith families. The authors suggest that Jewish leaders can argue in favor of the model of the in-married Jewish family “without it implying the justification of criticism of Jews who made the personal decision to marry a non-Jew” (89); I don’t think that is the case.

Relying on studies showing lesser engagement of intermarried families is suspect when the community has not been welcoming and when very little effort has been made to “invest in interfaith families” with programming targeted to engage them. Again, the authors recognize this: “[P]roponents of outreach policies [argue] not that intermarriage is a blessing, but rather that with the right policies (being more welcoming, investing in interfaith families etc.) the potential is there for a beneficial effect on the community.” (73)

These expressions of attitudes of Jewish leaders are extremely important; as the authors note, “[C]onnected Jews make the communal rules. It is highly engaged and connected Jews who grasp the challenges, and attempt to tackle them. These Jews, participants in our groups, seemed somewhat readier than we had expected to make definitive assertions concerning the value of in-marriage to the community and its long term interests.” (72) The authors say “It is fair to suspect that had the Dialogue included more Jews of no religion, more disconnected Jews, and more unaffiliated Jews, the answers … would have been different.” (71-72) I suspect the same would be true if more less- and moderately- engaged Jews and their partners were included; the leaders may be behind the rest of the community. In the report’s recommendations, the authors say that the community “accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses;” “acceptance” in my opinion is not a warm enough response to achieve the engagement that the community appears to want to achieve.

I do see promise if one of the recommendations of the report is implemented: to create communities of practice that will develop “best practices in dealing with the broad range of contemporary Jews and Jewish groups,” “leadership training programs so leaders can deepen their understanding of the new milieu,” and welcoming language and messaging in organizational materials. (11)

Definitions of Jewishness and Interfaith Families

The report includes a fascinating discussion of definitions of Jewishness that have implications for engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I have summarized separately. One part of the discussion is particularly important.

The report identifies four aspects of Judaism as primary components of Jewishness: in the order in which they were ranked in surveys, they are culture, nationality/peoplehood, religion, and genealogy. The authors note that putting less emphasis on genealogy “fits nicely with … understanding that intermarriage is an irreversible part of Jewish life and with the cautious optimism some have concerning ‘the community’s ability to turn this challenging trend into an opportunity.’” But they also note that as Jews emphasize nationality/peoplehood, comfort with intermarriage could seem to rest on shaky ground, because intermarrieds currently show less connection to other Jews and Israel. One of the report’s recommendations is to “create initiatives that consciously seek to enhance the understanding of the Jewish peoplehood component among all who participate in Jewish life (Jews and non-Jews who affiliate with the community).” I would only note that efforts to influence non-Jews who affiliate with the community, and their partners, will be hindered to the extent that maintaining a norm of in-marriage makes interfaith couples feel second rate.


What We Learned at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit


November 6, 2016
with Jodi Bromberg
published on eJewishPhilanthropy

In October 2016, an at-capacity crowd of 300-plus major foundation, federation and organization leaders gathered in Philadelphia at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Jewish Reality, the first-ever national convening on the topic of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. The Summit happened now because of steadily growing interest in the issue, spurred by the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in 2015 and the resulting matching challenge grant process run by the Jewish Funders Network, and because of InterfaithFamily’s emergence as the leading convener in the space, with a successful smaller gathering in Boston last year.

The Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda, with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Funders Network partnering with IFF on the Summit. Every significant programmatic effort to engage interfaith families was represented. Three areas of learnings emerged: 1) the issues that need to be addressed to engage interfaith families; 2) the new efforts to engage them; and 3) the “narrative shift” in attitudes that must happen to make engagement efforts successful.

New Understandings about What Influences Engagement

There was considerable consensus about the applicability to interfaith families of a new conceptualization of what it means to be or to “do” Jewish. People will engage in Jewish life and community if Jewish values, rituals and practices, and forms of community help them meet common human needs for meaning and purpose, connect with others, and connect with something greater than themselves. In turn, interfaith couples will engage to the extent they are aware of this Jewish “stuff” and it is delivered in ways that are accessible to them.

There were stories of interfaith couples valuing Judaism’s gratitude practice, home family practice, focus on others, focus on improving the world, spiritual life, and ongoing questioning. How people will apply Jewish values and wisdom, and which traditions and forms of community they will adopt, however, is in flux, and traditional measures will not capture how people are defining and expressing their Jewishness today. At a session on entry points and pathways for interfaith families, speakers said we need to “bring the magic of Judaism as an enriching force in everyday lives to parents, grandparents, and children;” that “Jewish values help parents do the core job of parenting;” and that there is nothing that disengaged “free roamers” can talk about that they care about that isn’t addressed by Jewish values and traditions.

That much of Jewish religious life is organized around the concept of “the Jewish people,” and much of Jewish cultural life is by definition particularistic, raises the question how a partner from a different faith background can feel included in Jewish life. That in turn raises issues for the Jewish partners, who privilege their relationships over religion and other priorities, as found in the Continuum research sponsored by the Jacobson Family Foundation and a new study of mixed religion families by the Pew Research Center released in conjunction with the Summit. The Summit featured a text study session on different conceptions of Jewishness (nationality; ancestry; loyalty to a set of beliefs and doctrines; affiliation with a community; and identifying with a culture). An intermarried unconverted partner from a different faith tradition could feel included as a member of the Jewish people, and as a member of some Jewish communities but not others, while not a Jew. The idea of treating Jewish peoplehood as a family was also advanced. How peoplehood is understood and explained is a fertile area for further exploration.

The Summit featured a session on difficult boundary issues. The phenomenon of interfaith couples saying they are raising their children in more than one religion – partly Jewish and partly something else – is real. InterfaithFamily felt that the issue was important and warranted discussion, and invited a prominent proponent of “doing both,” to present at the Summit.  She argued that 1) families doing both are already part of synagogues and Jewish communities, and 2) that these couples want to engage in Judaism while educating their children about both religious traditions in the family, and don’t want to merge them together. Another speaker talked of an “open Judaism” that moved beyond tolerance to celebrating different religious traditions. Whether Jewish institutions will be willing to engage openly with these families without alienating them is another area for further consideration.

New Efforts to Engage Interfaith Families

One program session addressed ways to reach interfaith families through advertising, community organizing approaches and Israel trips. Recommendations included edgy, humorous advertising; explicit and prominent statements that interfaith families are welcome; and meeting people where they are, building relationships one-on-one and connecting them with others with similar interests, and providing content from the vast storehouse of Judaism that addresses their interests, and helps them do Jewish things.

One important suggestion was to empathize – to anticipate the hesitations that interfaith couples will have (Will we be welcomed or judged? Will there be people like us? Will we know enough?) and then tell stories of other interfaith families’ experiences that address those hesitations. Another was to focus on touchstone, nodal moments in peoples’ lives.

Several speakers emphasized the key role of grandparents, which one referred to as “the boots on the ground” with “high touch” relationships wanting to create “safe spaces.” Others emphasized the importance of reaching people through their friends: the disengaged “free roamers” have friends who are engaged and friends who are seekers, and all of them are social and on social media. People go to things when someone they know says “do you want to go to this, I’m going.”

If there was one consistent theme, it was the importance of relationships and relational processes in engaging interfaith families. The underlying theory is that identity formation is lifelong and dependent on experiences; people are susceptible to change because of college experiences or their experiences as couples. Jewish identity is relationally constructed and manifested in the “social self.” The stories of several of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included examples of negotiation and compromise that resulted in Jewish engagement. Almost all of the speakers in a program session on entry points and pathways for interfaith couples, representing early childhood programs, couples’ groups, and Jewish learning programs, emphasized the importance of developing relationships; one said, “when relationships of trust and security are evident, families can thrive.”

Wendy Rosov presented her program evaluations of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community initiative, which places a rabbi and a program manager in local communities to offer a range of services and programs targeted at interfaith couples, and of Honeymoon Israel, which provides immersive trips to Israel for locally-based cohorts of couples (69% to date have been interfaith couples). Rosov focused on two shared strategies: high touch relationship building, both between couples and staff and among couples, and providing a safe, non-judgmental space that facilitates discussion, negotiation and compromise between partners. Programmatic efforts that depend on relationship building and relational processes take time and are expensive (to the extent they depend on staff), and to the extent that reaching greater numbers requires more staff, the cost increases.

The kinds of outcomes these programs achieve tie in to the new conceptualizations of what it means to be or “do” Jewish. Shifting couple dynamics is particularly important, towards more equality around making Jewish choices, and towards more facility in discussing religious differences, doing Jewish things, and integrating traditions in ways that work for both partners. Outcomes being achieved include feeling connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples and to Jewish communities, incorporating Jewish traditions in their lives on a regular basis, and increased comfort in Jewish settings.

Changing the Narrative

At the concluding plenary a participant made a plea for a “shift in the dominant narrative.” Several Summit speakers referred to the remaining ambivalence over intermarriage and the full legitimacy of the intermarried. A Hillel representative reported that students find it ostracizing when their parents’ marriages are considered invalid, and Hillel professionals are “in the closet” about being in interfaith relationships or from interfaith families.

A concrete result of negative attitudes about intermarriage is the “door slamming” that interfaith couples can experience when seeking a rabbi to officiate at their life cycle events. A number of Conservative rabbis spoke about the pain they feel when they tell couples that they cannot officiate at their weddings; one said that “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A new study first discussed at the Summit, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, may lead more rabbis to officiate. The audience audibly gasped when one of the report’s authors, Len Saxe, projected a slide showing that the percentage of in-married and intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews by religion is very close when a rabbi is the sole officiant at the couples’ weddings – 96% for in-married couples compared to 85% for intermarried couples.

The stories of many speakers, on the other hand, reflected the cultural shift in attitudes that is needed in both institutions and individuals, and happening with some of them. Common threads in the experiences of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included being invited in, seeing others like themselves, hearing explicit welcoming statements, and experiencing an overall diverse and welcoming milieu. A rabbi at one of their synagogues spoke of the blessings of intermarriage – bringing more thoughtful, questioning people “into the fold.”

Another speaker, a Protestant woman married to a Jewish man, raising their children Jewish, told about how she was deeply moved when she held the Torah for the first time at Simchat Torah immediately before the Summit. She reached that point, she said, because a rabbi said yes when asked to officiate at her wedding, and because at her emerging spiritual community she experienced “radical hospitality, not just tolerance,” there was no hint of “do more Jewish, be more Jewish, convert,” and it was a safe place to explore while feeling truly part of a community.

Many speakers emphasized the work on welcoming that remains to be done. More than one said that organizations that think they are welcome, really aren’t, and pointed out the need to train religious school teachers in particular. One said that if a couple has one bad experience, they may not come back. Another said that “we all need to be educated that we are all ambassadors.”

What’s Next?

The concluding plenary addressed what local communities need to do to engage interfaith families. There was consensus that both programs aimed explicitly at interfaith couples and families, and general programs that welcome everyone, including interfaith families, are needed. Wendy Rosov noted that one common strategy of InterfaithFamily/Your Community and Honeymoon Israel is a national organization with local community efforts.

The new data on the impact of rabbinic officiation supports the importance of relationship building in interfaith family engagement work. Len Saxe said that while they couldn’t prove that having a rabbi as a sole officiant caused the couples to raise their children as Jews by religion, there is some independent effect of rabbinic officiation, and he suggested that it could be the process by which the couple and the rabbi work together in preparation for the wedding.

With respect to changing the narrative, one participant pointed to a coming generational shift in attitudes. A worthy next step to the Summit might be to consider what can be done to speed up that shift.

InterfaithFamily introduced the Summit with the hope that the outcome would be a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families. The question that now needs to be addressed is how to make that hope a reality.

Intermarriage in Britain: Tragedy or Opportunity?


published in eJewishPhilanthropy

As a leader in efforts in the United States to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community, and having considered trying to export those efforts to Britain, I read with great interest the recent report by David Graham of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), “Jews in couples: Marriage, intermarriage, cohabitation and divorce in Britain.”

Regrettably, I found the tone and messaging of the report unfortunate. Viewing intermarriage as a tragedy to be feared, as something that might “engulf” the community, is not a smart communal approach. The trends identified in the report, of growth in segments of the community (Secular/Cultural, Reform/Progressive, young cohabitating adults) that are relatively heavily interfaith, suggest that the British Jewish community would be wise to increase efforts to engage their growing number of interfaith families, adding to efforts already underway.

Graham labels intermarriage “demographically corrosive,” largely based on the statistic that only 31 percent of the children of intermarried Jews are raised as Jews. As best I can tell, this statistic is based on the 2011 census, in which parents listed the religion of their children. Graham seems to acknowledge this ambiguity when he refers to “the children of Jews who are not being raised, or at least identified, as Jewish.” But relying on that statistic presents an incomplete picture of how intermarried parents expose their children to Jewishness. In American surveys, significant percentages of intermarried parents usually say they are raising their children “Jewish and something else,” or that they haven’t yet decided. It is reasonable to assume that this is true in Britain as well.

Graham admittedly takes “the perspective of ethnic preservation,” quoting Marshall Sklare as saying (in 1970) that “intermarriage strikes at the very core of Jewish group existence.” He also quotes Milton Gordon, who said (in 1964) that intermarriage leads to “the disappearance of the ethnic group as a separate entity and the evaporation of its distinctive values.” The problem here is that Jewishness is not just an ethnicity and our experience in the States shows that the boundaries of who is included in the Jewish community can be expanded without the loss of distinctive Jewish values.

Indeed, in America today, there is a ferment of activity based on ethics, culture, and spreading Judaism as a wisdom system or technology that helps people to lead better lives and to make the world better. The traditional measures of attitudes and practices used in the report are being increasingly challenged as not depicting the way people identify and act on their Jewishness or find it meaningful. The report acknowledges that the gap between intermarried and in-married Jews is smaller on ethical and cultural variables, and wider as to ‘socially exclusivist’ and religiously observant variables; the same is true in the States, where more and more non-traditional young Jews are not socially exclusivist or religiously observant in traditional ways.

Graham does not exhibit an objective or neutral attitude towards intermarriage. He assumes, for example, that “it might be expected that someone who shares their life with a non-Jew will exhibit weaker levels of Jewish attachment in general.” Even American social scientists that openly advocate to discourage or prevent intermarriage at this point agree that intermarriage is a natural result of acceptance and mixing in an open society, not a choice to leave Jewishness behind.

Besides, we don’t know what the Jewish identification and behavior of intermarried couples and families would be if they were genuinely welcomed to Jewish life and Jewish communities. Describing intermarriage as “corrosive” sends a clear message of disapproval to them. As Liberal Rabbi Aaron Goldstein has written, when the children of an intermarried couple “are not recognized as Jewish, or even, if they are, their parents’ relationship is described in terms of ‘marrying out,’ the message of rejection, intentional or not, could not be clearer.” People don’t want to engage with communities that brand their relationships as second-class or sub-optimal. But as Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romaine has written, we have a much better chance of keeping couples “within the Jewish orbit” by not “slamming the door in their face.”


In January 2015, while I was CEO of InterfaithFamily, I had a series of meetings in London to explore the feasibility of bringing the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model to Britain. I met with several rabbis from the Reform movement, a rabbi from the Liberal movement, representatives of JHub, and with Rabbi Guy Hall, a pioneering rabbi who officiates and co-officiates at weddings of interfaith couples in Britain.

The InterfaithFamily/Your Community model places a full-time rabbi and a full-time project manager in a community. Your Community staff build personal ‘trusted advisor’ relationships with interfaith families, through officiation referral and other consultations, and provide Jewish learning and community building experiences, in particular workshops and ‘meet-ups’ where interfaith couples can talk with others like themselves about making decisions about religious traditions for their families. In addition, they raise awareness and connect interfaith families with local resources, and advocate for increased welcoming by providing trainings and participating in meetings of other community organizations.

While some local synagogue rabbis have at the outset viewed the Your Community rabbi as a ‘competitor,’ over time most realize that the Your Community rabbi is reaching many couples who are not yet ready to become synagogue members, and is in fact frequently refers couples to synagogues. Independent evaluations show that the short-term desired outcomes of the Your Community model are being achieved, with survey respondents stating they feel more connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples, families, and organizations and comfortable incorporating Jewish practices into their family life.

While there clearly are relevant differences between Britain and the United States, I believe that the kinds of services and programs provided by the Your Community model, and the kinds of outcomes being achieved, are needed and with appropriate modifications would be beneficial in supporting existing efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. In connection with my trip I spoke and met with fundraising consultants, but at the time was not able to identify any readily available and interested funders. (Because services and programs for interfaith families are largely staff-driven, they are expensive; the approximate cost of the Your Community model is over $250,000 (£190,000) per annum.)

Aside from importing the InterfaithFamily Your Community or other American models, I believe that British Jewish leaders could learn from the experiences of those involved in engaging interfaith families, for example, at gatherings like next year’s Interfaith Opportunity Summit. Instead of the report’s conclusion that Jewish community leaders should focus on divorce rates, cohabitation, and age of first marriage as demographically impactful, the report’s statistics and trends, indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice, demand increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.

The Communal Response to Intermarriage: A Time to Reflect, A Time to Resolve


published on eJewishPhilanthropy

As the new year approaches, I’m cleaning out my office (I’m a replaced CEO, now a consultant after hiring a terrific successor for InterfaithFamily), sorting through twenty years’ worth of papers and repeatedly reminded that the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage has differed vastly from its response to all other issues. At a time at a time of self- and communal- reflection and resolution-making, I’m asking why that is so, and whether this might finally be the year that a massive, coordinated effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community begins.

I. The Communal Response to Intermarriage Is Different

The Jewish community is filled with talented, committed, and philanthropic leaders of organizations and funders. When there has been leadership and collaboration, the response to issues has been massive and near-universal. I’m thinking of the recent announcement that the Schusterman and Jim Joseph foundations will give $28.8 million over five years to BBYO; that it’s hard to find a community, federation or organization that is not actively addressing disability inclusion or teen engagement; about investments in day schools, PJ Library, summer camps, Hillel, Birthright Israel – all important, deserving efforts.

But no similarly massive, concerted response to intermarriage has been made.

Not that there haven’t been calls to action from respected places. In my clean-up I found a 1994 report of a Council of Jewish Federations task force that said, in response to the near-50% intermarriage rate in the 1990 NJPS, “The Jewish community has no choice [but] to respond with a broadened array of opportunities to engage the intermarried in communal life and community services,” and “With Federation leadership, services to the intermarried can be part of a total communal effort rather than just one of an individual organization.”

I found a speech for a 2005 JOI conference by Michael Rukin, z”l, a senior leader of CJP, Hillel and HIAS, who wrote that programmatic allocations since the 1990 NJPS showed that any call for more extensive outreach had been lost to programs that followed a strategy to “infuse the core Jews with greater knowledge, affiliation and commitment and the rest will follow.” “Fifteen years later, … the demographics of affiliation and intermarriage have not changed.” Rukin called for a “massive investment in creative programs of outreach to these families and their children,” “a significant change in the language (both verbal and on-verbal) towards” them, “a broad base of institutions working together,” “a major commitment from the federation system to infuse their agencies with a thrust of creative outreach programs,” a “renewed commitment from the religious movements,” and “the continued prodding of inspired philanthropists… with a rollout plan to massive numbers… [and] budget, way beyond the minuscule amounts currently available.”

The closest we ever came to following these recommendations was a 2008 Interfaith Initiative Funding Proposal, put together by a consortium of major foundations. Citing a “critical moment in the history of modern day Jewry,” the consortium said the “vibrancy, size and strength of the Jewish people” depended upon “a powerful new vision that empowers and enables the Jewish community to better serve” the “rapidly expanding population” of interfaith families with children. The proposal called for $7.5 million over three years to create a national entity, a “state of the art web site” (an enhanced, and an array of integrated programs and services, targeted to interfaith families with children, in three pilot communities.

The consortium’s proposal wasn’t funded because of Madoff and a financial downturn. But I’ve never understood why, in the eight years since, that proposal, or something like it, wasn’t revived or redesigned, and then implemented by some new coalition of funders.

II. Why the Difference?

Why haven’t there been massive, concerted efforts to engage interfaith families? Some cite limited resources and competing priorities and not fitting with their strategies. But can anyone who wants to see more people more Jewishly engaged in any activity – learning, social justice, spirituality – question whether getting interfaith couples and families involved is essential to reaching those goals? Interfaith families are where the people we want to be Jewishly engaged are.

Some say we don’t need to address the issue explicitly, or offer targeted programs; if we build up pre-schools and camps and teen and college programs etc., those will capture enough interfaith families. But the leaders of those programs (including PJ Library and Birthright Israel) say that interfaith families and their children are their growth markets, and they aren’t satisfied with the numbers they’re reaching. One thing I learned over the last twenty years is that engaging interfaith families is a continuum that for many starts with addressing issues as they are dating and getting married; services and programs targeted at interfaith couples and families will result in many more of them getting involved later.

Some measure success by attracting large numbers of participants, and say that interfaith family engagement programs don’t. Another thing I’ve learned: engaging interfaith families depends largely on one-on-one or small group work with trained staff, or volunteers trained by staff, that don’t reach large numbers; interfaith family engagement work makes one Jewish family at a time, or at best, small groups of them. Another thing: “interfaithness” is a salient characteristic for interfaith couples during transitional, life cycle times but not all of the time. That makes it difficult to put on big-number programs; even at holiday times, interfaith couples may not want to be together with others like themselves the way that LGBT people and Jews of color might.

Some say that staff-driven relationship building is too expensive. But other well-funded programmatic interventions are staff-driven and expensive, and there is no reason to believe that the cost-per-participant-per-benefit is significantly higher for efforts to engage interfaith families.

Some say they’d like to support or take action to engage interfaith families but don’t know what works. In fact, this isn’t rocket science. There’s been remarkable consensus, from the 1994 CJF task force report, through the Interfaith Initiative Funding Proposal, to today: interfaith couples need easy access to information, explicitly welcoming messages and experiences, and services and programs to help them while dating and getting married and to find community with other Jewishly-engaged interfaith couples at the outset of their journeys.

Some say that evaluation of interfaith family engagement programs is insufficient without random sample, control group research like there is for Birthright Israel. But steadily increasing numbers of the best feasible evaluations show that interfaith family engagement programs achieve their desired outcomes. Other areas of Jewish life haven’t had to wait for gold standard proof of program effectiveness. Where information was inadequate, significant research was funded, with a commitment to then fund the directions indicated by the research. Why hold efforts to engage interfaith families to higher standards?

III. What’s Needed for Change

I believe that what makes the response to intermarriage different is continuing negative attitudes. Back in 1994, the CJF task force said that “Some significant changes may need to occur in both staff attitudes and approaches at every level in Federation and community agencies and organizations” to treat “intermarried families with sensitivity and respect.”  Not nearly enough change has occurred.

The traditional community in the US, let alone in Israel, sees any effort to engage interfaith families as intolerable promotion of intermarriage. Too many leaders still think we should discourage and can prevent intermarriage. Some think Birthright Israel, with fewer trip participants intermarrying than non-participants, is the antidote. It’s wonderful when young Jews marry other Jews, but as I’ve said before, sending everyone on Birthright is not sufficient: many people already have aged out of Birthright, and significant percentages of trip participants still intermarry.

The liberal Jewish community isn’t exempt from deep-seated negative attitudes. Some horror stories from the past few years: the active synagogue member, Harvard Business School grad, not herself Jewish, hearing someone at her synagogue say “we Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying;” the interfaith couple who reported, in a federation’s survey, that they were trying out services at a synagogue where someone said “maybe you people would be more comfortable somewhere else.”

Some think that negative attitudes among Jews about intermarriage will lessen over time because today’s young adults don’t think that way. I question how fast that will happen, given studies reporting college students questioning the Jewishness of other students.

In InterfaithFamily’s recent evaluations, some professionals have said that their lay leadership in is “behind” in understanding the importance of welcoming interfaith families. But when rabbis say they can’t or won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, the Jewish stamp of disapproval on the relationship is unavoidable.

In the Hornstein Program I learned from Ron Heifitz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers that leaders move people to adapt their attitudes; the prime example was Lyndon Johnson who ironically, given his background, led Americans to give up their opposition to civil rights. Given the fractured nature of the Jewish community, I can’t foresee a single Lyndon Johnson able to move Jews to genuinely embrace interfaith couples.

Perhaps massive concerted action to engage interfaith families hasn’t happened because funders and organizations are consensus-driven. But lack of consensus hasn’t always prevented near-universal action in the liberal Jewish community – I’m thinking of the thankfully now widespread efforts to welcome LGBT people.

It may be that what is needed is a group of key leaders who jointly have the capability to lead an adaptation of attitudes in the community – and to fund and take action to engage interfaith families.

I admit to being a glass half-empty person. Over the past twenty years there has been progress, with ups and downs. Individual generous funders have led the way and enabled impactful efforts to engage interfaith families to occur. The InterfaithFamily/Your Community model with two full-time staff including a rabbi is now in place in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC. Cleveland has an affiliate with a full-time rabbi on one of its agency’s staffs. Honeymoon Israel is taking growing numbers of interfaith couples on impactful trips to Israel. There is ongoing activity in Boston, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere.

The award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas and the resulting matching challenge grant initiative has stimulated interest among some funders, which the Jewish Funders Network is continuing to address, and other funders are talking. On October 26 the Interfaith Opportunity Summit will bring key foundation and federation leaders together with interfaith family engagement practitioners and other organizational leaders to explore what is needed to engage interfaith families in Jewish life nationally and in local communities.

I am an ever-hopeful person, too. There’s a strong foundation for the massive concerted effort that’s needed, and there’s growing interest and awareness of the importance of the issue. What we need now is resolve – will this be the year?

Intermarriage Crossroads?


August 4, 2016
with Jodi Bromberg, CEO, InterfaithFamily
published on eJewishPhilanthropy

A significant upcoming convening may lay the groundwork for something missing from the liberal Jewish community for the past twenty-five years: concerted action by funders and community leaders to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

InterfaithFamily, in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Federations of North America, is sponsoring the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Jewish Reality, on Wednesday October 26, 2016 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

The goal of the Summit is to explore – with funders, federations, leaders of Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners – the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community, and begin to build consensus for increased efforts towards that end.

Jewish leaders have repeatedly expressed concern since high intermarriage rates were announced in the early 1990’s. In most fields – day schools, camps, teen engagement, Israel trips, social justice – funders and professionals have joined together to plan, support and execute major programmatic activities to strengthen organizations and expand recruitment.

The field of engaging interfaith families, however, is different, distinguished by the lack of concerted action by funders and professionals. Individual organizations – notably the Reform movement, Big Tent Judaism, and InterfaithFamily – have developed and offered successful programmatic efforts, and generous foundations, federations and individuals have made those efforts possible with financial support. But there has never been concerted action like that in other fields, apart from a proposal for joint action by several foundations in 2008-2009 that failed because of losses dues to Madoff and the economic downturn.

It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why arguably the single most important issue for the liberal Jewish community has not attracted concerted action. It may be that intermarriage is still viewed so negatively by so many that funders and professionals are discouraged from supporting any related efforts that are not designed to discourage or prevent it. Or, that there is simply too wide a chasm between those who wish to prevent or discourage intermarriage and those that seek to embrace and welcome interfaith couples and families – and therefore, no shared understanding of the way forward.

Recent signs, however, indicate a growing shift in attitudes that could support significant concerted action to engage interfaith families – most notably, the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in order to highlight the importance of welcoming intermarried families, followed by the Jewish Funders Network/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative to attract increased financial support for those welcoming efforts. In addition, there has been increased attention from organizations like Hillel, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Audacious Hospitality” work.

The Interfaith Opportunity Summit will now bring together everyone interested or potentially interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly – foundations, federations, Jewish organizations and interfaith family engagement practitioners. The initial response to the Summit is another sign of shifting attitudes; in addition to partnering with the JFN and the JFNA, participants in the Summit program include:

  • the URJ, Big Tent Judaism, Honeymoon Israel and InterfaithFamily;
  • the Schusterman, Crown, Jacobson, Lippman Kanfer, Miller, Joyce & Irving Goldman, and Genesis Prize foundations;
  • the Philadelphia, Boston, New York and LA federations;
  • national organizations including Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, PJ Library, the JCC Association, the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement, the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs and International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism;
  • thought leaders including Yehuda Kurtzer, Alan Cooperman, Ted Sasson, Tobin Belzer, Fern Chertok, Wendy Rosov, Susan Katz Miller, Keren McGinity, Paul Golin and Marion Usher;
  • numerous innovative organizations including Romemu, Lab/Shul, jewbelong, Tribe 12, Sixth & I, Central Synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, the JCC in Manhattan, Jewish Learning Ventures.

Because of the importance of understanding the lived experiences of interfaith families, Summit participants will also hear from millennial children of intermarriage, young interfaith couples, and interfaith families with young children. The grantees of the JFN/Genesis Prize matching grant initiative, and other interfaith family engagement programs, have all been invited to participate and discuss their programs with interested attendees at tables over an extended lunchtime.

The Summit will provide a rich discussion of the issues that need to be addressed to have more interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community. How can Jews and their partners from different faith traditions experience the value of Jewish wisdom, express their spirituality in Jewish settings, and feel included in “the Jewish people?” How can we effectively reach the spectrum of interfaith couples, from those who are seeking to those who are not, through messaging and marketing to interfaith families, and relationship building/community organizing approaches to them? What services and programs are effective entry points and ways to facilitate progress into more engagement, and what promising trends are emerging? How can we address difficult attitude and boundary issues surrounding intermarriage: privileging in-marriage, wedding officiation, ritual participation, and conversion? Can those who say they are “doing both” be included in Jewish life and communities?

The concluding plenary will tie together the preceding sessions and address what a local Jewish community needs to offer to engage interfaith families, and the appropriate roles of general programs aimed at and marketed for everyone, and programs targeted at people in interfaith relationships.

By bringing together funders and organization leaders – people in a position to make things happen – with practitioners in the field, we hope to build consensus on what increased efforts need to be taken to engage interfaith families and to facilitate the possibility of concerted large-scale action towards that goal. We hope that you’ll be there to join the conversation.

Jodi Bromberg is the CEO of InterfaithFamily. Ed Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily, is an independent writer, speaker and consultant. More information about the Interfaith Opportunity Summit program is available here, and registration is available here.

Naming the Issue


I believe that if engaging interfaith families is going to be a priority, it needs to be called out. It needs to be named. So I’m very attuned to omissions – when I think golden opportunities to refer to engaging interfaith families are missed.

Two weeks ago Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the excellent leader of the Reform movement, wrote that Synagogue Innovation is the Key to Strengthening Jewish Life. It’s a fine article, and I personally agree with the major point – that innovation is needed, and that it is happening not only in small start-ups but also in many congregations. I just wish that the examples of synagogue innovation – new dues structures, family engagement and retention, leadership and governance, disabilities inclusion, engaging Jews of color and millennials – could have included engaging interfaith families.

Today Rabbi Daniel Schiff wrote There’s No Place Like Home. Again the major point – that strengthening the Jewish home, in addition to institutions, is an important strategy – is well taken. But there’s not even a mention of all of the Jewish homes headed by interfaith partners, or the opportunity strengthen the Jewishness of more of those homes. That may not be surprising, given the author’s praise for the Statement on Jewish Vitality, which is terrible for what it says and doesn’t say about intermarriage, as I’ve explained before.