What We Learned at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit

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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.

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