[This essay originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission.]
As any regular consumer of Jewish media in general – and eJewishPhilanthropy essays in particular – knows, there is an ongoing extensive discussion about the massive disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and the opportunity to re-envision the Jewish community.
Strikingly missing to date from that discussion has been any mention of a goal to increase the engagement of interfaith families in that post-pandemic community.
The leaders of organizations working with Jewish professionals, reporting on what they hear from the field, most recently identified a concern among Jewish non-profit CEOs that initiatives around inclusion not be deprioritized, as well as their interest in having the full diversity of the community considered. But the only marginalized groups mentioned are Jews of color and multiracial members of our community.
Regrettably, it is necessary to ask Jewish leaders at this time: Are interfaith families part of the diversity of the community that we want to be included?
Thought leaders, including Sid Schwarz, Steven Windmueller and Cindy Chazan, have noted the huge production of Jewish content available online in response to the pandemic. But aside from ongoing efforts by 18Doors, no extensive content or experiences have been developed with interfaith families in mind – with any focus either on making content accessible to them, or marketing to them in targeted ways.
This is an opportunity that could be seized after the pandemic ends that could lead to engaging many more interfaith families.
Thought leaders have also noted that the fear and isolation stemming from the pandemic have generated increased interest in spiritual community. The Pew Research Center reports that many Americans, though fewer Jews than other groups, say their faith has become stronger. There is reason to believe that partners from different faith backgrounds are likely to be even more interested in spiritual expression than their Jewish partners.
This is another opportunity – to make Jewish spiritual community attractive to and accessible by, that is, inclusive of, the partners from different faith backgrounds in interfaith relationships. Will that be part of our re-envisioned “New Normal”?
I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that there are not very pressing immediate concerns around health, people in need, the survival of organizations and job security for their professionals, and more. But thought leaders are calling for planning, starting now, for the future, and for thinking expansively about making Jewish life and communities compelling when the pandemic is over.
One thing that has not changed and must be taken into account in that expansive thinking: given a 72% rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, no form of liberal Jewish activity can thrive in the future unless increasing numbers of interfaith families engage in it.
There is much that can be learned, from the current discussion of the disruptions and opportunities arising from the pandemic, about how to engage interfaith families, in addition to the importance of providing targeted online content and capitalizing on revived interest in spiritual community. The lesson about mutual trust that Cyd Weissman draws from the pandemic provides important guidance on how feelings of inclusion can be cultivated among interfaith families. Weissman says that if we develop relationships in which we demonstrate trust in people, by cultivating their needs, voices and creativity, they will trust us. I say that if we consider and treat partners from different faith traditions as equals, we can demonstrate trust in them and cultivate their needs, and, as I’ve argued before, make them feel that they belong in Jewish communities.
As Jewish leaders – including the private family foundations widely recognized as the “power brokers” in formulating the response to the pandemic – move forward with the planning that will inevitably happen, I urge them to prioritize changing the trajectory of efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.