Are Interfaith Families Included in Inclusive Philanthropy?

No matter how good a job we do with immersive Jewish experiences developing strong Jewish identities, Jews will continue to intermarry.

by Edmund Case

There’s a lot of energy these days among Jewish philanthropists around inclusivity. On April 17, 2013 in eJewishPhilanthropy, Jay Ruderman wrote about a major upcoming conference for funders on inclusivity for Jews with disabilities. Referring to Jews with disabilities, Ruderman says “all Jews should be fully included in Jewish communal life” and “full inclusion needs to have a prominent place on the Jewish agenda” and “It is crucial that philanthropic leaders are made aware of the issue of inclusion and its centrality to vibrant Jewish life.”

The next day, as part of a series by grant recipients of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund, Idit Klein wrote about Keshet’s work for inclusion in Jewish life of LGBT Jews, noting that “major stakeholders in Jewish life have begun to recognize the relevance of this work to the Jewish community.”

But something important is missing from this picture: Jewish philanthropists aren’t talking about, or collectively addressing, inclusivity of Jews and their interfaith families.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am strongly in favor of inclusivity for Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews in Jewish life. But should the inclusivity agenda be co-opted to apply only to those two issues – and to exclude interfaith families?

The “2011 Jewish Community Study of New York” reports that 3 to 5% of Jews are LGBT, and Mr. Ruderman says that 20% of the US population has some form of disability. But we are rapidly approaching a time when more than 50% of Jews will be in interfaith families. In terms of numbers alone, the potential impact of including people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life and community is staggering, vastly outweighing the potential of including any other group.

It’s been twenty-two years since the 1990 NJPS report of a near 50% rate of intermarriage gave rise to the Jewish continuity efforts that continue today. In the twelve years since I founded InterfaithFamily, I’ve seen one very worthy “it” cause after another: synagogue transformation, Hillel, Birthright Israel, day schools, summer camps, social justice, most recently food and the environment. While IFF has been fortunate to have a handful of generous funders, there has never been a major or sustained, let alone collective, effort among Jewish philanthropists to meet the huge opportunity to engage interfaith families.

I am painfully aware this is a controversial issue and have addressed elsewhere and recently the voices in the community that say that intermarriage is bad, that it can be prevented, that conversion or immersive Jewish experiences are the “solution” to the “problem,” and that we don’t need to offer anything particular for people in interfaith relationships.

But when Jewish philanthropists are planning and meeting and considering the funding needs of exciting innovative projects and ongoing immersive Jewish experience programs, there seems to be an elephant in the room, and not to be redundant, a very large elephant: the reality of intermarriage. For no matter how good a job we do with immersive Jewish experiences developing strong Jewish identities, Jews will continue to intermarry. The choice to intermarry is not a choice against Judaism. We shouldn’t be unwelcoming or turn these people away because in our free and open society they have fallen in love with someone not Jewish. Instead we should foster and support their potential interest in engaging in Jewish life and community.

Despite all of the controversy, there are promising existing initiatives that could be scaled up, and new ones could be developed, all resulting in large numbers of interfaith families engaging Jewishly. The first step is for funders to acknowledge the importance of the issue and to commit to supporting the required effort.

In her beautiful piece in eJewishPhilanthropy, Idit Klein says with respect to LGBT Jews that inclusion is “a reflection of Jewish values and a way to more fully realize the ethics that are at the core of our tradition” and “a cause that should matter to any committed Jew.”

“As we leave the Passover season behind, questions of who is an insider and who is an outsider are especially resonant. We read the mandate to remember that we, all of us, were slaves in Egypt before our collective liberation. The memory of oppression reminds us to think in terms of “we” rather than of “you” – to expand the sense of what and who we mean by ”we.”

[E]xpanding the circle of stakeholders starts when we locate the particularities of our identity within the larger collective. In doing so, the larger collective begins to see each of its members as part of the “we” – embracing diversity as a unifying element of the Jewish future.”

I live and long for the day when these words apply to people in interfaith relationships.

The partners in the Ruderman Jewish Disabilities Funding Conference include the Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Federations of North America. Mr. Ruderman says “Their participation shows the importance attached to full inclusion and their commitment to making it a reality.” Will the JFN and the JFNA attach importance and commitment to inclusion of people in interfaith relationships?

We need funders with capacity and will comparable to Mr. Ruderman’s who are willing to say, about people in interfaith relationships, what he says about Jews with disabilities:

“The American Jewish community has many issues which need fixing and important matters to be grappled with. Inclusion of all members of our community should be something which we can all agree on. Funders and philanthropists play a vital role in making this happen.

People [in interfaith relationships] want to be included in every aspect of Jewish communal life. The day is short, the task is great and it is imperative that we all work together to create a dynamic and attractive Jewish community for everyone.”

Edmund Case is the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com.