Engaging Interfaith Families during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

By Tema Smith

As we move through the second month of COVID-19 closures, all across the Jewish professional world, leaders are discussing ways to engage their communities, whether through digital learning, remote pastoral care, or live-streamed services.

At 18Doors, we believe that the current reality presents opportunities for Jewish organizations to grow their embrace of interfaith couples and families. We invite our colleagues across the communal landscape to join us in this work.

COVID19 and barriers to Jewish engagement for interfaith families

In our work with interfaith couples and families, we often hear about barriers they face to participating in the organized Jewish community. COVID19, though, is changing our ways of doing business as usual. Our programming has moved out of our physical buildings to virtual settings and many programs are now free, eliminating these potential barriers.

The expectations for participation have also shifted. It’s easier for interfaith couples and families to try things and browse until they find the right fit. So many people are joining programs for the first time, that being a newcomer may feel less intimidating. And when a program or service is not what they’re looking for, it is easy to slip away unnoticed.

Our doors are opening in ways unlike ever before and providing new opportunities to reach and connect with interfaith couples and families.

Ask couples and families what they need!

One of the top questions that organizations ask us is, “what do interfaith families want from Jewish community organizations?” Our advice is always to ask them directly, and now is an excellent time to do that. As your model of engaging with your community changes, prioritize listening and building relationships with the people you serve, including interfaith families.

What would it look like in your community to connect with these families and get to know them on a deeper level? Consider asking what they are looking for in Jewish community and how you can support them in building the Jewish life they want. Give them a chance to tell you what you are getting right, and what you can adapt or build on to make them feel not just welcomed but embraced and valued. The insights you gather will help you serve them not just during the pandemic, but when things return to “normal”.

Share Jewish knowledge

In times of upheaval, many people turn to religious traditions to make meaning and find ways to talk about what they are experiencing. Interfaith families may want to connect with language around Jewish values to talk about some of the challenges brought on by COVID-19. Now is an excellent time to extend an invitation to interfaith couples and families explicitly to participate in learning opportunities.

Support couples and families to do Jewish at home

When it became clear that families would not be able to gather for in-person Passover seders this year, the 18Doors staff quickly realized that many of the couples and families we serve might be scrambling to host their own seders this year – some for the first time. We created how-to videos, wrote a handy list of substitutions in case people were unable to find seder items, and posted links to resources and digital haggadot.

There will be many more Jewish moments in which we can support interfaith couples and families at home – shabbat and Havdalah, and Shavuot and other holy days while the restrictions remain in place. Provide guidance on how to take part in these rituals at home, whether through step-by-step guides, interactive ways to participate like recipes or crafts, or all-age discussion starters.

Recognize that lifecycle events may be up in the air

For interfaith couples having babies during the pandemic, anxiety about preparing for the birth of their child under exceptional circumstances may be compounded by questions about Jewish rituals. How can a bris be held? What about a baby naming? In some communities, there are the added concerns about formally bringing a baby into Judaism with a mikvah ceremony. Reach out. Provide guidance and reassurance and share how rituals can be observed – or postponed.

For interfaith families preparing for b’nei mitzvah, recognize that this is often the first opportunity for the entire extended family to come together to publicly participate in a Jewish tradition. As you work with the family, check in about extended family. How are they feeling? Do they have questions, especially if they will be participating from a distance? How can you make yourself available to support them as well?

Couples who were slated to get married over the next months are facing huge uncertainties as the pandemic casts a dark shadow over one of the happiest days of their lives. Whether or not you officiate at interfaith weddings, be there to support couples whose plans have been upended. Create spaces for them to share how they are feeling and help them navigate this as a couple.

Clarify your practices around death and mourning

Tragically, COVID19 can be deadly. For interfaith families, questions around how to mark the death of loved ones from other religious traditions may arise. Can they be buried in your community’s cemetery? Will a rabbi officiate? Can they say kaddish or sit shiva as they mourn? What if the deceased’s requests included things that are inconsistent with Judaism – embalming, visitation, or cremation? Clarifying your communal practices before they arise will prepare you to support interfaith families in your community effectively.

Supporting interfaith families will build a more inclusive community for all its participants

While some of the needs of interfaith families during the time of COVID19 are unique, many of them are shared by all Jewish families. Addressing these needs will not only make interfaith families feel seen and valued, but also provide content, support and engagement that will benefit the Jewish community as a whole.

Learn with 18Doors

18Doors is taking a deeper dive into these topics over the next few months with free webinars open to clergy, Jewish professionals, educators, and lay leaders. Find out more and register at https://18doors.org/upcoming-webinars

Tema Smith is the Director of Professional Development for 18Doors, formerly InterfaithFamily, an organization dedicated to empowering people in interfaith relationships – individuals, couples, families and their children – to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and encouraging Jewish communities to welcome them.