Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change

By Stacie Garnett-Cook

Most of the discussion of interfaith marriage in the news recently has been centered on the question of whether rabbis should officiate at interfaith weddings. But there is a bigger, and I would argue more important, question. Do interfaith couples and families feel welcome? At InterfaithFamily, we have asked ourselves: How can we help make sure they do?

We want to ensure everyone feels welcomed into our Jewish institutions, our synagogues, our cultural and community organizations. How do we invite interfaith couples to share in the richness of Jewish community, and how can we be enriched by their presence?

That last part is essential. There are many interfaith couples and families that want to be part of an organized Jewish community and are seeking a spiritual or cultural “home.” Likewise, there are many synagogues, schools, and other organizations that seek to welcome and include them.

But what does that actually look like in practice? What should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions? That is what InterfaithFamily’s new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI) is designed to address.

IILI, launched in June, is a year-long program designed to help Jewish institutions and organizations create comfortable spaces for interfaith couples and families and expand their supportive policies and practices. The program, modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by The Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations as they do the difficult work of creating and implementing action plans for their organizations.

InterfaithFamily challenges organizations to think about the different facets of their structure and culture as an organization, from the language they use to the programs they offer, from their membership forms to their ritual policies. After completing a self-assessment for their organization, leaders work with an InterfaithFamily-trained coach to develop an individualized plan for the year and beyond. They continue to receive support from their coach and training through monthly webinars. These professional development sessions focus on topics such as effective and sensitive communication with interfaith families, suggestions for inclusive rituals, and educational policies and practices, and are facilitated by rabbis, those in interfaith families, and experts on inclusion.

The need for a program like this was apparent from the questions and discussions at InterfaithFamily’s Interfaith Opportunity Summit last year, and indeed, our first cohort filled quickly. We have 10 organizations in Cohort One, each with two or more leaders participating, for a total of 35 team leaders who reach over 6,750 constituents. We limited the first cohort to synagogues and Federations. It includes three Federations, one JCC with a close affiliation to its Federation, and six synagogues. They represent seven states: Connecticut (1); Illinois (1); Maryland (1); Missouri (1); New York (1); Ohio (1); Pennsylvania (4). Four of the synagogues are members of the Conservative Movement; one is a member of the Reform Movement, and one is unaffiliated.

The participants are:

  • Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, OH
  • Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, CT
  • Jewish Federation of Reading, PA
  • JCC of Greater Baltimore, MD/affiliated with The Associated
  • Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Congregation Kneseth Israel, Elgin, IL
  • Congregation Temple Israel, St. Louis, MO
  • Kesher Israel Congregation, West Chester, PA
  • Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, Richboro, PA
  • Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, NY

Many of the organizations have already taken initial steps to include interfaith families within their institutions, by attending InterfaithFamily’s Interfaith Opportunity Summit in 2016, or participating in a training or program by InterfaithFamily. Of the many applications we received, one organization expressed that they viewed participation in IILI as an opportunity to receive “direction, inspiration, concrete ideas, thought partners and mentors, and knowledge of best practices.” The goal is to help organizations make a lasting cultural shift from tolerating interfaith families to valuing and embracing them and their contribution to Jewish community.

Cultural change is hard, and takes a long-term investment in energy and resources. According to John Kotter, professor at Harvard Business School, in his book Leading Change, there are eight stages in the process of creating major change, from “establishing a sense of urgency” to finally “anchoring new approaches in the culture.” Change requires a coalition of leaders to guide the effort, so InterfaithFamily encourages each organization to put together a team of both professional and lay leaders to participate in IILI. Next comes developing a vision and strategy. IILI provides tools and concrete examples so that organizations can examine their current practices, envision where they want to be, and prioritize the activities that will most effectively move them down the path of inclusion. This strategic plan for inclusion becomes their guiding document for their change process and will necessarily look different for each institution.

IILI also knows that the language we use is crucial. The program provides training in language to use and avoid and encouragement to listen to the voices of interfaith families already in our communities. This helps organizations communicate their vision of inclusion to current and prospective members. It is also important to generate short-term wins. Many people will not be won over until they begin to see the benefits of the changes. This does not mean that becoming more inclusive will automatically bring a wave of new members, but there may be a new level of engagement from interfaith families who feel more comfortable bringing their talents and experiences to the table. Posting a statement of welcome on the organization’s homepage, offering translations and transliterations of Hebrew words and prayers, or changing membership forms in ways that acknowledge that some family members may not have grown up with Judaism can all have tangible benefits.

Kotter’s model suggests that cultural change comes last, not first. After people can see the value of including interfaith families, and practices have begun to shift, then new norms will begin to take root. There will need to be continuous support and encouragement along the way, both from leaders in the organization, and from outside to shore them up. That is why one of the cornerstones of IILI is coaching. InterfaithFamily hopes to develop ongoing relationships with the organizations that participate and will continue to provide resources and support.

InterfaithFamily has already received interest from other organizations including camps, day schools, JCCs, and synagogues that would like to participate in future cohorts. For more information about the application process, or the program in general, please visit www.interfaithfamily.com/IILI.

The process of change may not be easy, but it is well worth the effort. When interfaith families are able to bring their whole selves to the table and more comfortably engage in Jewish life we are all enriched. As Jewish institutions fear the rise of disconnection and lack of affiliation, the effort to become wholeheartedly inclusive in both our thoughts and actions is our best chance to encourage interfaith families to engage and be an active part of the Jewish community.

Stacie Garnett-Cook is National Director of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community Initiative and Project Director of the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative. Stacie has a Masters in Organization Development and is in an interfaith marriage herself. You can contact her at stacieg@interfaithfamily.com.