Learning To Serve Interfaith Couples and The Fellowship To Help Rabbis Get There

By Rabbi Robyn Frisch

Interfaith relationships are a “hot topic” in the Jewish community, and for good reason – according to the 2013 Pew Research Center Report on American Jews, 71% of Jews outside of the Orthodox community who got married after 2000 wed spouses of another faith. InterfaithFamily (IFF) – the only organization that focuses exclusively on people in interfaith relationships – is proud that our rabbis have been “on the ground” meeting with, counseling, and providing workshops and programs for people in interfaith relationships for the past seven years.

As you may have recently read in eJP, IFF has undergone a new strategic plan. As part of that process, we looked closely at what we have learned in those seven years, what has the most impact, and how we can broaden our reach to more interfaith couples in more parts of North America. Interfaith couples and families have taught us so much over the years and this learning has led to a bold change in how we plan to expand going forward.

Our current model has offices in six communities (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco) and an affiliate in Cleveland. The rabbis who run our offices work intimately with people in interfaith relationships every day, and we’ve developed an expertise in this area. We identified three key activities and one underlying assumption that have led to our success:

  1. Offering workshops and programs for interfaith couples where they can discuss the joys and challenges of being in an interfaith relationship in a safe setting. This is essential so that couples can meet others like them and hear about the myriad ways that different couples approach religion in their lives.
  2. Working individually with interfaith couples, especially around weddings, because every couple is unique with their own questions and family dynamics. InterfaithFamily refers couples to rabbis who will perform weddings, baby namings and other lifecycle events so couples can connect with someone who will guide them at these seminal moments and encourage their Jewish journeys.
  3. Connecting couples to existing inclusive community resources and organizations so that they can find a broader Jewish community. Interfaith couples should not be siloed off, but welcomed into Jewish life.
  4. And the underlying assumption is being truly nonjudgmental. It may seem obvious, but it is essential and more nuanced than you might think. It means meeting people where they are, not making them feel guilty for their decisions, and being open to their stories.

To take these learnings and expand our reach, we are now launching the IFF Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind two-year stipended fellowship. The rabbis who are selected for the Rukin Fellowship will have the opportunity to continue what IFF has determined to be the most important work that we do in our communities. They will deliver codified IFF workshops and programs for interfaith couples and families and they will have preferred status within IFF’s Jewish clergy officiation referral service. They will use their local expertise to connect couples and families to resources that meet their needs. The Rukin Fellowship is specifically for rabbis who already have some experience working with interfaith couples, and who want to take their work to the next level.

In order to create this cadre of fellows who have a unique understanding of the needs of interfaith couples and have specific skills for working with them, IFF will provide the fellows with extensive professional development opportunities (including two immersive retreats, monthly webinars and individual mentoring) to learn from experts in the field. The Rukin Fellows will also be part of an ongoing community of practice (both throughout the Fellowship itself and when they become alumni) that will help them hone their skills.

As the number of Fellowship participants and alumni grows (the initial pilot cohort of 10 rabbis will launch in March of 2019; at scale, there will be up to 45 active Rukin Fellows with an alumni network for continued support and engagement), IFF expects to substantially impact not just the Fellows and the interfaith couples who participate in their workshops and programs, but the entire Jewish community. Our fellows and alumni will become local resources, able to model inclusivity and speak to the needs of the couples they work with. We believe that ultimately, as a result of the Fellowship’s impact on rabbis and interfaith couples, the Jewish community as a whole will become more welcoming and inclusive and more interfaith couples will connect with the Jewish community and make Jewish choices.

We see the Rukin Fellowship as filling a need and a desire on three fronts: The fellows will receive top quality training and support; people in interfaith relationships will find a welcome path into the Jewish community and access to inclusive resources; and the Jewish community will be enriched by the interfaith couples who choose to become part of the community.

The application process for the first cohort of the IFF Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship is now open. Applications can be found at interfaithfamily.com/Fellowship.

Rabbi Robyn Frisch is Director of InterfaithFamily’s Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship.