Making Effective Programs for Interfaith Couples and Families

The “Statement on Jewish Vitality” falls short. But we can make effective Jewish programs for interfaith couples and families!

By Marion L. Usher, Ph.D

Three times each week nursery school children meet after their daycare program for a Jewish program called MoEd DC at the Washington DCJCC. The focus is on Hebrew study through immersion and Judaics balanced with play and homework time. It is a small, effective, opportunity that brings young interfaith families into the Jewish community. Mothers can learn how to bake challah at any of the Whole Food Markets throughout the Washington area, a regular program sponsored by PJ Library. On Sunday mornings, a Jewish focused story-reading session occurs for young children serving interfaith and Jewish families living in the city. These are but a few of the many low-barrier entrance programs into the Jewish community, and we need to learn from them.

All these programs stand in sharp contrast to the latest “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” which just saddened me. The solutions it offered were unexciting and are unlikely to have any impact on young interfaith couples. The study suggests that “effective responses are feasible” – but none are proposed specifically for interfaith couples and families.

The survey tells us that 80% of those raised Reform and who married between 2000 and 2003 are intermarried – then, this group is never mentioned again. We dare not ignore couples like this if we wish to strengthen our Jewish community. Many of the interfaith couples do want “Jewish,” but they want it to be relevant to them, to meet their needs, and not ours! It is essential that those of us who work with interfaith couples and families tell a different story, as we know it.

Up until recently, there has been a dearth of creative programming for young interfaith couples and families. Community leaders have been wringing their hands and looking to congregations to fill this void. However, interfaith couples and families tend to be “Jewish building averse.” They cannot afford synagogue dues, they don’t particularly enjoy their parents’ form of Judaism, and they would prefer to be the creators of their own experiences. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said it best when he described this report as a vertical hierarchy devoid of open discussion and solutions imposed by the hierarchy.

Another very successful program created for this interfaith and unaffiliated population is “CityJews PopUp: Shabbat.” The target audience is urban families who have made a commitment to city living rather than moving out to the suburbs. In the last calendar year, we have held three pop-up Shabbat dinners. Thirty people attended the first one held in my home. Two others were held in a repurposed Wonder bread factory, an edgy space in a recently gentrified area. Each Shabbat dinner drew 50 and 70 people respectively, most are interfaith, others are Jewish and unaffiliated.

Five Jewish agencies and two synagogues came together to sponsor “CityJews PopUp: Shabbat.” The synergy between all of us with similar goals for engagement and meeting these families’ needs resulted in a whole new group of families experiencing a central tenet of Judaism, celebrating Shabbat together.

So what is success? What is possible and how can we continue programming for this cohort? What’s next? More relevant programming!

With an expanding email list in hand, PJ Library and Love and Religion created two new programs, “Make Room for Latkes” and “Make Room for Matzo.” InterfaithFamilyDC, the Jewish Food Experience, Washington DCJCC, and the Jewish Social Service Agency have now partnered with us. Each of these programs has a children’s component focusing on a craft project, a social justice component, and a food aspect. Families go home with a bag filled with tokens of Judaism including Hanukah or Passover prayers, recipes, and a list of community resources. The results were impressive. In the first year, “Make Room for Latkes” had 50 people. Last year, 100 people participated.

These vignettes represent anecdotal evidence that creative programming draws interfaith families towards Judaism. In talking with the attendees, they feel this is exactly what they want. A cynic might call this “Jewish light.” On the other hand, for many, this is the first time they are attending a program with Jewish content and have put their foot into the Jewish community.

With new and creative ideas, and by exploring relevant ways to involve interfaith families, we can change the community’s feeling of helplessness to one of inclusion and vitality. Please, no more reports with old ideas, only interesting ones that help interfaith couples and families imagine being Jewish and see that Judaism adds value to their lives.

Marion L. Usher, Ph.D, is Creator of “Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners.”