Engagement boost

Moishe House to ‘Embark’ on expansion opportunities for interfaith couples

A new partnership between the organizations is designed to keep couples who intermarry involved in Judaism by providing classes, retreats and more

Seventy-two percent of non-Orthodox American Jews intermarry, according to the 2020 Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews. A new collaboration between two programs is aimed specifically at keeping this demographic engaged and involved in Judaism.

Moishe House, a nonprofit serving Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s, on Monday announced its acquisition of Embark, a program that educates about Jewish life and rituals to young interfaith couples. 

“Being able to provide high quality and scalable programming to connect young interfaith couples with each other and rabbis is a wonderful opportunity for the entire Jewish community,” David Cygielman, the CEO of Moishe House, said in a statement. “We feel fortunate to be able to build out Embark to serve more couples and cohorts.” 

Laura Lauder, a venture philanthropist who founded Embark in 2022, told eJewishPhilanthropy that through the Moishe House collaboration, “there will now be a launching pad and home base for all young couples who are celebrating Jewish life and celebrating holidays once they finish the Embark program. [The program] is not like a synagogue or Jewish Community Center where they have to pay dues and there are no expectations like family,” Lauder continued. 

Embark has run programs in Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia. 

Lauder launched Embark as a way to help interfaith couples navigate their paths to exploring Judaism after her son, Josh, who grew up in an involved Reform Jewish family, met and fell in love with a non-Jewish woman from Hong Kong who did not have much exposure to Judaism. 

The pair decided to study Judaism together through the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in New York City, where they lived. They married last year under a chuppah. Embark is based on Central Synagogue’s program.

Monica Larsen, 27, grew up Catholic and attended church with her mother every Sunday until turning 18. But she had always been interested in Judaism. After falling in love with a Jewish man, Larsen decided to participate in Embark’s pilot program 18 months ago, learning with Rabbi Adam Gindea in Miami. 

Embark programs run between three to six months, with weekly or biweekly classes. Cost for couples is around $300.

With Moishe House acquiring Embark, a two-day retreat is set to be added upon completion of Embark programs, allowing all couples who participated to meet. Moishe House will offer interfaith couples the option to live in “pods,” which are subsidized homes in exchange for hosting Jewish programming for fellow Jewish young professionals.

Larsen said she isn’t particularly familiar with Moishe House but is open to exploring additional programs now that the organization has acquired Embark. “I really want to keep learning with Rabbi Gindea at Temple Beth David though,” she said. 

Now married, Larsen converted to Judaism last year. “All of the people who regularly attended the program with me ended up converting to Judaism,” Larsen told eJP, adding that a few couples who only came “here and there” didn’t convert. 

Autumn Thompson, 24, grew up celebrating Christmas “for cultural gift-giving and fun but no church,” she told eJP. “I was never really associated with a religion.”

When Thompson moved to Philadelphia earlier this year with her partner who is Jewish, the couple got involved with the local Embark chapter. She said she’s enjoyed learning about cultural aspects of Judaism but has no intention of converting. 

“Jacob grew up going to Hebrew school, Jewish summer camp and a Conservative synagogue in Tampa,” Thompson said. “I was actually the one who signed us up in Embark. We had been attending some services at the Reform synagogue Rodeph Shalom and the rabbi mentioned it, and I thought it sounded cool. We met about seven other couples from interfaith backgrounds. We all came from a similar place even though we have differences.” 

“Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought a lot about conversion as I was traveling with family abroad and the topic came up,” Thompson continued. “Judaism can be thought about culturally, ethnically or religiously. Ethnicity-wise I obviously don’t fit the box. But culturally I want Shabbats and holidays to take place in my home. I don’t have the spark to want to study Torah and really dive into religious texts. That’s why at this point I don’t see myself converting. I don’t have much interest in the religious aspects of Judaism.” 

Thompson, who still attends weekly Embark classes, said she hadn’t heard of Moishe House before the partnership was announced. 

“I’m interested in learning more about it and participating as a way to support my partner in the community,” she said. 

Lauder noted that neither Embark nor Moishe House have any stated intention that participants convert.

“What is important about Embark is big vision,” Lauder said. “Any interfaith couple who plans to have some element of Judaism in their marriage or expects to raise Jewish children, this vision is that they would have access to Embark so they can connect to other interfaith couples in the same stage of life, go through the program together as a cohort, to enable them [to understand] that this is something they can do.” She pointed to a Pew Research Center study that found 60% of all interfaith couples raise their children as Jewish. 

Still, some Jewish leaders have raised concerns about the potential implications of American Jewry’s high interfaith marriage rates. To mark the second anniversary of the Pew finding in its 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey that more than 70% of non-Orthodox U.S. Jews marry outside of Judaism, a self-described diverse group of prominent Jewish figures signed a Statement of Jewish Vitality. The statement described intermarriage as both a fait accompli and a challenge, despite efforts to encourage “in-marriage,” but one that can be mitigated by encouraging conversion. 

“We must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion,” the statement said. 

Lauder defended intermarriage, noting that conversion isn’t necessary because “in Reform Judaism, maternal and paternal descent are equally valid so there’s no requirement that Embark participants convert for their children to be Jewish.” She said that at the start of Central Synagogue’s program, upon which Embark is based, 50% of non-Jewish partners say they may be interested in converting, while 50% say they are likely not interested. By the end of the program, 85% do convert. 

“Central Synagogue loves that outcome,” Lauder said. “Embark is neutral about those kinds of results. Whether or not people convert is not going to be a sign of success. We enable young Jewish couples to raise Jewish children, and I would like the world to know that Jewish life in America is going to thrive with interfaith couples, not despite interfaith couples.”