“My Marriage Isn’t a Problem. It’s an Opportunity.”

By Eric M. Robbins

There was a time, not so long ago, when speaking about interfaith marriage was the third rail of Jewish life. No matter what you said publicly about interfaith marriage, pro or con, you were sure to offend someone.

We were stuck in loop where we said the right words about outreach but betrayed them with our attitudes and actions.

I am excited to say that we are working hard to put those days behind us in Atlanta, Georgia. As a Jewish community, we are moving away from that anxious and defensive thinking and taking big, and sometimes scary steps to reframe multi-heritage relationships as an opportunity for Jewish engagement, not an obstacle.

Yes, an opportunity.

That opportunity is a big one – to literally grow the Jewish people and bring new generations to Jewish life. It requires that we rethink the language around people we’ve heretofore called interfaith couples and reframe our organizational practices to embrace them. It requires not merely “accepting” partners who aren’t Jewish, but truly seeing them, learning about their lived experiences, and letting them know we honor them.

It means respecting these loving partners for being curious about Jewish values, for raising Jewish kids, and satisfying their genuine thirst to learn about us and participate with our tribe, even though they’re not Jewish themselves. It means trusting and supporting the Jewish partners, too, because in truth, so many of them are also estranged from us. It means ending the cycle where we said the right words about outreach but betrayed them with our attitudes and actions.

Following the work the Atlanta community did in our year-long Front Porch initiative, we’ve committed to becoming a radically welcoming Jewish community that embraces all Jews and their loved ones. That phrase, “Jews and their loved ones,” came right out of our Front Porch work. It has become our mantra – an affirming way to welcome partners who aren’t Jewish and to say Jewish Atlanta’s tent is big, and our tent flaps are open to all who want to discover joyous Jewish possibilities.

Just after Passover we formally launched this work with a conference on multi-faith, multi-cultural families. Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and InterfaithFamily partnered on a ground breaking two day event we called The Interchange. With a clear intention to make Atlanta a leader in transforming outreach to interfaith couples and families, we invited Jewish professionals from Atlanta and as far away as Philadelphia, Boston, Ann Arbor and Denver, to explore opportunities and best practices.

At The Interchange we listened to intimate personal stories of interfaith and intercultural love and marriage. A 13-year-old who had just become a bar mitzvah told us, “No one except you should get to decide if you’re Jewish enough.” Our keynote speaker reflected on his own transformation around understanding interfaith couples and families, retelling a story where his close friend, a woman raising Jewish daughters with her husband (who is not Jewish) declared, “My marriage isn’t a problem. It isn’t even a challenge. It’s an opportunity!” A husband of African heritage raised in an evangelical Christian home said, “I long for the day when my wife’s congregation accepts that a person of color can be Jewish.”

We already knew from our 2016 Community study, #IAmJewishATL that 46% of our respondents from interfaith households in Atlanta said they were not as Jewish as they would like to be. We knew that only 13% of them strongly agreed that they feel a part of the Jewish community. Those attitudes took on shape and urgency when Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, gave a plenary talk called 10 Things You Should Know About Interfaith Couples and Families that began with “No. 1: We are the ocean,” underscoring that the sheer size of this population is huge.

In breakouts and workshops The Interchange zeroed in what to actually do. There was broad consensus that it’s not enough to create inclusive programming for intercultural families. We also need to create separate programming and learning opportunities that happen in low-barrier spaces where non-Jewish loved ones can feel accepted and safe enough to ask questions about Jewish practice and culture.

A great example is Honeymoon Israel, which sends committed multi-heritage couples to Israel for ten days of group exploration. Mike Wise, Honeymoon Israel’s CEO, sees huge opportunities for their cohorts after the trip. “They apply for Honeymoon Israel, hungry for community, hungry to meet and socialize with other people like themselves. When they return they are ripe to become a new kind of community of meaning.”

We heard from Fern Chertok, a researcher from Brandeis University, who has looked at identification and behavior among children of intermarriage across three generations. She offered hopeful insights that validate the importance of both formal and informal Jewish education and show that welcoming attitudes are necessary but not sufficient by themselves. The study said:

… children of marriages between Jews and non-Jews in the Millennial generation are more likely than older counterparts to have been raised Jewish and to have received a formal Jewish education. As a result of more widespread Jewish upbringing and education, they are more likely to identify as Jewish in adulthood and practice some aspects of Judaism. We attribute these developments primarily to the more welcoming and inclusive attitudes and practices toward intermarried families… people who have had good exposure to Jewish education and who have had positive experiences with clergy, have the best chance of developing and retaining a Jewish identity.

And we didn’t just talk, we acted. At the end of The Interchange, Federation awarded small seed grants to individuals and collaborators who gave rapid-fire pitches for projects that express welcome and embrace all Jews and their loved ones. You can see those projects here. We were thrilled by the creativity and relevance of these grass-roots initiatives.

Federation and InterfaithFamily will continue to incite action after the Interchange. Federation will be conducting a larger grantmaking opportunity so that organizations can provide innovative approaches to engaging interfaith families. And InterfaithFamily will continue to provide expert guidance, support, and partnership to Jewish institutions, leaders and professionals on changing the attitudes and behaviors that spur the inclusion of interfaith families.

Atlanta is fortunate to be a growing metropolitan area that is still attracting Jews. But once they get here, we’re still losing them. Edmund Case, another speaker at The Interchange, who wrote recently about interfaith engagement in eJewishPhilanthropy, believes that everything follows from attitudes. A day-after comment from a participant at The Interchange, a mother of three grown children who have non-Jewish partners, said it all:

When I woke up today, it really hit me. To have all of those people in the room talking about the “opportunities” instead of the problems, to see everyone’s desire to change attitudes … what a day! This is groundbreaking for Atlanta and Federation.”

Eric M. Robbins is President & CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.