Positive Messaging About Interfaith Marriage

By Edmund Case

On the eve of the Jewish Funders Network 2019 Conference, what priority is being given to efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly? Judging by recent messaging sent by the organized Jewish community on a national level, we are failing to address the reality of interfaith marriage. Interfaith couples and the partners from different faith traditions are largely disregarded, absent from the discussion.

At the end of January an email from the Jewish Federations of North America’s new board chair announced “a marquis collective impact initiative focused on engaging the next generations of Jews with Jewish life and community.” The new study on the groundbreaking work being done with the Federations’ investments in Jewish education and engagement is an excellent presentation on the value of Jewish engagement, focusing on goals of Jewish education, including introducing people to Jewish life and community, helping them understand the relevance of Jewish tradition to their lives, helping them to build a better world, and more.

But there was no mention of the interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions to whom these goals are or can be relevant. None of the federations’ funding appears explicitly to be going to programmatic efforts designed for interfaith families; 25% is going to day schools and the balance to “teens’ experiences, adult learning, Hillel and other campus programs, family engagement, synagogues and camps, the inclusion of those with special needs, welcoming newcomers to communities, and much, much more.” When interfaith marriage appears in the presentation, it’s a negative: “With a high intermarriage rate outside of Orthodoxy, and with the children of intermarried families now themselves intermarrying, we don’t know what the future of Judaism will be. There is uncertainty….”

The presentation does acknowledge that “for some,” Jewish education is now addressing “what does it mean to live all of my religious and ethnic identities – where does being Jewish fit in?” But it does not say explicitly and emphatically, as it could, that with 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, Jewish education efforts need to prioritize reaching, attracting and engaging interfaith families.

One of the comments to the presentation says, “My great concern and nightmare is that we build a wonderful education system but way too few Jewish children enter it.” It’s time to unapologetically state that the source of more families and children for Jewish education has got to be interfaith families.

In the middle of February, the Reform movement’s Department of Audacious Hospitality announced a new podcast, “Wholly Jewish.” The first installment is a very moving story of a man raised in a Christian family who embraced Judaism as an adult. This excellent podcast will very appropriately highlight that Jews encompass many different ethnicities, cultures, perspectives, and gender and sexual identities, that these multi-faceted identities strengthen and enrich our Jewishness, and that the diversity of our community should be honored and celebrated.

But again, although the podcast is inspired by “commitment to embracing our differences” and seeks “to honor the entirety of our diverse and beautiful community” and says “we must take seriously the voices and perspectives of all our communities’ members” (emphasis in the original), interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are not mentioned. Instead of saying “We acknowledge and appreciate … the contributions to our sacred tapestry that Jews from innumerable backgrounds have made and continue to make to this day,” it would be so much more inclusive to refer to the contributions that Jews and their partners have made and continue to make.

Fortunately, some more positive messages can be found on the individual and local level. Conservative rabbi Harry Pell, writing about the future of non-Orthodox day schools, recently asked “how might day schools appeal to [multi-faith] families as a compelling setting in which to provide their children with both a Jewish and secular education?” Reform rabbi Micah Streiffer, coming from traditionally less-inclusive Canada, recently wrote that “Intermarried Families Are Also Jewish Families.”

One of my own rabbis, Allison Berry, at last Friday evening Shabbat services, in lieu of translating “ohev amo Yisrael” with the prayerbook’s “who loves your people Israel,” instead said “who loves all of us, Israel” – phrasing designed to make everyone in the congregation, including the partners from different faith traditions, feel included.

Perhaps most hopefully, the Atlanta federation is partnering with InterfaithFamily to offer The Interchange, convening professionals, lay leaders, clergy and funders to promote interfaith family engagement. InterfaithFamily has also launched the first cohort of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellows to build a network of rabbis equipped to work with interfaith families. These announcements combine positive messages with concrete efforts towards engaging interfaith families.

Messages, of course, reflect underlying attitudes. In my new book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I argue that everything follows from attitudes; if more policy makers and funders adopted positive attitudes towards interfaith marriage, we would then see inclusive policies that invite participation by interfaith families, and the kind of massive concerted communal effort to engage them that is needed.

I continue to hope for broad-based advocacy in favor of a positive response to interfaith marriage, with messaging that unmistakably and confidently conveys that we are eager to include interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions in Jewish life and community.

Edmund Case, the retired founder of InterfaithFamily, is the president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, publisher of his book Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future.