By Jared Susco
I remember the first time I brought my husband (who grew up with Methodism) to our synagogue’s community seder that he was far more confused than I had expected. He first couldn’t understand that the start time was approximate, having been accustomed to the martial precision of New England Christian services. In the early years of these seders, people brought their own seder plates, and he wanted to know why a lady had pulled a shank bone out of her purse. I was surprised by his confusion, as I hadn’t thought to prepare him adequately, and unfortunately, I turned him off from synagogue activities for a while.
When we had our daughter’s baby naming, I tried to explain to him that he should discourage his friends from entering the sanctuary when, for example, someone was reading from the Torah. He asked how they might know, and I explained that if they hear someone chanting unintelligible words from a scroll while wearing something that looks like a cape and using something that looks like a wand, they would know. He replied, “So I tell them to look out for a scene from Harry Potter, then?” I was caught off guard by this apt description, and it hadn’t occurred to me until then how foreign a synagogue environment can feel to the uninitiated.
I can’t overstate the irony of that realization, for I grew up an Italian Catholic! While I won’t go into my conversion journey here, I can state that my conversion has always felt more like a correction than anything else, and it remains one of the very best choices I ever made. Since participating in an adult bar mitzvah ceremony at Society Hill Synagogue (SHS), where I am an active member and leader, I continued leyning (i.e. chanting) Torah at our synagogue at least once a month. One time after a service, a member complimented me on my leyning, saying that I put the Jews by birth to shame. I know she was trying to say something nice, but her comment actually sapped my joy. I never learned to leyn Torah to shame anyone but rather to contribute to the worship, and I am proud of what I have learned and contributed. That same day another member of the synagogue asked me how we’re raising our daughter, and I could tell from her tone that there was only one correct response…
What do these three random stories have in common? They highlight the diversity of experiences and stories we all bring when we walk through the synagogue doors – or more importantly, when we even think about walking through those doors newly or again. And they highlight what synagogues need to be aware of in order to be inclusive and welcoming even when they believe they are already doing so. My husband and I are gay men, our daughter is a biracial adoptee, I converted to Judaism as an adult, and we’re raising our daughter in the Jewish faith – but we still welcome Santa Claus and Easter Bunny into our home. We are part of the tapestry that is modern American Jewry! As a staff member of SHS proclaimed, interfaith families are not the future of Judaism; rather they are its present.
About a year ago, I was invited to join SHS’s cohort of the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), and before that point, I thought the idea of my interfaith-ness was something that I had to avoid in my Jewish practice. I knew that I had to “come out” as a gay man, but in the same way that one can never stop coming out as a gay man, I learned that I had to “come out” as a convert and as a father in an interfaith household over and over too. I dreaded each time, wondering if the other person would consider my conversion and my family as kosher. I have had a mixture of responses, ranging from cruel exclusion to graceful disdain to welcoming enthusiasm.
What I have found in IILI is the opportunity to engage interfaith-ness as a leadership activity. IILI has given me the courage and the language to serve as a voice for inclusion in my community. Run by InterfaithFamily, IILI is a year-long program designed to help Jewish institutions and organizations to more fully embrace interfaith couples and families and expand their supportive policies and practices. We covered topics like language and optics and effective and sensitive communication, and we delved into the education, governance, and ritual aspects of our religious community, often inviting members of those committees to participate in our didactic sessions, followed by lively discussions.
I have found our discussions with our InterfaithFamily coach and among our team so illuminating: each of us brings a different lens to the idea of being interfaith, and we bring so many different stories with us and entry points for Judaism. One member of the committee was surprised to realize that our membership application asked if a congregant was a Cohen, Levite, or Israelite; she reflected on how exclusive this would have felt if she saw the application her husband completed. What IILI has done is give us new eyes and ears through which to see and hear our interactions and messages.
I’ve learned that even those raised in Judaism come with a diversity of understanding, and our real opportunity is to create an environment that is inclusive for all. I have been amazed by the power of inclusivity when it happens. SHS hosted a class on challah making recently, and my husband said he wanted to join. We had a blast with our daughter (and I was inspired to make hamentashen with her later) and we enjoyed ourselves as a family, with other families, engaged in a long-standing Jewish tradition. I left feeling welcomed and inspired, as did my husband, and I look forward to promoting more accessible events like this in the future to find ‘new ways in’ for people with all manner of interest.
We’re nearing the end of our year with IILI and the development of our action plan, and I am so delighted that I accepted the invitation to join our cohort with InterfaithFamily. Our coach, Caroline Kamesar, has provided support, expertise, and insight that we have used to understand our own needs and to propose what our community might need as a whole. Our goal is to present the action plan at SHS’s annual meeting at the end of May. Will everyone agree with where we are headed? Maybe not, but that’s true for just about any synagogue initiative! Research shows that interfaith families are more likely to share in Jewish practice when they feel included, so we intend to apply that research courageously. I look forward to building on what we’ve learned and continuing the conversation to strengthen the vibrancy of our community – for all.
If you would like to start your own journey, InterfaithFamily is now accepting applications for Cohort Three of the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI).
Jared Susco is currently the Chief Finance & People Officer of Benefits Data Trust, a not-for-profit organization that helps people live healthier, more independent lives by creating smarter ways to access essential benefits and services. He is also a lay leader at Society Hill Synagogue. A native of Syracuse, he fell in love with Philly while at the University of Pennsylvania and now lives in its Society Hill neighborhood with his husband and daughter.
The Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative is funded in part by a grant from the Covenant Foundation.