Supporting Interfaith Families Exploring Jewish Life

by Edmund Case

In Challenging the Jewish Community’s Response to Intermarried Couples, Stephen Donshik, noting the continuing great ambivalence in how to deal with the reality of intermarriage in Jewish life, takes a positive message from Harold Berman’s Doublelife. The Bermans, who are now traditionally observant, started as an interfaith couple encountering many roadblocks to Jewish involvement; Donshik wisely says the Jewish community should engage interfaith families in a supportive process and respond to their interest in exploring the meaning Judaism has or may have for them and their families.

When I contacted Stephen to applaud his essay and tell him about the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative – which provides the kind of support for interfaith families that he recommends – he encouraged me to write about it for eJewishPhilanthropy.

Since 2008 there has been growing consensus that supporting interfaith families exploring Jewish life requires three elements:

  • a world class web platform,
  • inclusivity training of Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and
  • a range of programs and services for interfaith families in local communities.

That was the conclusion of a consortium of national funders in 2008, and of a Task Force of the UJA-Federation of New York in 2011. In 2011, we launched a pilot project, InterfaithFamily/Chicago, intended to provide exactly what is required.

IFF had become the central web address for people in interfaith relationships interested in Jewish life (over 656,000 annual unique visitors, growing at 30% a year, accessing both extensive helpful content and connections through our officiation referral service and our IFF Network listings and social networking functionality) and in 2010 had started offering inclusivity trainings for clergy, synagogue staff, and religious school and preschool directors and teachers. InterfaithFamily/Chicago was designed to supply the third requirement, placing IFF staff in the local community to coordinate and provide a comprehensive range of programs and services for local interfaith families.

The five-part InterfaithFamily/Your Community model, as refined from the Chicago pilot, includes the following objectives and activities:

  1. People in interfaith relationships will connect with local Jewish community resources as well as with others like them, through a local Community Page and robust listings of organizations, professionals and events on the online IFF Network, and through active discussion boards, social media and traditional PR.
  2. Jewish professionals and organizations will learn to attract, welcome and engage people in interfaith relationships, through inclusivity and sensitivity trainings, and resources on the IFF Network.
  3. Interfaith couples will have a positive experience finding clergy to officiate at their weddings and other life cycle events, officiating clergy will stay connected with the couples for whom they officiate, and couples will stay connected to Jewish life and community, through increased visibility of IFF’s officiation referral service, personalized responses to requests, and follow-up resources and mechanism for officiating clergy.
  4. New interfaith couples will learn how to talk about and have religious traditions in their lives together, through our hybrid online/in-person Love and Religion – Online workshop – originated by Marion Usher, Ph.D. (and the kind of workshop Stephen Donshik describes in his essay).
  5. People in interfaith relationships will learn how – and why – to live Jewishly, through our hybrid online/in-person classes – currently Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family and Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family.

Each objective in each community has numeric output goals (in terms of numbers of listings on our Network, officiation request responses, participants in trainings, workshops and classes, etc.) and we administer pre- and post-program evaluation surveys with all of our trainings, workshops and classes to measure whether desired outcomes are being realized. In 2012 InterfaithFamily/Chicago had: 4,722 page views of the online Chicago Community Page; 88 organizations, 99 professionals, and 297 individuals listed on our Network; 571 email newsletter subscribers; 134 officiation requests referred to 37 listed clergy; 10 trainings for 153 religious school teachers and educators, pre-school teachers and rabbis; 4 Love and Religion workshops for 23 couples; and 2 Raising a Child classes for 31 families (in 2012). Evaluation surveys reveal:

  • Virtually all participants in trainings report that they better understand the needs of interfaith families and learned new ways to be welcoming.
  • 88% of responding workshop participants report they gained understanding of how Judaism can fit into their interfaith families.
  • 92% of responding class participants said they felt more knowledgeable about Judaism, with 77% saying their practices changed to among other things signing up for PJ Library, having a Shabbat dinner and visiting synagogues.

IFF/Chicago staff collaborate on programming with the JCCs, PJ Library, the Chicago Federation’s teen visioning and grandparenting programs, Birthright Israel, and Birthright Israel-Next.

In October 2012 we launched InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area, with a grant from, and a major fundraising effort lead by, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties. Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the JCF, said:

“In recognizing the pressing need to engage [interfaith] families, the JCF is partnering with InterfaithFamily by providing them with a three-year grant to bring their innovative programs to the Bay Area. InterfaithFamily/Bay Area workshops… are run by experts on the complexities of interfaith relationships, and help keep family discussions open and productive… Our goal is to help our community reach out to these new families and celebrate their diversity, using new technologies to break down any barriers that might get in the way of happiness, togetherness and meaning… [W]e know that access to the right support can help interfaith couples successfully explore their respective religions, as they do with Judaism at InterfaithFamily.”

In October 2012 we also launched InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, by merging a local organization, InterFaithways, into InterfaithFamily. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supported the merger with a grant and fundraising assistance.

Our local community directors meet with our National Director of InterfaithFamily/Your Community every two weeks and are forming a community of practice sharing resources and ideas that will grow as we expand. For example, we are implementing the Interfaith Family Shabbat program, developed over a period of years by InterFaithways in Philadelphia, in Chicago and San Francisco.

The InterfaithFamily Board of Directors has approved a new Strategic Plan that calls for bringing the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model to nine communities in four years. We intend to create a national network of local community programs, leveraging our content, Network platform, officiation referral service, and training, programs, workshops and classes. We believe that the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative is the single best opportunity the Jewish community has to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

Visit Interfaithfamily/Your Community for reports on our surveys, a report on and a summary of JESNA’s evaluation of the first year of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, press coverage, and more.

Edmund Case is CEO of InterfaithFamily.