When Interfaith Families and Jewish Values Collide

By Rabbi Melinda M. Mersack

[This is part three in a four-part series written by graduates of M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education’s Senior Educators Cohort.]

Carrie is not Jewish, but when she fell in love with Jonathan, she wanted to understand more about Judaism. She knew that he grew up celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays with his family. While he never attended synagogue and claimed not to be religious, he talked about raising Jewish children. He had difficulty articulating what it was about Judaism that was important to him, but Carrie knew that to love Jonathan meant to open her heart to the larger Jewish family. That’s when she reached out to me. Although Carrie and Jonathan are not a real couple, they are like hundreds of couples I’ve met through my work with jHUB.

jHUB provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore, discover and personalize the meaning of Jewish culture and values in the modern world. jHUB is a safe space for interfaith couples and families to engage Jewishly without any pressure. We are here to support these families on their journey, wherever it takes them, providing opportunities for them to experience Judaism and empower them to bring Judaism into their homes in a way that resonates with them.

Not quite five years old, jHUB has realized significant growth and impact on the Cleveland Jewish community. When I was first hired to be the director of jHUB, we had no infrastructure, programs or contacts. Currently, jHUB has three full-time staff who run more than 50 programs and events a year and connect with more than 3,000 people. From an evaluation of jHUB performed by Rosov Consulting, we learned that because of people’s experiences with jHUB, they feel more connected to the Jewish community and more comfortable bringing Jewish experiences into their homes. Because of jHUB, couples are finding a community of their peers to socialize with, learning how to navigate issues unique to being in an interfaith relationship, and receiving help in creating meaning in their lives within a Jewish context.

I have learned so much from doing this work, and my participation in the M2 Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) has complemented my learnings and helped me bring depth to my work.

Everyone wants to feel valued and is seeking meaning in their lives.

People want and need to be appreciated for who they are. All members of an interfaith family, Jewish or not, need to know that they have a welcome place in our community and we respect who they are, without desiring to change them. When we truly welcome people, accepting them as they are, and provide opportunities for community by connecting people with their peers and fostering a culture where people make new friends, we create an environment where people become open to the experiences we offer. Making Jewish culture and values accessible to people in these ways allows people to find the meaning they seek within a Jewish context. When done successfully, people yearn for more and deeper experiences.

SEC has given me the language and structure to deepen this work and its impact. For example, we learn methodologies that give a concrete expression to the Jewish values we teach. If I want people to understand human dignity as a Jewish value, SEC provides tools to thicken the expression of this value and facilitate the learner’s comprehension. For instance, we have learned how transforming space and creating programs that incorporate a sensory experience can actualize Jewish values and enhance the learning experience.

Find a way to say yes.

Hearing people’s stories, truly listening to them and their needs, has changed my default setting as a rabbi. It used to be that when an interfaith couple asked me to officiate at their wedding, I would consent if the couple agreed to certain requirements. Now, my default is to find a way to say yes. No matter how eloquently we may say no to a couple, the impact can be devastating. Too often I encounter couples who have felt rejected by rabbis or the Jewish community. These experiences often cause them to pull away from Jewish life or, at the very least, to be reluctant to engage Jewishly. By finding a way to say yes to the couple’s needs, we show them they are indeed valued members of our community. If I am uncomfortable with what a couple is suggesting, I take it as an opportunity to have a conversation and be honest about my concerns. Often, by asking questions to determine the couple’s priorities and goals, we come to a mutual place of understanding and find a resolution agreeable to all.

SEC has taught me to embrace conflict instead of avoiding it. Having difficult conversations deepens our relationships with others and is an opportunity to deepen our learning.

Supporting people means not being prescriptive.

An important part of SEC is mentorship. Working with a mentor one-on-one has provided me the opportunity to learn from an experienced educator in a way that is personalized for me and the work I do with jHUB. Having a mentor who is responsive to my needs and supports me as I begin to utilize the lessons from SEC and integrate them into my work has influenced how I think about working with interfaith couples and families.

Supporting people on their journeys, without being prescriptive, has been a hallmark of jHUB. We are very careful to put the couple or family at the center, rather than our own personal agenda or goals. Our job is not to tell people what to believe or what to do, but it is to empower them to embrace Jewish practices and values that help them thrive and add meaning to their lives. In a way, we are mentors for their Jewish experience, tailoring our suggestions and teachings to suit their individual needs.

Supporting “Carrie” and “Jonathan” on their journey, finding a way to say yes to their needs and making sure they feel valued as important members of the Jewish family, ensures that Jewish wisdom remains accessible to them and encourages them to continue to explore how Judaism may enhance their lives.

Rabbi Melinda M. Mersack is the Director of jHUB, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, and an InterfaithFamily affiliate. Melinda is also a graduate of M2 Senior Educators Cohort 3.

M² develops and provides training and research to advance the field of experiential Jewish education and invests in the growth of its educators. Learn more at www.ieje.org. Read the entire series at https://linktr.ee/m2ieje.