Why InterfaithFamily and USCJ Partnered to Help Conservative Synagogues Engage Interfaith Families

By Stacie Garnett-Cook and Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Today, the words “Conservative Judaism” and “interfaith marriage” are seldom seen in-print without a story about some controversy. As a result, you might think that InterfaithFamily (IFF) and USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) working together would be an unlikely partnership. We wouldn’t blame you.

However, in December our organizations published A Synagogue for All Families: Interfaith Inclusion in Conservative Synagogues, a co-branded resource sharing stories about Conservative synagogues that model what it means for a 21st Century synagogue to engage 21st Century Jewish families. This resource was unveiled for the first time at the USCJ Convention in Atlanta, Georgia in December by Rabbis Robyn Frisch and Malka Packer, who presented on behalf of InterfaithFamily.

While we are grateful that this joint resource has been viewed over 1000 times in under three months, we also wanted to use this partnership as an opportunity to engage in reflective and honest dialogue about where our organizations see opportunity for growth and change. We do not pretend to agree on everything, but our partnership has been natural and mutually beneficial. We hope you will see why:

Josh: My first significant encounter with InterfaithFamily was at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in the fall of 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the opening plenary, there was a public exchange about how this summit specifically relates to Conservative Judaism. In that moment, I chose not to comment. However, I’ll never forget the conversation, as it reminded me about how the questions that Conservative Judaism grapples with on this topic say something essential about larger conversation in the Jewish community. I thought it was interesting that InterfaithFamily chose to frame the conference around the idea of opportunity. What was the origin of that decision?

Stacie: That wording was chosen very intentionally to immediately change the paradigm. The conversation about interfaith families usually starts by describing a “problem,” whether that is the problem of interfaith marriage or the problem of finding a rabbi to officiate an interfaith wedding or the problem of declining synagogue affiliation generally. What InterfaithFamily tries to do, and what we’ve tried to do in our partnership with USCJ, is flip the conversation and look for opportunities. Opportunities to bring new people into Jewish life and community, opportunities for Conservative rabbis to work with and support the interfaith families (and extended families) in their congregations, and opportunities to demonstrate the deep meaning and connection that can result from joining a religious institution, be it a synagogue or other organization.

Josh: I couldn’t agree more, and I would add that one of the things that I feel gets lost in the way the Jewish press covers conversations about interfaith marriage is that journalists tend to sensationalize the issues. This is a debate about love and family and a debate about Jewish survival and continuity; those issues are not mutually exclusive. Jewish tradition teaches us the principle of dan l’kaf zechut, that we should judge people favorably. When I meet someone who argues that rabbis should perform interfaith marriages out of honor and respect for the love shared by interfaith couples, I assume that this person has the best of intentions in making that argument, regardless of whether or not I agree with it. I feel the same obligation when I hear staunch opposition to rabbis performing an interfaith ceremony out of concern for the integrity of Jewish tradition and boundaries.

Stacie: Even for those of us in interfaith families, the issues are not simply either/or. They are often both/and. I grew up in a traditional synagogue and attended Jewish day school through the fifth grade. Being Jewish has always been a central part of my identity and I always assumed that I’d marry someone Jewish. That turned out to be more difficult than I thought, but that didn’t mean I stopped caring about my Judaism or the future of the Jewish people. I came to distinguish my desire for a Jewish family and Jewish kids as separate from needing to marry someone Jewish. I fell in love with and married a wonderful man who is not Jewish, but who fully supports and participates in creating a Jewish home and raising our son Jewish.

Josh: I think that’s a powerful story, and reminds me about how one of the things I constantly train myself NOT to do is assume why a person married someone of a faith other than Judaism. And I won’t lie; it has taken me years to become conscious of my implicit biases (and I still struggle with it). For too much of the Jewish community, the choice of a person to marry someone of another faith leads to an assumption that if a person marries someone who is not Jewish, then he or she must not care about Judaism as much as someone who does.

Stacie: Exactly. One can never assume. I fell in love with my husband because he is smart, funny, plays the guitar, and shares the same values as I do. My Judaism is important to me, but so is music and politics. We need to look beyond the labels and listen to individuals’ stories before we can understand their lives and decisions.

Josh: Rabbi Kerry Olitzky mentored me on serving interfaith families when I interned at Big Tent Judaism (then the Jewish Outreach Institute) during rabbinical school. One of the principles he taught me was the importance of distinguishing between aspects of synagogue life that are about rules (i.e. halakhah) and aspects that are about community culture. The congregations that we highlighted in the guide implement best practices in pastoral care, community organizing, communications and other areas that are, in my mind, independent of larger halakhic conversations.

Stacie: So much of working with interfaith families is about who belongs to the community and who doesn’t, and who feels like they belong. So much of this is about culture. This is also an instance of giving people the benefit of the doubt and not assuming bad intentions. Can we approach everyone in our communities with an openness to learning and teaching, with a desire to share more about the rules (halakhah) as well as why they are important and what meaning we draw from them? And can we do this without shaming those in our communities who don’t (yet) know the rules?

Josh: In leadership language we call what you describe “polarity management,” the ability of leaders to hold a tension while still helping an organization thrive. I actually think it reflects the nature of our partnership. The first time I spoke with the staff from IFF on the phone, we acknowledged there are elephants in the room that could keep us from working together, particularly the role of rabbis officiating at interfaith ceremonies. But what good would come if we let that important and consequential disagreement keep us from any partnership at all?

Stacie: What makes our partnership work is an understanding of where we can best work together and help each other, and where we need to agree to disagree. I did not try to convince you that Conservative rabbis should be allowed to officiate at interfaith marriages and you obviously did not make any comments about my marriage. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how eager you were to encourage synagogues to engage in the conversation about interfaith families and explore more inclusive policies and practices.

Josh: One of the things I was most grateful for in our partnership with IFF was the shared desire to help Conservative synagogues build momentum about what they already can do to deepen their relationship with interfaith families. Yes, we may not agree on certain issues, but there is something lost when we avoid finding common ground because of other areas of disagreement.

Stacie: As I’ve written about previously, there are many steps that synagogues and other organizations can be taking to demonstrate their welcome to interfaith couples and families in their communities. There is plenty of room to build an inclusive culture.

Josh: I believe that Conservative Judaism thrives when it creates what I call “third ways,” new ways of solving complex challenges whose solutions have not presented themselves to us. I feel that the Jewish community is living in a critical moment right now where we are figuring out what those new models and paradigms will be. 21st Century synagogues must engage 21st century families, and many of those families are interfaith. It can be scary to live in a time of uncertainty when we are figuring out what the Jewish ecosystem will look like, and that’s why I think so much of the language the Jewish community uses about interfaith marriage comes from a place of fear. But leaders need to lean in to tough challenges, not run away from them. My teachers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey talk about the importance of exercising “language leadership,” affecting the quality and direction of a conversation, and they write that “we have no choice about whether we are or are not language leaders. The only question is what kind of language leaders we will be.”

Stacie: Opening up to new partnerships provides an opportunity to learn from different, and sometimes uncomfortable angles, but the results are stronger than either partner could have developed alone. That is why I am grateful for the partnership InterfaithFamily and USCJ have developed and I look forward to continuing our work together to support interfaith families and build a stronger Jewish community for everyone.

Stacie Garnett-Cook is National Director of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community Initiative and Project Director of the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative. Stacie has a Masters in Organization Development and a background in community organizing. You can contact her at stacieg@interfaithfamily.com.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.