Why would a Graduate School of Jewish Education teach about Intermarriage?

By Dr. Michael Shire and Dr. Keren McGinity

Intermarriage has been prevalent throughout my professional life as a Jewish educator. From the 1980s when I entered the field, there have been countless studies, debates, halachic dicta, rabbinic pronouncements all aimed at warning against the dangers of the phenomenon of intermarriage. Time and again, the Jewish community has lurched from overt hostility to grudging acceptance without approval for the couples, the rabbis who marry them or the congregations who embrace them. Rabbis, even some Reform rabbis in the USA, have tried to ignore the fact that over 50% of their congregants may be intermarried or even have a substantial number of intermarried parents let alone grandchildren. In one Reform congregation in which I worked, at a bar mitzvah, the Jewish parent was called for an aliyah with his or her Hebrew name and the non-Jewish parent followed along seemingly invisible in the experience. I thought: enough is enough. How can we Jewish educators become part of the solution rather than just perpetuate the ‘problem?’

Three things came together to enable Hebrew College to become the first-ever graduate school of Jewish Education to establish a specialization in our Master’s Degree program and a standalone graduate certificate in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement. We are the only graduate school training a new cadre of leadership for the changing and diverse Jewish community with intentional focus on the real family make-up of over half of the Jewish community and that includes the intersectionality with LGBTQ and mixed race relationships embedded in our interfaith families. First, I met Dr. Keren McGinity at a JEDLAB conference in Boston. Keren is a published author, scholar and researcher in the field of Jewish intermarriage. She was the Mandell L. Berman, z”l, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and teaches American Studies at Brandeis University. I realized from talking with her that this is a field of study with literature, research, problems of practice and inquiry. It lends itself to academic study and professional application for future Jewish educators. Second, I drew upon the rich resources of the five organizations in the Boston Jewish community already working in the field mostly with the families themselves (InterfaithFamily, Jewish Discovery Institute, CJP, Reform Jewish Outreach, Love and Tradition Institute) and was bolstered by their confidence that there is employment for those dedicated to this work whether in congregations, JCCs, Hillels not to mention the 20 plus Jewish interfaith and outreach organizations in the USA. Finally, the generous support of the Crown Foundation and the matching grants of the Genesis prize of the Jewish Funders Network and the Sy Syms Foundation, enabled us to launch the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program with generous scholarships for students. Thanks to strong interest, we matriculated the first seven candidates this past fall.

Dr Keren McGinity writes: When Dr. Michael Shire invited me to direct the new IFJE program at Hebrew College, I thought the gates of academic heaven had finally opened. As someone who has spent twenty years researching, writing, and teaching about Jewish intermarriage in America, it was no small thing to have the dean of a graduate school recognize the importance of offering Jewish education focused on a sociological phenomenon that has both historical and future implications. I am impressed that Hebrew College stepped up to formalize a new subfield and profoundly grateful to the funders who understand that today’s educators, leaders, and outreach practitioners need specialized knowledge to best engage the growing population of interfaith families in Jewish learning and life.

The inaugural IFJE graduate student cohort brings an exceptional richness of perspective, demonstrating the program’s broad appeal. From a Conservative rabbi in Omaha to the director of community engagement at the largest Reform congregation in Virginia, these professionals illustrate that being dedicated to the Jewish people and knowing how to effectively engage interfaith families are not one and the same. They enrolled in the IFJE program to learn what their earlier educational pursuits did not teach them: how intermarriage and conversion have changed over time; what are the biblical, rabbinic, and contemporary perspectives; how popular culture and stereotypes perpetuate myths; what are the best practices and how to apply them in their professional lives and fieldwork. Through the program, they are becoming part of a network of engagement educators similarly dedicated to enabling interfaith families to raise Jewish children.

Program Goals

Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement (IFJE) enables Jewish professionals of all denominations to acquire the theoretical education and practical skills necessary to provide inclusive and supportive scaffolding for the growing population of interfaith families.

Course of Study

Students in the program have the option to work towards a certificate in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement or to specialize in IFJE within a Master of Jewish Education program.

The IFJE seeks to develop the knowledge, skills, and expertise of Jewish educators who wish to focus their academic studies and professional growth on the Jewish engagement of interfaith families.

Candidates range from early career educators who are choosing to focus in this area as they begin their professional employment, and community directors who have interfaith families in their congregations, schools, and communities.

Student Experience

Students join a dynamic community of online learners from around the country and the world in an interactive virtual classroom with Hebrew College faculty. The program utilizes the Schoology cloud-based learning platform. Weekly classes are asynchronous to accommodate individual schedules, work, and family responsibilities.

In addition to the online component, all students participate in a weeklong residential seminar held in Boston.

The following Ten Principles provide the framework for the IFJE program:

  1. Jewish intermarriage is a reality in the American context.
  2. Engaging interfaith couples and families is imperative to ensure the survival of the Jewish people and Judaism.
  3. “Interfaith” is understood to have multiple meanings and interpretations. For example, some families include Jews and people of other faiths; some families are comprised of Jews and extended families of other faiths; and some include Jews and people without any religious faith.
  4. Effective engagement requires Jewish educators with specialized knowledge about the relationship between intermarriage and gender; the influence of culture on interfaith marriage; denominational similarities and differences; and the ability to translate knowledge into action that suits the needs of a wide variety of constituencies.
  5. Jewish educators play key roles in whether and to what extent interfaith families practice Judaism at home and participate in the Jewish community.
  6. The goal of engaging interfaith families in Jewish learning and life is to strengthen and enhance Jewish peoplehood, community, and values that inspire social action to improve the world from generation to generation.
  7. The IFJE concentration/certificate courses include both theory and practice. Examples include: how intermarriage and conversion have changed over Jewish history; what rabbinic texts can teach us and how branches of Judaism have responded; the ways in which case studies of intermarried Jews and their loved ones can be used to debunk popular culture and stereotypes; and employing best practices of outreach organizations.
  8. The IFJE thesis project contributes publishable data and analysis to existing scholarship.
  9. The IFJE field requirement enables hands-on experience interacting with interfaith families.
  10. IFJE faculty members encourage pluralistic, inclusive, and egalitarian Jewish practices.

Applications are now invited for the second cohort of Crown Fellows for the IFJE at Hebrew College. For more information, visit www.hebrewcollege.edu/interfaith-families. Inquiries to IFJE Director Dr. Keren McGinity (keren.mcginity@hebrewcollege.edu ).

Dr. Michael Shire is Chief Academic Officer and Dean of the Graduate School of Jewish Education, Hebrew College. Dr. Keren McGinity is Director of Interfaith Families Jewish Education, Hebrew College.