New Jersey Jewish News
The next big thing is now: outreach to the intermarried
Next big thing? Post-historical? Not so fast. What we will need to grow and flourish in the years to come isnt something new; its been around since at least 1990: the response to intermarriage.
At a time when the Reform movement is publicizing new efforts to encourage conversion, its wishful thinking to say that the vast majority of Jews are able to find communities in which reactions to the intermarried have been largely resolved.
Too many Jewish leaders, like Steven Bayme, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer, dont care that promoting in-marriage by pronouncing intermarriage to be wrong and bad sends a message to the 50 percent who will intermarry despite the Jewish communitys viewing their actions or them as wrong and bad.
They dont care if aggressively promoting conversion distresses and pushes away non-Jewish partners who are raising Jewish children not to mention their Jewish partners and in-laws. These leaders sanctimoniously preach that such families cant be called Jewish, that their homes cant be called holy. Their take-away message: Unconverted non-Jews raising their children as Jews shouldnt be included in the Jewish community such people and their Jewish behaviors just arent good enough.
The federation system raises and spends $800 million annually. Less than $800,000 is used to fund programs of outreach to interfaith families. Jewish family foundations spend $2.5 billion; much less than $2.5 million goes to outreach. Why is less than one tenth of 1 percent spent on the greatest challenge the community faces? Because communal attitudes about intermarriage range from ambivalent to hostile.
Growing and flourishing in the years to come will require a major adaptation in attitudes. For reasons that are unclear, the Reform movement chose not to publicize something revolutionary Rabbi Eric Yoffie said in his recent biennial sermon. Following the lead of Rabbi Janet Marder and others, he said that non-Jewish spouses raising Jewish children deserve not merely welcome, but profound thanks he called them heroes of Jewish life. If that attitude were to permeate the community, a serious effort to reach and attract more interfaith families to participate in Jewish life would surely follow.
Part of a serious effort to attract interfaith families would involve extensive offerings of proven effective outreach programs. Every evaluation of such programs shows increased Jewish behaviors after participation. The author of the 2004 San Francisco Jewish Community Study concluded that a greater proportion of interfaith families in the Bay Area raise their children as Jews than do such families nationwide because of the areas array of outreach programs. That situation could be replicated in every other local community.
Another part of a serious effort to attract interfaith families would address a largely uncharted frontier in the outreach field: supporting rabbis who officiate at intermarriages and respectfully encouraging more to do so. The most frequent request we get for help comes from couples having trouble finding a rabbi to officiate. This is a major obstacle to their Jewish engagement. One of the most important articles on the InterfaithFamily.com Web site is Why I Am a Unitarian, the story of a highly accomplished Jewish woman whose husband agreed to have a Jewish family and children until their frustrating experience searching for a rabbi willing to officiate at their wedding. Those rabbis who do officiate need resources and support, as do rabbis who are considering doing so.
Genuinely welcoming attitudes, resulting in extensive offerings of outreach programs and reaching the point at which interfaith couples dont have trouble finding rabbis to officiate but rather feel welcomed into the Jewish community at their weddings: Now that would be a worthy next big thing!
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