Interfaith Marriage Is Now Mainstream
The Society recently participated in and helped sponsor an historic first Interfaith Opportunity Summit, organized by Interfaith Family. It was held in October at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and was a huge success. Over 300 people attended, including clergy and Jewish professionals from congregations, Jewish schools, Hillel chapters, and Jewish Philanthropies. Interfaith marriage researchers and members of interfaith families also attended and presented, adding depth and breadth to the summit.
This was the first major Jewish sponsored conference to focus on the importance of welcoming interfaith couples into the Jewish community. Outreach to interfaith families was seen as a means of strengthening, not weakening, Jewish communities and life. The day-long event featured presentations on recent research on intermarriage in the US, panel discussions on ways to help interfaith families feel more welcome in congregations, descriptions of successful interfaith programming, and dialogues with members of interfaith families about what helped them feel welcome in congregations. Here are some of the highlights of the summit.
Recent Research Results
1. The intermarriage rate now averages 70% in some parts of the country, among non-Orthodox Jews. This upward trend means that most Jewish families have an interfaith marriage in their immediate or extended families. Interfaith marriage is truly mainstream now.
2. A new Pew Center study, released on the day of the conference, reveals that 1 in 5 adults in the US were raised by parents who came from different religious traditions (defined as parents from different faith traditions, or where one parent is unaffiliated).
3. A recent study conducted by the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, titled “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiating and Intermarriage,” found that 85% of the interfaith couples who had a rabbi officiate at their wedding, chose to raise their eldest child Jewish. This rate was close to the percentage of Jewish couples who raised their children Jewish.
This study is likely skewed because it is based on interviews with interfaith couples who traveled to Israel as part of the Birthright Israel programs. Yet, the presenter believes that further study will indicate that interfaith couples, in general, are much more likely to raise their children Jewish when a rabbi officiates at their wedding. The percentage may be lower than indicted above, but he predicts that it will still be high.
4. According to a survey conducted a year ago by Big Tent Judaism, almost half of Conservative rabbis have defied the movement’s ban on officiating at interfaith marriages. This highlights the growing acceptance of interfaith marriages within the Conservative Movement.
5. Rabbi Nadia Siritsky, an SCRJ Board member, also shared preliminary results of the SCRJ-Spalding University Survey, How Does The Amount Of Hebrew In A Worship Service Affect How Welcome You Feel In A Congregation?
This study confirms what many of us know intuitively and anecdotally, that interfaith families, as well as Jews who don’t read or understand Hebrew, feel left out and alienated by too much Hebrew in worship services. They report losing interest and daydreaming when long passages of Hebrew are read, and are less likely to attend services. They feel more engaged and more likely to attend when they understand the prayers, and when the content of those prayers resonate with their modern lives.
This explains why many interfaith families and non-Hebrew reading and speaking spiritual seekers find Classical Reform worship services more accessible and meaningful. Classical Reform services are conducted primarily in English and include poetic passages that speak directly to their needs and concerns. A more complete report of this study will be published in the next Advocate.
What Helps Interfaith Families Feel Welcome in Congregations?
These points were emphasized repeatedly throughout the day:
1. A warm, non-judgemental welcome by members of the congregation. People from other faith backgrounds are often anxious about entering a Temple or synagogue. They worry about being judged.
2. Finding like-minded members who share their values and interests. Connecting personally with members of the congregation is key for interfaith families, and arguably any family, when deciding where they wish to belong.
3. Experiencing full inclusion in the life of congregation. We heard more than one moving story from parents with other faith traditions and backgrounds, who cried when they were invited up to the bimah to hold the Torah during their son or daughter’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For them, this was a watershed moment when they truly felt that they belonged to the congregation.
THE TAKE AWAY FROM THE SUMMIT
Interfaith marriage is mainstream and here to stay. Recent research on interfaith families in the United States and within Jewish communities seem to confirm that interfaith marriages are not weakening Judaism. The opposite could be argued about the impact of the growing numbers of interfaith families belonging to Reform congregations. They often inspire Jews by birth to have a greater appreciation of the power and beauty of their heritage, and they bring new eyes and renewed energy to our communities. As we get to know each other, we gain a deeper appreciation of our different faith traditions and backgrounds. We become friends in a loving and caring community.
According to the testimonies of members of interfaith families and presenters of successful interfaith programming, the best way to attract interfaith families is to give them an unconditional welcome, without any preconditions. This means greeting them warmly as equals, more concerned about them as people than about their plans to convert. Building relationships is key for them, as it is for most spiritual seekers. It means including them as full members, able to participate on the bimah with their sons and daughter when they become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and more.
Some rabbis and congregations are not comfortable offering this type of welcome. A few Conservative rabbis, educators, and leaders spoke openly and compassionately about their struggle. They are working hard to become more inclusive and welcoming of interfaith families. Each of us must find our own way to address this important matter.
These conversations will continue, and we look forward to participating in the next Interfaith Opportunity Summit. According to Interfaith Family, it will likely be held in 2018.
A Special Thank You Ed Case and Interfaith Family for their vision and leadership in outreach to and education about interfaith families in our communities!
Links to Other Articles About and Related to the Summit
1. “What We Learned At The Interfaith Opportunity Summit,” by Jodi Bromberg and Edmund Case, in Jewish Philanthropy.
2. “Why A Rabbi Under The Huppah May Boost Jewish Engagement in Intermarried Homes,” by Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok, in the JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency).
3. “It’s Amazing How Muich the Jewish Interfaith Conversation Has Changed In A Decade,” by Laurel Snyder, in the Forward
4. “Intermarriage Now Seen As “In The Mainstream,” by Steve Lipman, in the New York The Jewish Week.