The Big Idea: Interfaith Engagement
If you’ve ever attended an adult-education class about Jewish practice or identity, it’s likely that you’ve been asked to reflect upon your “Jewish journey.” What we don’t often realize is that every kehilla is also on a journey – actually, multiple journeys – as it strives to meet the changing needs of its congregants and the shifting realities of the Jewish community.
Many kehillot are experiencing such journeys as they strive towards greater responsiveness to the needs of interfaith families, who are an increasing part of the Jewish communal landscape.
United Synagogue recently launched InterAction, a pilot initiative that brings kehillot together to learn about and craft strategies for interfaith engagement. As director of InterAction, I’ve seen the varied paths that individual kehillot are walking as they explore this subject and the questions they’re grappling with on the way. Some kehillot are focusing on the tachlis – the practical aspects of interfaith engagement – asking questions like: What do we allow a non-Jewish parent to do if he or she wants to participate in their child’s bar/bat mitzvah service? How should we include interfaith couples on our membership rosters and address them on our mailing lists? How – if at all – should we extend congratulations to those marrying outside of the faith?
- Create opportunities for people to meet. Apply the principles of Relational Judaism to interfaith engagement. Even as you work out the details of your policies, and think about programs you might offer, remember that people are at the heart of this issue, and it’s the human connections that will make interfaith families feel that your kehilla can be their spiritual and communal home. Create opportunities for interfaith families to meet each other and share their experiences and concerns, and enable them to create connections with other parts of your community as well.
- Make your welcoming explicit. Don’t leave interfaith couples and families wondering what your kehilla’s attitude is toward them. Include explicit statements of welcome in your mission statement, on your web site, and in literature and publicity. Just seeing the simple phrase “Interfaith families are welcome” on a flyer for a young-parent discussion group can make all the difference to a couple unsure how they will be received at a synagogue-sponsored event.
- Stack the deck in favor of a positive synagogue experience. Take steps to ensure that non-Jewish spouses don’t feel lost or intimidated when they come into your synagogue. Make sure that Hebrew terms are translated, whether they’re on program flyers or in a d’var Torah. Put a book rack in the sanctuary during Shabbat services and fill it with books that provide an introduction to Judaism and an explanation of the service. These initiatives may be appreciated by more than just interfaith families – many Jews need refreshers as well.
- Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Or to put it in congregational terms, “Program (or publicize or organize) for the kehilla you want, not the kehilla you have.” If you want your synagogue to become a place where interfaith families feel included and not ostracized, making some of the small changes described above can help your congregation see itself as that kind of place – and truly become that kind of place. Taking concrete steps today can lead to greater cultural shifts as you continue on your journey.
Moment #1: At the end of Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Judah, Rabbi Aaron Gaber asked everyone to turn to someone sitting near them who they didn’t know, introduce themselves, and say one thing that they’re grateful for. I turned to the man next to me, told him my name and probably said something about being grateful for the nice weather…I can’t remember. When it was his turn, he simply said, “It’s hard for me to say something that I’m grateful for this week. I lost a dear friend. I can’t think of anything else.”
As he finished his sentence, the congregation began singing Adon Olam. The man stood up and walked out of the sanctuary. I found a Beth Judah board member and shared what was said to me. The board member found him, asked what happened and looked for ways that the congregation might help.
Moment #2: One of my “shul friends” sighed as she sat down next to me one Saturday morning after they brought out the Torah. “I moved my father into assisted living yesterday,” she said. “He hasn’t called me yet this morning. I’m so worried about him, but I know that I can’t hover over him every minute.” For the next half hour, I didn’t hear the Torah chanted as I listened to her retell the story of her life-changing week with her father. Read more
- Develop a habit of relational thinking. Instead of counting numbers to measure success, (participation, membership, income, resources), be on the lookout for signs of connection. For example, how long do people linger to talk to each other after Shabbat services or religious school drop-off?
- Think about your organizational goals. Instead of focusing on increased growth or revenue, make sure your vision, mission and priorities reflect the qualities of the community you hope to be.
- Notice moments when relationship building is happening and practice changing your language about it. When you write about successful programs, describe them in ways that go beyond participation numbers. Share stories of what people are learning about each other, how they found commonalities, how they were able to connect?
- Help people share Shabbat meals. Does your congregation have a Shabbat dinner initiative like Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas? Are you one of the 50 kehillot working with USCJ to engage the next generation of leaders? (If not, learn more about Sulam for Emerging Leaders.) Both programs help make Shabbat meals a time of connection and re-charging of our relational batteries.
- Look for moments when relationship building is possible. In Moment #1 above Rabbi Gaber asked people to share what they’re grateful for. People turned to each other in a new way. Did some people (like me) talk about the weather? Yes. But did others, like the man who spoke to me, open up about their lives? Yes, and that is the risk and reward of creating moments with relationship potential.
- Ask different questions. In leadership meetings, when a question is that begins with the phrase, “What (kinds of programs) would interest…?,” stop and ask, instead, “How can we help people connect with each other?”