What have we done to welcome, include and support interfaith families? Nearly three years after the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” cited astounding statistics, 80% of Reform Jews married between 2000 and 2013 married people of other faiths and backgrounds, Rabbi Melinda Mersack, director of jHUB in Cleveland, shares the success that this community has had in reaching out and engaging interfaith families. By utilizing a concierge model, along with successful programing and partnerships with congregations and other Jewish programs and organizations, interfaith families are being supported and valued as part of the Cleveland community.
Rabbi Melinda Mersack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Sarah was growing up in Cleveland in a Jewish family, attending a Jewish day school, she could not have anticipated the turns her life would take. Falling in love and marrying a Christian man wasn’t part of her, or her family’s, plans. Telling her family she was marrying Joe was a difficult thing to do and the ramifications were endless. Her family was not accepting. Her rabbi would not officiate at her wedding. She felt abandoned and alone. So, when she had a daughter and wanted to pass on her Jewish traditions and values, she felt completely unsupported. She was going it alone, until she got an email from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland advertising a free gift for interfaith families. That email changed Sarah’s life.
We know that interfaith families are a growing part of our community. In a recent population study in Cleveland, we learned that at least 50% of interfaith families surveyed expressed the value of being connected to the Jewish community, yet 77% of these same families do not feel connected. We set out to close the gap.
Two years ago, jHUB was created, an initiative that provides new ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore, discover, and personalize the meaning of Jewish culture and values in the modern world. We believe that falling in love with someone who isn’t Jewish should not mean segregation from the Jewish community.
We strive to respond to the needs of our families, and we offer multiple avenues for people interested in connecting.
- When someone is newly engaged and seeking a wedding officiant, we refer them.
- When a family with young children is seeking to be part of a community and share holiday experiences, we create new programs that connect them to similar families.
- When someone’s adult child is in an interfaith relationship and they need skills to navigate family relationships in the context of multiple traditions and backgrounds, we provide workshops to support them.
In our short two years of existence, we have connected dozens of couples with local Jewish clergy, served more than 200 families with regular Jewish holiday experiences, and mailed more than 800 holiday boxes to interfaith homes to facilitate Jewish holiday celebrations. We have helped those interested in connecting to synagogues find a place they now consider their spiritual home. We lead couples workshops and grandparents groups, facilitate sensitivity trainings for Jewish professionals and institutions to improve their ability to welcome and serve interfaith families, and, most importantly, we have opened the door to Jewish life and community for countless families.
While we have tremendous capacity locally as a joint program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, we recognized the value of partnering with a national organization that has significant experience, resources, and systems already in place to address these same needs. This is why jHUB became an InterfaithFamily affiliate. As an affiliate, we have access to the significant resources of InterfaithFamily, including their online clergy referral service. Partnering with InterfaithFamily has significantly increased our reach and connections in our geographic area while helping us stay on top of national trends and best practices.
We are successful because we are responsive to the needs of our couples and families. We are not prescriptive. We are here as a resource to our families on their personal journeys. We support them as they explore Judaism in their own way. We have collaborative relationships with local Jewish professionals and agencies, and they recognize that our work strengthens and supports the entire community.
After receiving our email, Sarah signed up to receive our free Seder in a Box. A few months later, she came to our event, Rosh HaShanah at the Beach, where we met Sarah in person and learned her story. She was seeking connection. She wanted to be part of a community. We offered her High Holy Day tickets provided free to jHUB by several local congregations so she and her family could attend services. Sarah and her family felt so welcomed and valued when they went that they are now members and their daughter attends the religious school.
Thousands of families like Sarah’s live in Cleveland and around the US. While not all are seeking to join a congregation, many are seeking to be part of a community. Many are seeking meaning in a Jewish context. Many value Judaism and just need to hear that we value them, too.
For reflection and discussion:
- Does this challenge sound familiar? Have you heard stories similar to Sarah’s in your community?
- How can you strategically engage interfaith families? What resources do you need to make you successful?
- Are there models of engagement that are working with other populations in your community that you can model interfaith family engagement after?
- Are there other organizations in your community already working with the interfaith family community that you can partner with?
- How might the interfaith community in your city be unique?
For further exploration:
- InterfaithFamily Blog: What's Wrong with Saying "Jewish Community?"
- eJewishPhilanthropy: Making Effective Programs for Interfaith Couples and Families
- JWeekly: New Concierge Redoubles Efforts for Solo Jewish Moms