Study of Reform Congregations Documents Successful Efforts To Integrate Interfaith Families

Inside Leadership

Study of Reform Congregations Documents Successful Efforts To Integrate Interfaith Families

Study Points the Way To Next Phase of Efforts


BOSTON (December 4, 2001)--In the first systematic study of how Reform congregations respond to interfaith issues, researchers at Brandeis University have found that Outreach efforts to interfaith and conversionary families, while successful, need to adapt to the increasing acceptance of intermarriage and diversity within the Jewish community.

The report was released by the Joint Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, which is meeting here as the Reform Movement begins its Biennial Convention at the Hynes Convention Center. More than 5,000 people are expected to participate in the Convention, which concludes Sunday.

"Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, there has been substantial hand-wringing in the Jewish community about intermarriage, and we have become obsessed with examining demographic trends," said Professor Leonard Saxe, Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and one of the investigators. "During this time, Reform congregations have been learning how to welcome these families. What we now know, at least from a sample of congregations, is that these efforts are beginning to pay dividends," he said.

Saxe, along with Fern Chertok and Drs. Mark Rosen and Amy Sales, spent several days at each of a half dozen congregations, interviewing rabbis, educators, and congregants, including interfaith and conversionary families. The synagogues, which are in the Northeast and Southeast, were not identified.

Dru Greenwood, director of the Joint Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, which sponsored the study, said, "The research was necessary at this time, two decades after Rabbi Alexander Schindler initiated the Reform Movement's Outreach efforts, both to gauge the effectiveness of the current approach and to help us adjust course as needed to better fulfill our mandate of welcome and invitation into Jewish life."

Interfaith marriage is common in American life (22 percent of all couples, and 33 percent of couples with at least one Jewish partner, according to the recently released American Religious Identification Study). The issue is not about whether Jews by choice and interfaith families should be welcomed, but what strategies are successful, Greenwood said.

"It is particularly gratifying," Greenwood said, "that the study confirms that the programs the UAHC has begun in the past few years are steps in the right direction."

Among the study's findings:

Clergy set the tone and play the key role in welcoming interfaith couples, and the rabbi's policy on conducting mixed marriages does not appear to play a role in whether such couples feel welcome.

In four of the six congregations, the rabbi would not officiate at interfaith ceremonies. Nevertheless, "What stood out for these congregants was not the rabbi's refusal to officiate, but instead the concern and support he or she offered to the couple as they prepared for marriage," according to the report.

In addition, while the rabbi plays a pivotal role, the researchers observed that some congregants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are reluctant to approach the rabbi with specific questions, for fear of either "wasting the rabbi's time" or showing their ignorance. Instead, they turn for information and support to a person who has the role, either formally or informally, of "congregational maven."

Because of the strong relationships that develop over time between the rabbi and non-Jewish congregants with Jewish spouses, clergy are in a unique position to suggest conversion but they too often fail to actively raise the issue.

Clusters of what the researchers termed "late-blooming conversions" were found in congregations where non-Jewish members had developed a multitude of personal connections with other congregants and with the rabbi. Although preparation for marriage continues to be a key motivator for conversion, for many, the decision to convert comes much later. For these individuals, who have married a Jew, conversion comes after having lived a Jewish life for a number of years.

Outreach has positive effects on the congregation.

"This study confirmed that Jews-by-choice and non-Jews often inspire Jews-by-birth toward greater synagogue participation," Greenwood said. At one synagogue, the researchers learned that one of the most well attended events was a Friday night service with a public conversion ceremony. Jews by birth reported that it prompted them to think about their own Jewish identity.

As the Jewish identity of Jews-by-choice evolves over time, synagogues should provide continuing mentoring after conversion.

Jews-by-choice reported that it had taken five to ten years after their conversion to feel really Jewish, Saxe said. "Judaism is like a contact sport. You need to learn by doing."

Nevertheless, because of the effort to treat Jews-by-choice "just like any other Jew," there is little continued mentoring or support once they've completed their conversion," Saxe said. "Rabbis need to acknowledge that conversion is the first, not the last, step in creating a Jewish identity."

The need to continue support for Jews by choice is particularly critical among those who have converted prior to marriage, as they, like other Jewish young adults, tend not to affiliate with a synagogue until they have children of religious school age.

"Living a Jewish life does not begin when the children reach school age, yet many young couples and families seem to be 'missing in action'," Saxe said.

Outreach activities that focus on issues of acceptance and religious diversity are losing their ability to attract participants, who are more likely to take part in activities of the congregation as a whole once they have affiliated.

Whereas the initial Outreach efforts focused on creating special programs for interfaith couples, such as "The December Dilemma" or discussion of family issues for new couples, the most successful programs seem to be those that are offered to all congregational members, such as a series of hands-on holiday workshops. Only "Introduction to Judaism" classes continue to attract substantial participation among involved couples.

Unresolved issues between parents of two different faiths regarding the religious identity of their children often manifest in the religious school.

The researchers found that while a child's participation in a temple preschool or religious school often jump-started Jewish learning by both the non-Jewish and Jewish parent, it also was a flashpoint for those families where there were unresolved issues.

The researchers found that school administrators and rabbis are generally unaware of what is happening at home in families that are marginally involved and therefore they become aware of issues only when they reach the crisis stage. "Hebrew school teachers, who are on the frontline of interaction with children and families, have little or no training in how to identify or deal with signs of family tension," the researchers note.

Greenwood noted that the report confirms the direction that the UAHC has been taking over the past few years, including these developments:

  • Reform Outreach Fellows: Since the program began in 1998, 100 people have been trained to assist clergy in the conversion process. The fellows lead classes and serve as mentors-"mavens" in the reports terminology-to interfaith families and those who are in the process of converting. Contact often continues long after the conversion itself is completed.
  • In the Beginning….Having a Jewish Baby and Jewish Parenting Made Simple: The UAHC is launching two new programs for expectant and new parents, both Jewish and interfaith, who wish to understand Jewish rituals and traditions to help them welcome and introduce their new child to Jewish life.

Greenwood noted that the UAHC has awarded its Belin Award for outstanding Outreach programs to congregations that address the issues raised in the report, including inviting conversion and integrating interfaith Outreach activities into the life of the synagogue. The programs are published in alternate years in Idea Books that are available from the UAHC Press.


Published: 12/03/2001

Categories: Press Releases