Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.
For young families raising Jewish children, religious school attendance and synagogue membership are inextricably linked. Although this arrangement suits many families, others, particular interfaith families, can find it an impediment to building a relationship with a synagogue. With 70% of new marriages in the non-Orthodox Jewish community considered interfaith marriages, there are plenty of families that find themselves in this position.
Magda Reyes, director of education at Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, NJ, wants to turn this model on its head. Seeking a way to make the large interfaith community in her town feel welcome at the synagogue, she’s developing a program she calls Jewish Education Connection (JEC), which will invite families to enroll their children in the Har Sinai religious school first, and only later require they become members of the synagogue. By deemphasizing immediate synagogue affiliation, JEC will reduce barriers to entry, allowing more families to engage in full, rich Jewish lives.
Magda herself is part of an interfaith family. The child of Holocaust survivors, she emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States. Later, after marrying, she and her partner had trouble finding the right Jewish institution in which to raise their children. Not only was her partner’s background in another faith tradition an impediment to participation, but for Magda, her own background as a “cultural Jew” with limited religious education stood in the way as well.
Fortunately, there was a Jewish preschool near their home, a “gateway” that allowed them to find Jewish connections, and eventually a home within the synagogue. Without the preschool, Magda isn’t sure she would ever have ventured into the synagogue. When she first emigrated to the U.S. as a teen, feeling estranged from mainstream Jewish life, she unsuccessfully sought Jewish connection in different places, even attending a yeshiva for a period of time.
By targeting interfaith and LGBTQ families, Jews of color, and other marginalized Jewish communities, Magda believes JEC can help others avoid feeling alienated and marginalized the way she did. In addition to their participation in the religious school, families will be invited to attend off-site programs, after-school and adult initiatives, and, in time, a summer program as well.
The JewV’Nation Fellowship has connected Magda with Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish identity, demonstrating that there are others like her who don’t fit a traditional mold. As the Fellowship wraps up this fall, she will continue to use the JewV’Nation cohort as a resource as she fine tunes the JEC, increasing its appeal to the marginalized communities she seeks to attract.
Although the JEC will be adopted first at Har Sinai Temple, Magda believes any synagogue can use the model successfully, as long as the leaders frame education, not membership, as the initial priority. She hopes the short-term effects are a “re-energized school and temple that resonate [for families] within this challenging and changing Jewish landscape.” Down the road, Magda hopes the JEC will help shift the focus of Reform Jewish life from being synagogue and worship-centric, to embrace a wider celebration of Jewish experience and education.
From her own search to find her place within the broad scope of Jewish experience, to her skill as a guide on a journey of Jewish discovery for so many, Magda is excited by the prospect that the JEC will reach families who simply are unsure of how to find their place within the Jewish world. By helping them see that Judaism and Jewish institutions can have a place in their lives, she hopes to demonstrate how exciting, worthwhile, and rich Jewish life can be.
This profile is part of an ongoing series highlighting projects from the inaugural cohort of the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. For more information about Magda’s project and the JewV’Nation Fellowship, visit urj.org/jewvnation-fellowship.