As a part of my work at jHUB, which embraces interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish culture and values in Cleveland, Ohio, I meet with young interfaith couples who are looking for connection, meaning, and guidance. I get to hear their unique stories, which often reflect their desire to deepen their relationship with Judaism and with one another. Unfortunately, many of their stories also include moments of deep sadness on their journeys to feel belonging- such as a Jewish young adult who was told by an unnecessary gatekeeper that marrying their agnostic partner was a mistake they would regret or an interracial couple who were the targets of racialized assumptions about their Jewish status. Many have experienced gatekeeping and targeted assumptions about their Jewish status, so I asked them to share their advice for what congregations and communities can do to help interfaith families feel safe and affirmed when they enter a new Jewish space. Here is what I learned:
"If you don't have a crew that welcomes you, make one. If you already have one, make sure they are diverse and include a young couple who has been there before." - Rachel and Anthony
"Take the time to explain WHY a certain ritual is happening." - Josh
"Be receptive to questions. I always have lots of questions." - Geno
"I am more comfortable coming to Jewish events when there is no presumption of Jewish knowledge...also, I find the language of "us Jews" or "we as Jews" to be a reminder of the false idea that Judaism is a closed community." - Casey
"I love when Judaism is explained as: 'some people choose X for this reason.' That way, it feels like we aren't doing something wrong while being exposed to a new idea." - Julia
"Offer opportunities for my non-Jewish spouse to get involved…like classes designed for them to learn more." - Kate
There is an essential message which resonates across these experiences: Jewish institutions need to prioritize both relationships and education.
The advice from my Cleveland couples is consistent with the recent findings of the Study of Jewish Los Angeles. I imagine their findings will resonate with some of your community members too. While the respondents for the Los Angeles study were all Jewish, these answers resonate with stories from interfaith couples as well. This data shows us that we will see immense impacts on engagement in our communities if we work to make our spaces accessible to all who enter. Here are two highlights to consider:
- 37% of Jewish adults favor when Jewish rituals are explained; and
- 24% of Jewish adults responded that "[not] know[ing] many people" was a limiting condition for participation, more than those who cited Los Angeles traffic as a barrier to participation
Luckily for us, we can use these personal anecdotes, backed by data, to make our Jewish spaces places of greater belonging for everyone who calls the Jewish community home. Here are some ideas Jewish institutions can use to create the kinds of connections we all seek:
- Review URJ's Inclusive Program Checklist, which will help you affirm interfaith couples as well as other underserved identities.
- Create a handout, similar to a well-curated wedding program, that explains common terms used in your spaces and describes important ritual moments.
- Reserve seats for newcomers in the middle of the space where a diverse crew of your regulars can sit with those who aren't yet comfortable in your space. This can help with setting communal norms about behavior and offer a safe space where seasoned veterans can answer questions and help people navigate the service.
- Acknowledge the mixed multitude in your space by offering a communal blessing, creating moments that bless and uplift under-seen segments of your community, developing classes/groups specifically for partners who aren't Jewish, and thoughtfully ensuring that service honors reflect the full diversity of your community.
It is my sincere hope that in this year of 5783, our congregants and communities will be able to share fewer stories of discomfort and more memories of times the Jewish community has welcomed and embraced them.