by Ozzie Nogg
This past August, Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El Synagogue went back to school, albeit virtually.
“Over the summer I read about a new online MA and Certificate program at Hebrew College on the topic of Interfaith Families and Jewish Engagement – IFJE – and was immediately interested in learning more,” Abraham explained. “While the rabbinate does not require continuing education credits, they are a ‘must’ if you want to keep up with the most recent data, trends and innovative programming across the Jewish world.”
The director of the IFJE program at Hebrew College is Dr. Keren McGinity, an expert in the field of interfaith engagement and author of Still Jewish and Marrying Out. The course curriculum, which McGinity created in collaboration with Michael Shire, Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School, focuses on how intermarriage and conversion have changed over Jewish history; what rabbinic texts can teach us and how branches of Judaism have responded: the ways in which case studies of intermarried Jews and their loved ones can be used to debunk popular culture and stereotypes; and the skills needed for clergy, educators, community leaders and outreach practitioners to best support the growing population of interfaith families, engaging them in Jewish life.
Dr. McGinity created the Ten Principles of the IFJE program that inform all the courses. One of these principles concludes that ‘Interfaith’ is understood to have multiple meanings and interpretations. Some families include Jews and people of other faiths; some families are composed of Jews and extended families of other faiths; and some include Jews and people without any religious faith. “Dr. McGinity speaks eloquently about how intermarriage affects families differently, depending on which spouse is Jewish, whether it be the husband or the wife,” Rabbi Abraham continued. “Put aside for the moment the question of matrilineal descent. Dr. McGinity’s argument, which I have witnessed first hand, is that if a Jewish man calls me and asks if I will officiate at his wedding to a non-Jewish woman and I – per the Rabbinical Assembly standard – say no, odds are the husband will become upset and say forget about it. On the other hand, if the soon-to-be wife of a Jewish man calls and asks if I can do the wedding and I decline, her reaction is quite different. She will not walk away, but ask if I know of someone who can perform the service. She will look for other options. This may seem like a subtle difference, but it was not until Dr. McGinity began her research that anyone had looked into how gender played a role in interfaith families.” Dr. McGinity’s findings highlight the fact that intermarried fathers raising Jewish children need communal support to become more involved parents.
Because of this data on gender, Beth El plans to run a program called Raising Jewish Children — a class geared specifically for dads. “We’ll gather at different participants’ homes each week to chat about the commonality of raising Jewish children, whether the dads themselves are Jewish or not,” Rabbi Abraham said. “Jewish texts have a wealth of wisdom to teach us about intermarriage, as well as a sea of controversy over how best to address this social reality and interact with interfaith families. Data on such topics as intermarriage and conversion allows Beth El to make effective and impactful decisions about programing, instead of simply throwing ideas up against the wall to see what sticks. I want to use what I learn in the IFJE program to work towards changing the conversation — to show that, Beth El welcomes interfaith families and that we are creating a synagogue built for the Jewish family of 2020. Families where both parents are Jewish, interfaith, multi-ethnic. I’m so thankful to Hebrew College for developing a certificate program that delves into the current landscape of American Jewry. To not understand the history of intermarriage and conversion in the United States, is to not understand the Jews that make up our congregations in 2016.”
Rabbi Abraham’s participation in the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program — where he was accepted as a Fellow — was funded through generous support from the Crown Family and the Sy Syms Foundation.
To learn more, visit Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement