Jeff Shabman, a Jewish man from New York, fell in love with a Lutheran woman from Wisconsin.
As they settled in West Allis, Judy Shabman was ensconced in her church, where she was the religious education director for 29 years, and its bookkeeper. So they focused on finding a spiritual home for Jeff.
They found it at Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha. “Not being Jewish worried me from the standpoint of being accepted, but I have never felt as welcome as I do (at CEEW),” Judy said.
Synagogues can offer special programs, classes and groups for interfaith families, but as spiritual leaders across the Milwaukee area note, the “welcome” can go a long way.
“It is wonderful walking through the door on a Friday evening and having people really make you feel welcome,” Judy said. “That is the best gift you can give any prospective new member.”
CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL NER TAMID
Rabbi Jacob Herber says about five percent of the membership at his Conservative synagogue is made up of interfaith families.
“We are very welcoming, and we put a premium on engaging these families,” Herber said. “Over the past few years, we have made changes to our policies on participation in our services for people who are not Jewish.”
Herber, who came to Beth Israel in 2003 – the partnership between Beth Israel and Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid was formed in 2012 – said, “The policy was that if you were not Jewish, you could not ascend to the bima during a service. I led, along with our ritual committee, a change about five years ago.”
Now, if there is a bar or bat mitzvah and one parent is not Jewish, the family can all stand together on the bima, and prayers can be recited by a non-Jewish family member on the bima.
“It was primarily a response to the fact that we recognized more intermarried couples would be coming over from Beth El Ner Tamid and we wanted to make them feel comfortable,” Herber said.
Herber estimates that two-thirds of the non-Jewish members of interfaith families at his synagogue eventually convert to Judaism.
When a non-Jewish member expresses interest in conversion, Herber encourages the couples to take the conversion course taught and administered at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. The teaching is done by Jody Hirsh, the director of Judaic Education at the JCC, and by members of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis.
Herber notes that in cases where the non-Jewish family member does not want to convert, “it’s quite often the case that they don’t want to cause pain to their families. I totally understand that and respect it.”
Herber has observed non-Jewish parents often being the ones bringing their children to b’nai mitzvah lessons and to religious school. “I argued that we should some way honor those persons for their commitment to Jewish education for their child,” Herber said. “We could allow that person to participate in a service from the bima while still protecting the integrity of our standards and values. It was time to make a change.”
It’s all part of being welcomed. “I have seen our congregants be very welcoming to people who have self-identified as not being Jewish, embracing them and making them feel as at home as they possibly could,” Herber said.
CONGREGATION EMANU-EL B’NE JESHURUN
Rabbi Marc Berkson, who has been at CEEBJ since 1999, estimates that 20 percent of the synagogue is made up of interfaith families.
The synagogue has held classes, usually in December but at times around Passover/Easter, “to address some of the challenges interfaith families face during holiday seasons,” Berkson said. “But very few families attend, and I sense it’s because of how our congregation welcomes each of the (interfaith) families. They feel quite comfortable here.”
CEEBJ has a task force that addresses lifecycle events for interfaith families, and a mentoring program. “We try to pair up each of our newly joining families with another family that has belonged for a while,” Berkson said. “We try to find families with shared interests.” One common interest could be a parent who is not Jewish. “It’s our way of helping people become part of our congregation family,” Berkson said.
Berkson estimates that in 40 to 50 percent of the interfaith families at CEEBJ, the non-Jewish parent eventually converts to Judaism.
With many synagogues across the country losing members, making interfaith families feel welcome is thought to be crucial.
“It’s a reflection of Jewish life today,” Berkson said. “Both churches and synagogues face some very serious challenges. For Jews to find holiness, to find God, you need synagogue life. You can’t be Jewish without other Jews.”
CONGREGATION EMANU-EL OF WAUKESHA
President Ann Meyers estimates that 50 percent of CEEW’s families are interfaith, and serving the needs of that portion of the community was important as she led a search committee to find a new spiritual leader two years ago.
After Cantor Deborah Martin was hired as spiritual leader, she began offering classes and programs for interfaith families, such as A Taste of Judaism course, how to deal with Chanukah/Christmas holidays and how to make Shabbat special at home.
During this year’s High Holidays, she asked non-Jewish members of interfaith families to come up to the bima for a blessing. “We wanted to thank them for supporting their spouses and children in being Jewish and participating at our Temple,” Martin said.
Rabbi Noah Chertkoff became Shalom’s senior rabbi in 2015, following the retirement of Rabbi Ron Shapiro, who became senior rabbi in 1980. In 2003, Shapiro became the first member of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis to officiate at marriage ceremonies between Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.
“Primarily, this decision is being made due to the significant number of couples who have made a commitment to raise their children as Jewish and maintain a Jewish home, despite the fact that one partner in the relationship is not Jewish,” Shapiro wrote in a letter to the congregation. “In reality, I believe this step is long overdue and I pray that not only will it enhance Jewish practice within our community, but also it will send an important message of inclusiveness, which we philosophically articulate.”
Chertkoff, who was hired as associate rabbi at Shalom in 2007, has continued that practice “for those who create a Jewish household. I believe a wedding ceremony should be reflective of the home they are creating together.” He said of Shapiro’s decision, “It showed a lot of compassion and foresight and it’s now part of who we are.”
Shalom has had a group made up of interfaith couples for several years. “They come together on their own to have discussions about how their lives are alike, the challenges they are facing,” Chertkoff said. “From time to time, they invite clergy to participate.”
Shalom’s website notes that “in accordance with the Reform movement’s commitment to welcome non-Jewish people into our community, Congregation Shalom so too extends a warm welcome to interfaith families. We acknowledge that a person is Jewish if raised in a Jewish household whether the mother or father is Jewish.”
Approximately 20 percent of Shalom’s member households are headed by interfaith couples,” said Linda Holifield, the congregation’s executive director. Chertkoff, while emphasizing that “there is very little that is different in the way we treat interfaith couples,” added, “Our congregation is very proud of the fact that we are a warm and welcoming place for interfaith families to feel comfortable with Judaism.
“We owe the non-Jewish partner in a Jewish household a great deal of debt for committing to raising their children as Jews.”
“The topic (interfaith families) is one that should be talked about more than it is.”
So said Rabbi David Cohen, who became Sinai’s spiritual leader in 1996 and began officiating at intermarriages in 2015 when there’s a commitment to raising children Jewish.
“We have offered classes that address specific issues as they pertain to interfaith families,” Cohen said, adding, “At a certain point, there are those who don’t want to be categorized as an interfaith family anymore. There might be people who for a couple of years want to talk about the December dilemma and how to deal with Chanukah and Christmas, but after a few years, it’s no longer salient to them. While some families are interested in being programmed directly, others say we’re just another family and don’t want to be treated any different than other Jewish families.”
Cohen estimates that 40 percent of the Sinai families include a non-Jewish parent, and that one-third of those parents choose to convert to Judaism. “(Conversion) is something I always ask about, but am not the least bit coercive,” Cohen said. “I just want to make sure they know there is an open, inviting door should they want to go in that direction.”
Cohen said his goal is to have parents and children feel “completely at home in Judaism while recognizing the beliefs of others. “I don’t see a problem going to a cousin’s home where there is a Christmas tree as long as they know it’s not the core of their family’s beliefs,” Cohen said.
Cohen said interfaith couples “have to spend more time talking about, and thinking through, issues related to bringing up children and their own spiritual path.”
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Coming soon in a future edition of the Chronicle: Information on Congregation Shir Hadash, 2717 E. Hampshire St., Milwaukee, also known for welcoming interfaith families.