Mentor-led learning groups for intermarried couples. A fellowship program for people working to engage intermarried families. The launch of the first-ever “Interfaith Opportunity Summit” for Jewish leaders.
These are just three of the 28 projects that have received matching grants through a multimillion-dollar joint program of the Genesis Prize and the Jewish Funders Network for projects that promote “Avenues to Jewish Engagement for Intermarried Couples and their Families.”
The program was launched after actor Michael Douglas donated the $1 million Genesis Prize he won in 2015 to programs promoting inclusion and diversity in Jewish life. He gave $200,000 to Hillel International, the rest was combined with a $1 million donation from philanthropist Roman Abramovich to create a $3.3 million matching grant program.
Eighty-one organizations from 14 countries applied for the grants. Nineteen projects in the U.S. were funded: three in Israel, two in Germany and one each in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and China.
“I am very pleased with the breadth, scope and innovative spirit of the projects that received funding,” Douglas said this week in a statement. “No doubt, they will open the door to many intermarried couples and their children who wish to connect with their Jewish roots.” Douglas, whose father is Jewish, began exploring his Jewish roots in 1991 after his father, Kirk Douglas, was in a helicopter accident. He married non-Jew Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the couple’s son, Dylan, shared his father’s interest, celebrating his bar mitzvah last year.
Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute), said this program represents a sea change in the acceptance of intermarried couples.
“The number of organizations that applied for grants and were awarded grants suggests that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to intermarried families,” he told The Jewish Week Monday. “Whereas the infaith family was once considered to be the normative family unit, we are now at a place where the interfaith family is not just tolerated but is considered to be a normative structure alongside the infaith family unit.”
JCC Manhattan will be using its grant to create a program called “Circles of Welcome,” a program in which young couples, some, but not all, interfaith, will meet once a month with a mentor to study Jewish subjects determined by the group. The goal, said Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living, is to “really build a community to explore different pathways to Jewish life.”
Although JCC Manhattan has Introduction to Judaism classes for young couples, it wasn’t fully serving these couples’ needs, Rabbi Cohen said. “The community-building piece was missing and that was so much of what these couples are looking for. What they all have in common is that they’re looking for a way to make Jewish choices that feel authentic to them.”
“Part of what we’re trying to do is rewrite the narrative,” she added. “We don’t believe these couples are lost. We feel that there are many entry points to engage with Jewish life.”
Indeed, the grant program was launched at a time when the Jewish world is renewing its commitment to helping intermarried families participate in Jewish life.
An October 2015 study, “Millennial Children of Intermarriage,” done by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, found that millennial children of intermarried couples who participated in Jewish activities, during childhood and especially during college, are much more engaged in Jewish life as adults than those who didn’t. “Based on a survey with nearly 2,700 respondents (ages 19-32) and interviews in four cities, the study finds that college Jewish experiences can have a profound impact, with the potential of closing the gap between children of intermarriage and children of inmarriage on many measures of Jewish engagement,” the authors write in the study.
But bringing intermarried couples and their children fully into the Jewish community is likely to be a heavy lift.
The study found that children of intermarriage were less likely than children of inmarriage to attend a Jewish day school or supplementary school, observe Jewish holidays, and participate in informal Jewish social and educational activities during their childhood or teen years. As a result, children of intermarriage were less likely during their college years to participate in a Jewish group (e.g., Hillel or Chabad) or take a Jewish or Israel-related course.
The new push for programming aimed at intermarrieds also comes less than a year after the Reconstructionist movement’s historic decision to drop the longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students.
The Union for Reform Judaism, the national organization for the Reform movement, will be using its Genesis grant to help fund its JewV’Nation Fellowships, which will support emerging Jewish leaders and creative interfaith outreach initiatives. The fellowships, launched Monday, will fund up to 10 creative Jewish community-building projects that have the goal of meeting the needs and/or sparking the interests of people in interfaith relationships; the projects aim to share the wisdom, power and beauty of Judaism and encourage every person to find his or her own authentic expression of Judaism.
“When we find creative ways to reach Jews from intermarried backgrounds, they identify, they participate, and they help shape the Jewish future,” said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs in a news release announcing the fellowships. “We will incubate the best and brightest leadership talent and we are eager to help identify, nurture, and learn from these emerging Jewish leaders, teachers, and friends.”
Interfaith Family, an organization providing resources for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life, both online and in seven cites across the U.S., is going to use its grant towards redesigning its website (which gets nearly 1.2 million unique visitors a year), evaluating the impact of its on-the-ground programs and launching its first Interfaith Opportunity Summit, which will allow Jewish professional and lay leaders to explore how to better engage interfaith families.
Jodi Bromberg, Interfaith Family’s president, said she was thrilled to see that the matching grant program was going to focus on engaging interfaith families, a choice which she charts back to the Genesis Prize Foundation’s choice of Michael Douglas for the 2015 prize.
“Honoring Michael Douglas was a bold choice for the Genesis Prize Foundation and I think they showed incredible leadership in bringing this topic to the fore,” she said.
“This is the issue facing Jewish life and continuity,” she added. “You have 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews since 2000 marry someone outside of the Jewish faith. Whether you can comfortably engage and create comfortable spaces for those families is going to determine what our Jewish future looks like.”
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative movement’s national organization, is planning to use its grant to work with synagogues to devise a system for making decisions about how they will engage interfaith families in the 21st century.
“The challenge for synagogues is to think about how 21st-century families are part of a 21st-century vision,” said Rabbi Joshua Rabin, USCJ’s director of kehilla enrichment. “Ultimately, if a person is part of a community, even if they’re not Jewish, the synagogue has to serve them in some way. And if we can succeed in doing that, we can turn a challenge into an opportunity.”