What makes an interfaith (or, really, any) family decide to join or not join a synagogue?
That’s the million-dollar question these days. And even though my family is part of this demographic — synagogue-affiliated interfaith family with two kids in Hebrew school — I don’t claim to know all the answers. Especially when you consider that my own attempts to recruit my intermarried (and in-married) friends for the various Reform and liberal congregations with which I’ve been involved, has yielded modest results at best. (Interestingly, my recruitment efforts for our Jewish camp — Eden Village — have been far more fruitful, something I’ll write about at another point.)
With the High Holidays upon us, the question of synagogue recruitment is popping up in a variety of venues right now. That’s particularly in light of the recent UJA-Federation of New York Community Study, which found that while intermarried families join synagogues at lower rates than their in-married counterparts those who are synagogue members, not surprisingly, have “much higher rates of Jewish engagement on almost all measures compared with those intermarried households that do not belong to a congregation.”
Synagogue-affiliated intermarried families are, according to the study, “close to the congregationally affiliated in-married” in their observance of Jewish holidays, use of Jewish websites, Jewish philanthropic giving and participation in Jewish cultural events. And they are “far more likely than the unaffiliated in-married” to participate in adult Jewish learning programs and various other Jewish activities.
All of this, of course, begs the chicken-and-egg question: Did joining the synagogue actually lead the intermarried family to be more engaged, or was it just that the already-more-engaged intermarried families are more likely to join a synagogue in the first place? (My guess is a little of each.)
But let’s not confuse the chicken-and-egg question with the aforementioned million-dollar question: why do interfaith families join synagogues and what, if anything, can congregations do to attract and engage more of them? After all, the UJA-Federation study, albeit somewhat grudgingly (something I will analyze at some future juncture), notes that synagogue outreach to the intermarried “perhaps” is “worth pursuing.”
Ed Case, of InterfaithFamily.com, makes the case on his blog, based on responses to surveys he’s conducted, that:
interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples.
In a recently released report of his own, Rabbi Charles Simon of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs — long an advocate for greater acceptance of interfaith families — echoes Case’s view that explicit welcoming messages are important.
But (and this is not surprising, given that Conservative rabbis are barred from officiating at intermarriages) he argues that the specific policies on participation in rituals are considerably less influential than what synagogues communicate to interfaith families on their websites and other publications.
Rabbi Simon recently surveyed 100 Conservative synagogues to find out if they allow non-Jewish spouses on the bima during b’nai mitzvah and baby-naming ceremonies — an issue that, he says, has been something of an obsession in Conservative circles, since it is not dictated by the movement or Jewish law and is left to the rabbi’s discretion.
He found that the majority of congregations are relatively lenient about allowing non-Jewish spouses to stand on the bima: during a child’s bar/bat mitzvah, 79 percent allowed the non-Jewish spouse to stand next to the Jewish spouse on the bima during an aliyah, 59 percent permitted both parents to stand on the bima during the bestowing of a blessing and 52 percent had both parents participate in their child’s tallit ceremony on the bima. And for baby-naming ceremonies “congregations were much more liberal,” Rabbi Simon writes, adding that “79 of the 86 congregations that responded to this question permitted babies to be named in a ceremony that involved both parents standing on the bima.” (Of the seven who do not, four indicated that none of their baby-naming ceremonies take place on the bima.)
While the synagogues have relatively inclusive policies vis a vis interfaith families, they don’t do a very good job of publicizing them, Rabbi Simon says, noting that “almost all of the congregations are more welcoming to the non-Jewish spouse and intermarrieds when it comes to bima choreography than they communicate through their websites.”
Studying the websites of the 100 responding congregations, Rabbi Simon discovered “the significant omission of the word ‘intermarried’ on a majority of the congregational websites and the lack of a description if how intermarrieds are welcomed and perhaps most importantly, what the congregation offers an intermarried family that wishes to create a Jewish home…” Only 11 of the 100 websites welcomed intermarried families on the opening page, 12 were one click away, three were two clicks away and 74 lacked any reference to intermarrieds at all, he notes. And the findings are consistent with analyses he’s done of other Conservative congregational websites, as well.
Of course welcome and websites only take you so far. Doing them right at least helps avoid turning off people who might be interested. And it could lead a shul-shopping family to your synagogue rather than to the less-welcoming one down the street. But no matter how much you welcome someone, he or she is not going to join your synagogue — or any synagogue for that matter — unless you convince him/her that doing so will add value to his/her life.
Making that larger case, whether to interfaith families or to any unaffiliated Jew, is something most synagogues — and indeed most American Jewish communal institutions — still seem to be having trouble with.