How Interfaith Workshops Are Paying Off

How Interfaith Workshops Are Paying Off

For the past 19 years I have been conducting “Love and Religion: an Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners.” The target population is interfaith couples that are seriously dating, engaged and/or newly married. Over 600 couples have participated in these workshops, and my goals are that they enjoy the experience of being with other couples facing similar concerns, that they learn more about the issues they are facing and that they feel less alone in the process.

I hoped that the couples would bond together, see each other socially, take more courses, and feel a greater attachment to the Jewish community. The hoped-for outcome is that the couples will choose Judaism as the lead religion in the home and that they will raise their children as Jews. This workshop is now being run in more and more cities, so it seemed timely to begin to collect information on its effectiveness.

And it was time to evaluate the effectiveness of other new community discussions about outreach, such as a recent one sponsored by federations in Washington, D.C. and New York (“Intermarriage And The Gender Gap,” July 19). Program coordinators, educators, clergy, practitioners, academics, national interfaith organizations and interfaith families themselves gathered there to discuss the issue and to examine the outreach efforts. But little data have been collected about the effectiveness of these intervention programs. There have been gaps in the delivery of these products. Providers lose interest, Jewish communal workers pursue other interests, and the outreach effort disappears.

I decided to collect data on a small sample of my workshop participants to determine if participation increased the possibility of the couples deciding to establish a Jewish home, and to identify with the Jewish community. I also wanted to understand what other services and programs they would want.

Almost uniformly, all 40 couples responding to my survey said they would recommend the workshop to their friends and stated that the workshop was helpful in gaining understanding of the issues they were dealing with.

All the participants said they most liked the opportunity to hear from other couples in similar circumstances. It was clear that the couples enjoyed finding people in like situations. The members of one class had already established themselves as an e-mail group after the first session, and they had planned to go out for drinks after the workshop ended. In another class, several couples spent time together. Many of the classes formed their own interfaith couples group when the workshop ended. When a reunion was held several years ago, the entire class, except for one couple, came to the event. The missing couple was at the hospital having a baby.

When asked whether the workshop changed any of their opinions, the participants had a lot to say. Some realized that they needed to have more dialogue about religion between themselves as a couple. Many of the Jewish partners, especially the men, felt they had to take on more responsibility for the transmission of Judaism in their homes, other than just, “I want Jewish children.” Others felt they became calmer as they now had some “emotional space” in which they could have a conversation. One person said, “It helped push me to accept and better understand things out of my comfort zone.” Thirty-seven of the 40 couples were planning to raise their children as Jews.

All these findings are promising; they suggest this model provides a safe and supportive environment for open discussion of complicated issues. It encourages Jewish choices, helps the couples to feel welcomed into the Jewish community and to raise their children as Jews. On occasion, some couples terminated their relationship, and/or left the workshop because one or the other realized the importance of his or her own religion and that compromise was not possible.

The survey asked whether the couples wanted anything more from the Jewish community. The answer is an unqualified “yes.” They want a great deal more: courses in Judaism and the observance of holidays; interfaith learners’ Shabbat dinners, and trips to Israel. They want to learn how to choose a welcoming synagogue and find a conversion class. They want Jewish cooking classes, and, my favorite answer, “challah bread home delivery service.”

The results of this study, although limited, suggest that these workshops can be an effective entry-level outreach program for interfaith couples — the first step on their journey. They provide opportunities to incorporate interfaith couples and families into the greater Jewish community.

Marion L. Usher is creator of “Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners. She is a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the George Washington School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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