The personal stories of interfaith family members led to heart-to-heart connections for many of the clergy, lay leaders, and Jewish communal professionals attending UJA-Federation of New York’s forum on engaging interfaith families held June 19th.

Engaging Interfaith Families
From left, Barbara McGlamery, Denise Nadboy, Amy Lipin, Naomi Sharp, and Travis Epes at panel discussion during the forum on engaging interfaith families.

More than 200 conference participants representing more than 60 Jewish community centers, synagogues, Hillels, schools, and other agencies convened at UJA-Federation headquarters to ground their learning with text study, the words of those who live in interfaith families, and experts who illuminated the interfaith landscape in both the Jewish community and nationally.

“Engaging interfaith families is of critical importance to our organizations and synagogues and we have to enable our community to benefit from the wisdom of these families,” said Alisa Levin, chair of UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People. “UJA-Federation is bringing the best resources to bear to make this possible,” Levin said, including a new grant program.

Five members of interfaith families active in Jewish life shared their experiences on a panel moderated by Howard J. Rubin, a member of UJA-Federation’s Engaging Interfaith Families Committee. Their insights reflected a wide range of perspectives, including how grandparents and clergy can play an important role.

“My parents were Christian, but we never went to church, and religion was never spoken about,” explained Denise Nadboy, a mother of young children who teaches ecology at the day camp of Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center, a UJA-Federation network agency. “When I met my husband, I knew I wanted to raised our family Jewish so my children could embrace something I never had.”

Amy Lipin received 16 years of Catholic education in a religiously observant home, and she was not sure she could raise a Jewish child and her husband did not want to raise a Catholic child, she said. But with further study and exposure to Jewish life, Lipin said, “I chose to raise my children Jewish, as opposed to nothing, so they would have the sense of belonging I had.”

Lipin’s involvement at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, as she participated in raising a Jewish family, led her to choose Judaism herself, and she now leads the synagogue’s inclusion and outreach work.

Travis Epes, who now chairs UJA-Federation of New York’s Autism Task Force, noted that for him and his wife, raising a special needs child became more of a focus than being an interfaith family.

Initiatives to Engage Interfaith Families
These experiences, as well as those of participants on other panels, set the tone of the day’s conversation that explored ways the Jewish community can more actively engage interfaith families in Jewish life. Several speakers told of their initiatives, supported by UJA-Federation, doing just that.

“We help synagogues and organizations of all denominations look at the needs of interfaith families,” Eva Stern, senior director of training at the Jewish Outreach Institute. The needs vary from families wanting to feel welcomed to those wanting specific programs on how to raise a Jewish child, she said.

The Jewish Outreach Institute, she said, is now training Jewish leaders and communal professionals on how to “create compelling entry points for interfaith families, how to lower barriers and create participant-centered, content rich access that expresses the rich Jewish tradition and builds relationships.”

Technology also can play an important role in engaging interfaith families.

Daniel Septimus, CEO and editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning, Inc. spoke of how, a website for parents of Jewish children from newborn to age five, has an audience made up of 28 percent interfaith families.

“We launched in 2010 and this would not have been possible without UJA-Federation,” Septimus said, and noted that the blog component of the site creates deep connections for many readers. “We are planning to add two new bloggers from interfaith families.”

Hindy Poupko, executive director of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, spoke about how the council, together with UJA-Federation, is making the GrapeVine app available to the New York Jewish community. This app will increase access to information about Jewish life, especially for interfaith families who may not feel comfortable contacting Jewish organizations.

“GrapeVine helps connect people to the Jewish community by making recommendations about Jewish events and programs in the area,” she said.

To further develop innovative ways to engage interfaith families in Jewish life, UJA-Federation is making available new $10,000 grants to support additional projects.

“We are funding grants for synagogues, organizations, and network agencies to try new projects,” said Rebecca Katz-White of UJA-Federation. “Be bold! There are all sorts of interfaith families at different stages of their journey who are looking to find a way in and be part of the community and we’re looking to support a wide range of people, including couples, new families, and grandparents.”

Katz-White said the requests for proposals are due by Wednesday, July 3rd and decisions will be made by August.

Religious Landscape of Intermarriage
The conference — funded by the Himan Brown Charitable Trust — also featured a roundtable of academics and experts in the field, moderated by Eric Seiler, chair of the Engaging Interfaith Families Committee.

Pearl Beck, director of Geographic Studies, “The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” shared that the overall intermarriage rate in the eight-county New York area of the study is 22 percent, the same rate as in 2002, but that the percentage of all couples, excluding Orthodox Jews, who intermarried in the last five years is 50 percent.

Beth Cousens, an educational consultant, shared her insights about working with Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s. “Engagement connects people to Judaism where and who they are. They want to know what Judaism holds for them, they want help to own their Jewish life,” Cousens said. “We need to start with the person and focus on their needs, not on our programs or our institutions.”

Conference participants also attended workshops exploring ways that pioneering New York synagogues and agencies engage new interfaith couples, families with children, and extended families, as well as create an institutional culture that engages interfaith families.