“You’re welcome.” It’s a simple phrase that peppers polite conversation, but it’s not always how the growing number of interfaith families in the New York Jewish community feel in Jewish institutions. Earlier this year, UJA-Federation of New York gave out 10 grants to a diverse group of local synagogues and other Jewish organizations to support their efforts to welcome and engage interfaith families.

HIR interfaith families UJA-Federation
A child decorating a challah cover at one of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale's programs for interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews.

The number of interfaith couples and children of interfaith families in the New York area has grown in recent years, according to the 2011 New York Jewish Community Study. “Some of these families have already been attracted and welcomed into vibrant and meaningful aspects of Jewish life, others are curious about entering the community,” says Rebecca Katz-White, a planning executive on UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People, which allocated the grants. “We need to offer a clear path into the Jewish community.”

Families gather at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), one of the grant recipients, to braid dough for challah, cut wicks for beeswax candles, and learn Shabbat songs. It’s “a very DIY Shabbat experience,” says Rabbi Ari Hart. “It allows Shabbat to be something that’s personal that they’ve invested in and built together with their families and their communities.”

The program serves people from many backgrounds — not just interfaith families, but unaffiliated Jews as well. “One of the challenges has been to make these programs really welcoming for every person, who each brings their own story to the Shabbat table,” Hart says. That group of people can range from a spouse who was raised Catholic and feels unfamiliar with Jewish rituals to an Israeli who had negative experiences with religion growing up. “This program is about honoring every person’s story and making sure there’s a place at the table for every person,” Hart says.

While some programs focus on Shabbat and holiday celebrations, others, like the one at Kehilat Romemu on the Upper West Side, address the complexities that parents in interfaith families face. Reverend Eleanor Harrison Bregman leads the program, and she is particularly well equipped for the role, having had many of these discussions with her husband Peter, who is Jewish. “I think it’s helpful for people to see how we wrestle with the issues that arise, that we bring a lot of integrity to it,” she says. “It’s not easy, but it’s manageable and doable.”

Who Is an Interfaith Family?

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Interfaith families UJA-Federation
Children at an HIR program celebrating Purim.

In five short years, the Forest Hills Jewish Center (FHJC) has seen a significant increase in the number of interfaith families in the community. But a big part of that change came from widening the definition of what they thought of as an interfaith family. In that time, a number of congregants became grandparents to children of interfaith marriages.

These new grandparents “felt compelled to be the transmitter of Jewish tradition,” says Lynn Lancaster, director of FHJC’s religious school. “We started looking at interfaith as being a much broader bite of our population.”

Through chicken soup Shabbats and holiday programs, like a visit from a traveling matzah factory around Passover, the synagogue is trying to create an atmosphere that is welcoming and accessible for interfaith families and people with limited Jewish background knowledge. We’d like people to “come into the building, eat something sweet, get a little bit of Judaism, sing a song, meet some friends, and say they can’t wait to come back for the next one of these,” says Deborah Gregor, FHJC’s executive director.

In some ways, the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, a UJA-Federation network agency, has a similar goal for its program, but is approaching it the opposite way. There are many interfaith families in the North Williamsburg neighborhood where it recently opened a satellite site, and rather than try to get them into a synagogue or community center, the Y has been organizing events in people’s homes and in public spaces like libraries and hotel rooftops.

“For some of them, this is really their reintroduction to Judaism and to the community in a really nonthreatening way,” says Daniel Zeltser, assistant executive director at the Kings Bay Y. “For others, this is really their first engagement [with the community].”