According to the Pew Research Center’s October 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey, 58 percent of Jews marry outside the faith, up from 46 percent in 1990 and 17 percent before 1970.
Those statistics are no different in Metro Detroit, where last year, Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit started an Interfaith Couples Group to ensure that interfaith families can find a warm welcome in the Jewish community, especially during times of importance, such as the High Holidays.
“The High Holidays provide our diverse family with the opportunity to learn more about Jewish religion and culture, develop lasting memories and appreciate our many blessings,” said attorney Jonathan Schwartz, co-chair of the Interfaith Couples group. “My wife, Stacy, has participated in the High Holidays, in one form or another, for over a decade. Sometimes she attends religious services with me and my Grandmother Beverly, but we always make sure to come together in the evening with our extended family and lots of Jewish food.”
The Schwartz family does have criteria for where and with whom they will celebrate. “We do insist that any services we attend are inclusive of different types of families,” Schwartz said. “If interfaith couples and their children are not welcome and embraced, or a rabbi markets him/herself as interfaith-friendly, but still refuses to perform interfaith weddings, count us out.
“In addition,” Schwartz added, “we appreciate services that are understandable to people with varying levels of Jewish religious experience and provide a positive message that challenges us to do something worthwhile with our lives.”
Schwartz’s co-chair at the Interfaith Couples Group, Keith Schonberger, grew up attending High Holiday services with his parents and brother at Temple Beth El. His wife, Tara, was raised in the Presbyterian faith and had never been to a High Holiday service (or any Jewish service, for that matter) until she and Keith started dating.
“At first, there was an unusual feeling about experiencing a High Holiday service with someone who did not understand its significance,” Schonberger said. “Whereas I recognized the importance of these holidays and the opportunities they provide to reflect on our lives, Tara came along because she recognized how important they are to me.
“Over the years, the significance of these holidays has become apparent to her, too,” he added, “and she has become more and more engaged as a result. I have loved experiencing that greater engagement with her.”
FINDING A WARM WELCOME
Thankfully, Schonberger said, he and Tara have found plenty of people and organizations that are very welcoming to interfaith families. This is not the case for everyone, though.
“Many interfaith families do not find a warm welcome and are instead made to feel removed from the community,” he said. “Eventually, they may lose all connection to Judaism.”
That is one reason why he and Schwartz believe it is so important to grow the conversation about interfaith inclusion. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do that and to otherwise work toward a more inclusive Jewish community for interfaith families,” Schonberger said.
Through his work with Federation’s Interfaith Couples Mission to Israel and the couples’ group, Schwartz said he’s learned how many other local interfaith couples have navigated the High Holidays, including the challenges that can arise.
“Having a supportive family, friends you can talk to, forward-thinking religious leadership and a welcoming local Jewish community all help to create positive, meaningful and lasting Jewish experiences for interfaith couples during the High Holidays and beyond,” Schwartz said. “Conversely, an absence of these factors has far too often led to disillusionment and estrangement of both the Jewish and non-Jewish partner from Judaism.”
Schonberger said that he and Tara, as an interfaith couple, don’t experience any challenges specific to the High Holidays. “On the contrary, and as with other Jewish holidays throughout the year, we do not have to reach compromises about how to spend our time, such as at which temple we will attend services or with whose parents we will enjoy a holiday meal or, most uncomfortably, whose mother makes the better brisket,” he said.
“Rather, the challenges we face are more generalized, such as those borne from the belief that interfaith marriage is harmful to the continuity of the Jewish people,” he continued. “We have learned that some people entertain little to no conversation about interfaith inclusion. This affects how we contemplate our two sons’ Jewish identities and how their lives will take shape in our community.”
Schwartz encourages interfaith couples who have had bad experiences in the past to reach out to the Interfaith Couples Group for support, resources and to get plugged back in. “Because this is their Jewish community as much as anyone else’s,” he said.
Schonberger echoes that sentiment. “I hope the work we do through the Interfaith Couples Group helps to strengthen existing connections for some and cause a meaningful reconnect for others,” he said. “Much more importantly, however, I hope that we all, as individuals and as part of a greater whole, take a moment during the upcoming High Holidays to consider how we can each continue to grow the conversation.”
By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor