Unpacking the Community Study on Interfaith Families


Over coffee, Debra shared a story of unexpected grief. After five years together, she and her partner had become engaged. She was delighted to call a synagogue for an officiant. When the secretary asked if Debra’s partner was Jewish and replied, “Yes”, the secretary exclaimed: “Mazel tov! ”

Debra hung up, feeling hurt, sad and confused because, although her partner is Jewish, she is not.

They were then married by a justice of the peace.

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She described these experiences to me soon after I moved south to work as a director of InterfaithFamily / Atlanta in 2015. She asked for advice on how to find the Jewish institution where they now feel welcomed and even honored as an interfaith couple.

I often act as a concierge for Jewish engagements in Atlanta, especially for people who are unsure of where to start and how to begin. I regularly meet people who identify as interfaith, LGBTQ, single, engaged, parents and people with limited means and I help them along their Jewish journey.

Too often I hear, “We want to get involved in the Jewish community, join a synagogue, meet other interfaith couples like us, but we don’t know how to do it.

Sure, I might be a newcomer to Atlanta, but thanks to InterfaithFamily, the leading national experts in the field, I have 15 years of research and experience to draw on. And from my perspective in serving the interfaith community, I’m not surprised by the data in the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta‘s Community study 2016.

People here have a lot of unfulfilled expectations – a genuine desire for Jewish community and connection. Almost half (46%) of interfaith respondents say they are not as involved in Jewish life as they would like. And 69 percent of people with interfaith relationships said they would like their local community to have more interfaith programs.

Although there is an appetite for Jewish life, unfortunately, quite often interfaith families and couples do not feel welcomed or included. Only 13 percent of Federation respondents in interfaith relations strongly agree that they feel part of a Jewish community in Metro Atlanta compared to 49 percent of “married” people (both partners identify as Jews).

The main reasons why interfaith couples don’t feel connected include not feeling welcomed and not connecting with people during programs and events. Only 18 percent of people with interfaith relationships firmly said their most recent experience made them want to attend another Jewish event or activity.

When I meet interfaith couples and share the work I do, I often hear, “We can’t believe you are here to do this work! We need this in Atlanta. We felt so alone. There was no one to talk to. How can we get more involved? I have heard too many stories of Jews and their loved ones feeling shame, pain and loss as they try to connect with Jewish life.

I am excited to work with synagogues and other Jewish institutions to remove barriers to engagement, and most of all hope to serve as a resource to help avoid inadvertently alienating the very people who wish to connect. I offer creative, positive, non-judgmental, low-key, behind-the-scenes support and programming to build awareness. Often all it takes is a subtle adjustment to existing communication and marketing.

Building an inclusive and welcoming presence takes care and reflection, but it’s not rocket science. The Federation’s study reveals that those interviewed in interfaith relationships want to meet other interfaith couples and families and seek out places where their partner choices and the way they connect to Judaism are not judged. Interfaith couples are more likely to seek out social programs in their community and are also more interested in expanding opportunities for worship, both traditional and non-traditional.

I was excited and stunned by the response to the low barrier events we offer to the interfaith community – easy and comfortable programs for everyone to join. We meet people where they are. We celebrate and honor diversity and difference.

We want everyone to feel welcome, regardless of their background, knowledge, and choices about how to connect with Jewish life. Whenever there are prayers or blessings, we always provide transliteration and translations so everyone can follow. We keep the costs low or free. Our goal is radical hospitality. And we hope that more Jewish organizations will follow our example.

At InterfaithFamily, we create various partnership opportunities with Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, synagogues and organizations. It’s a fun and effective way to address a need highlighted in the Federation’s report for greater integration of Jewish organizations and to build positive connections among the many institutions that tend to focus on their own members.

In 2016, we held a party called Promukkah, a ball-themed Hanukkah party at our offices in Ponce city market. We have provided dance music, a photo booth, a corsage / boutonniere making station, and delicious kosher catering.

This intergenerational event, co-sponsored with eight local Jewish organizations – Federation, Limmud, Moishe House, STAY, the sixth point, AAspire, Be’chol Lachon and the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival – attracted a crowd of over 100 people wearing ball gowns, fancy costumes and lots of sequins.

A gentleman wore his father’s wedding tuxedo. A charming couple of gay men in their 70s wore bright tuxedos and lit the room with their cheerful smiles. We plan to make this an annual event.

You wouldn’t think popcorn, gobstoppers, and candy are a way to connect new people to Jewish life. Yet that is precisely what we are trying, relying on data from the Federation’s report on the keen interest in Jewish cultural events and gatherings. We are finalizing plans for an outdoor Shabbatluck co-sponsored by In the city camp, Jewish children’s groups, PJ Library and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. This potluck gathering in Fourth Quarter Historical Park September 8 will feature tasty treats, a children’s movie and Shabbat blessings.

For Shavuot on Tuesday May 30, we are organizing in our offices a study night focused on justice co-sponsored by Limmud, Moishe House, Congregation Shearith Israel, Bet Haverim Congregation and STAY. Options for learning sessions that evening include self-care and prayer as activism, traditional prayer services, racial justice and relating to others, yoga, and chanting.

Let’s work together to welcome the many individuals and families who make Atlanta’s Jewish community stronger and more vibrant. Let’s find creative ways to ensure that interactions with interfaith couples don’t end with tears and disconnection, but a growing and vibrant reflection of our beautifully diverse community.

Rabbi Malka Packer is the founding director of InterfaithFamily / Atlanta, a Jewish non-profit organization that empowers and supports interfaith couples and families. She sits on the boards of Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and MACOM (Community mikveh of the Atlanta metro).

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