Welcoming Interfaith Families Into Our Religious School
by Irene Bolton
“Welcome to our religious school.” I have said these five words so many times in my career as a Jewish educator. For some families, these words are comforting and connecting. They bring up images of Jewish family tradition and life cycle events. For other families, these words can sound threatening and even stir up doubt and uncertainty. For parents raising Jewish children when one partner is of another faith, enrolling students in religious school can be daunting – even when there has been a long standing agreement and commitment to raise Jewish children.
Our policy regarding religious school enrollment is in line with URJ guidelines and is stated on our school registration form which parents sign. I believe our community is enriched by welcoming interfaith families who have chosen to teach their children Torah. It is my privilege to meet so many wonderful people, who although maintaining their own religion, feel strongly that they can support their children being raised and taught in our congregation. I have so much respect for these individuals who commit to raising Jewish souls.
From the beginning, interfaith families understand that we honor and respect the often difficult decision to choose one faith for their children. We explain that in our school we teach pride in our Jewish identity, but also let students know that helping their non-Jewish parents and extended family celebrate their holidays can be seen as a mitzvah (sacred obligation). It is a way of honoring parents and creating loving relationships. Together, school and home work in partnership to promote respect and understanding.
When the non Jewish parent is worried and asks, “how will I ever be able to support my child’s learning when I don’t know much about Judaism?, I answer, “we’ll do it together—you are not alone!” I point out that they have already begun their part by agreeing to drive carpool, purchase supplies and speak positively about the religious school experience. I inquire if they are willing to be present for family programming. I let them know about teacher emails, our library and the resources available through the internet. In our programming, cooking and recipes are often included as a way of easy entry into Judaism for our interfaith families. “Do you want to learn more,” I ask. “Come and volunteer—see what we do, explore our many resources and meet other parents.” So much of what we do in our congregation is a family experience —- what better way to learn?
So many interfaith families say that what they seek is to feel a genuine sense of belonging. At Temple Beth Or, I believe our families know that our school is a safe, welcoming, reassuring space, and that we want to extend our hand to help all families feel welcome throughout the congregation. Relationship building is a priority. Rabbi, Cantor and I make ourselves available for conversations that support any expressed interest in community building, Jewish learning and Jewish living. It is our way of saying ”welcome—blessed are you who come.”
Irene Bolton is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth Or in the Township of Washington, NJ.
Spotlight on Welcoming Interfaith: This month the URJ is highlighting resources to aid your congregation in actively welcoming interfaith families into your community and encouraging their participation in your congregation. Also see resources for individuals in interfaith families.