By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Rabbi Malka Packer

Rabbi Malka Packer

Interfaith couples and families have a new resource to help them live Jewishly without being judged.

“I don’t tell people what to do,” said Reconstructionist Rabbi Malka Packer, who brought the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative to town June 1 as the first director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta.

Atlanta is the sixth community to launch the program since 2011, after Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Washington is due to start in July.

“We are dedicated to creating a welcoming and inclusive community for all to participate in Jewish life,” said Jodi Bromberg, the CEO of InterfaithFamily, which began as a one-stop online resource in 2002.

Interfaith marriage has been seen as the prime challenge for American Jewry for decades. Studies have found that the children of such marriages are unlikely to raise Jewish children themselves. In the Atlanta area, Federation’s last comprehensive community study, conducted nearly a decade ago, found not only 120,000 Jews, but also 30,000 non-Jews living in their households.

Atlanta was chosen to be the sixth InterfaithFamily site in part because of its demographics and in part because of local financial support for the program from Federation, the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation, and the Marcus Foundation.

InterfaithFamily’s approach, driven by data and by continual evaluation of programs, is to present a supportive community for interfaith families rather than offer criticism or guilt.

The model established in other cities calls for:

  • Offering community-building and Jewish learning experiences to help families engage in Jewish life at home and in the community.
  • Advising people on connecting with one another and Jewish Atlanta.
  • Training Jewish organizations and professionals on welcoming interfaith families.
  • Connecting interfaith couples to clergy for lifecycle events and counseling.

Rabbi Packer said she can be “independent and entrepreneurial” in how she applies those general approaches to meet Atlanta’s specific needs.

She said the Reconstructionist rabbi in her comes out when halachic matters come up. She wants to help people be mindful and intentional in how they approach issues such as kashrut.

“What does it mean to you? What’s the intent behind kosher laws?” Rabbi Packer said. “It’s not my job to judge.”

Throughout, the intention is to be welcoming, maybe even as warm and welcoming as she has found Atlanta, her first Southern home (her partner grew up in Memphis). She acknowledged that the task of launching InterfaithFamily here would have been easier for someone who knew the community.

It’s a big job. She has to get to know the community well enough to make referrals for families who need clergy. She has to conduct training so that, for example, a day school teacher will know how to respond if a student mentions having a Christmas tree at home. She has to work social media and maintain the InterfaithFamily/Atlanta website. And she has to be available to provide requested counseling and other services — she already has two weddings lined up and is eager to perform same-sex ceremonies if the Supreme Court topples Georgia’s ban on such marriages.

She’s hiring a project manager to help with the work, and she has support from the national InterfaithFamily organization.

Rabbi Packer, who grew up in the Conservative movement, has a master’s in elementary education and creative arts in learning from Lesley University and worked as a Jewish educator for a decade before going to the Reconstructionist seminary. After her ordination in 2014, she served as a rabbinic adviser at Vassar College.

“Malka clearly has a passion for building an inclusive Jewish community and creatively using tradition to create rituals that are relevant to people’s lives,” said Rebecca Hoelting Short, an InterfaithFamily board member who lives in Atlanta.

Despite coming from upstate New York, Rabbi Packer was enjoying the mid-90s heat in mid-June, saying, “I just love it here.”

Her job this summer isn’t all fun and games, but it’s as close as it can be. She is meeting with as many community members as possible to learn about the needs and the existing services and programs and said she is receiving nothing but enthusiastic responses.

It’s important that rabbis and other community leaders understand that InterfaithFamily is not competing with them. Rabbi Packer is looking for partners. She is starting with the easy matches — Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, SOJOURN, Jewish Family & Career Services — and is hopeful about the Conservative and unaffiliated rabbis. She’s also happy to meet with Orthodox leaders and won’t try to change about interfaith relationships.

She’s living in Virginia-Highland but hasn’t opened an actual InterfaithFamily office yet. Deciding where she should be based is part of her learning process, and she has time.

“I really see this as long term,” she said about her job in Atlanta. “I’m ready to settle down somewhere.”