By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

“It is not interfaith families that we fear; it’s indifference,” Jodi Bromberg, the CEO of InterfaithFamily, said at the conclusion of the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Reality in Philadelphia on Oct. 26.

Studies show that positive engagement with the Jewish community can make all the difference to the sense of connection for interfaith families. And Atlanta’s Jewish community is anything but indifferent.

Atlantans attending the Interfaith Opportunity Summit include (from left) Rabbi Malka Packer, Faye Kimerling, Federation CEO Eric Robbins, Laurel Snyder, Mark Silberman, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Martin Maslia and Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus.

Atlantans attending the Interfaith Opportunity Summit include (from left) Rabbi Malka Packer, Faye Kimerling, Federation CEO Eric Robbins, Laurel Snyder, Mark Silberman, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Martin Maslia and Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus.

Atlanta had a strong showing at the summit, which brought together hundreds of rabbis, communal professionals and lay leaders eager to think about how to support this growing segment of the Jewish community.

The keys, stressed throughout the summit, are personal relationships and approaches.

When she arrived in Atlanta in the summer of 2015, Rabbi Malka Packer, the director of IFF/Atlanta, was contacted by a couple looking for a rabbi to officiate with a priest at their wedding. They had been turned down by several rabbis and were surprised when Rabbi Packer agreed to meet with them.

After a long conversation about their hopes and Rabbi Packer’s vision for an interfaith ceremony, they decided to have her officiate alone. Today the couple is taking a class with Rabbi Packer and exploring how to connect with the Jewish community.

A lunch session co-sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, which celebrates the racial and ethnic diversity within the Jewish community, and Keshet, which advocates LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life, encouraged consideration of the ways interfaith is just the beginning of a more complex set of conversations.

Atlanta’s Sandra Lawson spoke on behalf of Be’chol Lashon. As a queer black woman who was not Jewish, she found a spiritual home at Congregation Bet Haverim. She eventually converted and is studying to be a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Lawson emphasized the value of welcoming people into our community no matter their background or race.

For Mark Silberman, the chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s 2017 Community Campaign, the complexity is a given, “but we have no choice to continue to move forward.”

Attending the summit with Federation CEO Eric Robbins, Silberman said the community commitment is clear, and Federation has a role in bringing people together and serving interfaith populations.

Rabbis Ruth Abusch-Magder (left) and Malka Packer flank rabbinical student Sandra Lawson.

Rabbis Ruth Abusch-Magder (left) and Malka Packer flank rabbinical student Sandra Lawson.

Silberman said multiple constituencies fall under the interfaith rubric: “College kids who come from an interfaith family trying to deal with their Judaism on campus. Young adults not married or with a partner, then of course married interfaith. How about parents who have remarried into interfaith relationships? Plus grandparents who may be interfaith.”

All those groups need services and support.

Silberman sees Atlanta’s synagogues making a concerted effort. So does Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus of The Temple, who attended the conference “to learn more about what is happening nationally in interfaith engagement and to apply it to our work.”

Listening to the national experts, she is reassured that Atlanta is on the right track. Many local institutions are reaching out to interfaith families, and Rabbi Lapidus sees much good in their efforts. “Our community is strengthened when we strive to be inclusive of the diversity that exists in Judaism and our Jewish community.”

The Marcus Foundation is supporting interfaith work locally and nationally and was one of the main sponsors of the summit in Philadelphia.

Atlanta organizations such as Jewish Kids Groups and In the City Camp have a focus on integrating interfaith families.

In the City Camp has included interfaith families since its inception in 2012, but, founder Eileen Price said, sending a representative to the Philadelphia gathering “allowed us to more deeply understand this significant segment of our camp population.”

InterfaithFamily and Honeymoon Israel were singled out as national cutting-edge programs that cater to the needs of interfaith families. Atlanta is one of three communities in the country where both programs are fully in action, better positioning Jewish Atlanta to connect with interfaith couples.

Like Birthright Israel, Honeymoon Israel brings groups to Israel to connect with the country and with each other.

“Honeymoon Israel is on the front lines in engaging young couples with at least one Jewish partner, and Atlanta is one of our pilot communities,” co-founder Avi Rubel said. “We’ve already run two groups of 20 couples each from Atlanta, and we have three couples applying for every spot. Going into 2017, we’re excited to attract hundreds of new couples in Atlanta in exploring how they want to build Jewish families and create Jewish community.”

Rabbi Packer staffed the most recent Honeymoon Israel trip and is working with many of those couples and helping them plug in locally.