Over coffee, Debra shared a story of unexpected heartbreak. After five years together, she and her partner had become engaged. She was thrilled to call a synagogue for an officiant. When the secretary asked whether Debra’s partner was Jewish, and she replied, “Yes,” the secretary exclaimed, “Mazel tov!”
Debra hung up, feeling hurt, sad and confused because, while her partner is Jewish, she is not.
They were later married by a justice of the peace.
She described these experiences to me soon after I moved south to work as the director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta in 2015. She asked for guidance 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 to Jewish engagement in Atlanta, particularly for people who are unsure where to start and how to begin. I meet regularly with people who identify as interfaith, LGBTQ, singles, engaged, parents and people with limited means and help them along their Jewish journeys.
I hear all too often, “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 go about it.”
Sure, I may be a relative newcomer to Atlanta, but through InterfaithFamily, the leading national experts in the field, I have 15 years of research and experience to rely on. And from my vantage point serving the interfaith community, I’m not surprised by data in the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta‘s 2016 community study.
People here have a lot of unmet expectations — a true craving for Jewish community and connection. Nearly half (46 percent) of interfaith respondents say they’re not as involved in Jewish life as they would like to be. And 69 percent of people in interfaith relationships said they wish their local community had more interfaith programming.
While there’s an appetite for Jewish life, unfortunately many times interfaith families and couples don’t feel welcomed or included. Only 13 percent of Federation’s respondents in interfaith relationships strongly agree that they feel part of a Jewish community in metro Atlanta vs. 49 percent of people who are “inmarried” (both partners identify as Jewish).
The top reasons why interfaith couples don’t feel connected include not feeling welcomed and not connecting with people at programs and events. Only 18 percent of people in interfaith relationships strongly stated that their most recent experience made them want to attend another Jewish event or activity.
When I meet with interfaith couples and share the work that I do, I often hear: “We can’t believe you are here doing this work! We need this in Atlanta. We’ve felt so alone. There hasn’t been anyone to talk to. How can we get more involved?” I’ve heard too many stories of Jews and their loved ones feeling shame, pain and loss as they try to connect to Jewish life.
I’m excited to work with synagogues and other Jewish institutions to tear down barriers to engagement, and I especially hope to serve as a resource to help avoid inadvertently alienating the very people who want to connect. I offer creative, positive, nonjudgmental, discreet, behind-the-scenes support and programming to strengthen outreach. Often all it takes is a subtle adjustment to existing communication and marketing.
Building an inclusive, welcoming presence takes care and thoughtfulness, but it isn’t rocket science. Federation’s study reveals that respondents in interfaith relationships want to meet other interfaith couples and families and are looking for places where their choices in partners and how they connect to Judaism are not judged. Interfaith couples are more likely to seek social programming in their community and are also more interested in the expansion of worship opportunities, both traditional and nontraditional.
I have been excited and stunned by the response to the low-barrier events we offer to the interfaith community — programs that are easy and comfortable for anyone to join. We meet people where they are. We celebrate and honor diversity and difference.
We want everyone to feel welcome, regardless of background, knowledge and choices of how to connect to Jewish life. Whenever there are prayers or blessings, we always provide the transliteration and translations so anyone can follow. We keep the costs low or free. Our goal is radical hospitality. And we hope more Jewish organizations will follow our example.
At InterfaithFamily, we are creating various opportunities to partner with Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, synagogues and organizations. It’s a fun and effective way to address a need highlighted in the Federation report for more integration of Jewish organizations and to build positive connections among the many institutions that tend to focus on their own membership.
In 2016, we threw a party called Promukkah, a prom-themed Chanukah party at our office space at Ponce City Market. We provided dance music, a photo booth, a corsage/boutonnière-making station, and delicious, kosher catered food.
This intergenerational event, co-sponsored with eight local Jewish organizations — Federation, Limmud, Moishe House, SOJOURN, the Sixth Point, AAspire, Be’chol Lashon and the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival — attracted a crowd of over 100 wearing prom gowns, fancy suits and lots of sequins.
One gentleman wore his father’s wedding tux. A delightful gay male couple in their 70s wore light-up tuxedos and lighted up the room with their joyful grins. We plan to make this an annual event.
You wouldn’t think that popcorn, gobstoppers and candy drops are a route to connecting new people to Jewish life. Yet that’s precisely what we’re trying, building on data in Federation’s report about keen interest in Jewish cultural events and gatherings. We’re finalizing plans for an outdoor Shabbatluck co-sponsored by In the City Camp, Jewish Kids Groups, PJ Library and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. This potluck gathering in Historic Fourth Ward Park on Sept. 8 will feature tasty treats, a children’s movie and Shabbat blessings.
For Shavuot on Tuesday, May 30, we are hosting at our offices a justice-focused night of study co-sponsored by Limmud, Moishe House, Congregation Shearith Israel, Congregation Bet Haverim and SOJOURN. Options for learning sessions that evening include self-care and prayer as activism, traditional prayer services, racial justice and relating to the other, yoga, and chanting.
Let’s work together to welcome the many individuals and families who make Jewish Atlanta stronger and more vibrant. Let’s find creative ways to make sure interactions with interfaith couples end not in tears and disconnection, but in a growing and dynamic reflection of our beautifully diverse community.
Rabbi Malka Packer is the founding director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta, a Jewish nonprofit organization that empowers and supports interfaith couples and families. She serves on the boards for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and MACoM (Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah).