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What Works: Ideas & Initiatives

Innovative Interfaith Initiatives

In 2004, Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington D.C. wrote a Rosh Hashanah sermon exploring the parallels between women in Jewish society during antiquity (who were not considered full citizens, counted in a minyan, but neither were they viewed as Roman pagans) and non-Jewish spouses in synagogue society today. “Sometimes we count [non-Jewish spouses] as if they are Jewish, and sometimes as if they are not Jewish,” Rabbi Zemel explains. “They’re the group that falls in between the cracks.”

After his sermon Rabbi Zemel decided to invite all of the temple’s non-Jewish spouses to his home to talk more about “where [they] fit in Jewish society.” Nearly 30 men and women attended. The first meeting led to others, where the group learned about Jewish holidays, rituals, and history; discussed identity roles; and came to understand how they could participate more actively without overstepping boundaries.

Interestingly, after two and a half years the initial group evolved—on their own accord—into a conversion class.

Rabbi Zemel plans to start a new group for non-Jewish spouses this fall.

On Yom Kippur morning in 2005, while reading an adaptation of Rabbi Janet Marder’s blessing appreciating non-Jewish spouses, Rabbi Brian Michelson of Reform Congregation Oheb Sholom in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania thought, What else can we do? He then launched “Three Evenings with the Rabbi,” a program designed to “offer non-Jewish spouses the opportunity for honest dialogue and support.”

The initiative was a success: About 15 spouses participated in three 90-minute sessions as well as two family events—a barbeque and a Chanukah celebration. Limiting the group to non-Jewish spouses helped create a safe space for participants to talk openly, honestly, and respectfully about such things as whether or not they could be buried in a Jewish cemetery and how they could and could not participate in Jewish ritual life (for example, at Congregation Oheb Sholom a non-Jewish parent is welcome to ascend the bimah when his/her child is given an aliyah, but is not given the honor of saying the blessings).

Rabbi Michelson hopes to continue the program in 2010.

Temple Sinai in Washington D.C. reaches interfaith families in a different way: A group of about 10 mothers who were not born Jewish and are raising their children as Jews (some have converted and some not) meet monthly for education and support. It all began in 2007, when a few of these women with children in primary school realized it would have been nice to have had a resource on how to raise their children as Jews and not feel so anonymous in the process.

Developed and sponsored by the Temple Sinai Women of Reform Judaism and led by Rabbi Jessica Oleon, the group aims to be “the Jewish mother [they] didn’t have,” she says, “by providing the songs, blessings, and the untaught traditions that you just absorb through osmosis when you grow up in a Jewish home.”

In its first year, Rabbi Oleon taught the women about Jewish holidays and rituals and answered such questions as, “How do I deal with my Christian parents who don’t support my decision to raise my children as Jews?” The women also supported one another in coming to terms with the loss of “not passing traditions that you grew up with on to your children,” says Laura Govoni-Sibarium, one of the group’s founders.

Now, having completed the curriculum, the women continue to meet as a support group with a much-appreciated clergy presence. “Honoring the commitment—and in some cases the sacrifice—these women make,” says Rabbi Oleon, “has helped them feel visible and important in the congregation.”


Bylaws Treasure Hunt

To familiarize Temple Sinai of Sharon board members with its bylaws, in July 2008, Dana Bottorff, president of the Sharon, Massachusetts congregation, created a game designed to make reading the bylaws document fun. All 30 board members—new and veteran—now play “Bylaws Treasure Hunt” at the temple’s annual board orientation and training session. Teams of four to five players are presented with potential scenarios that, to resolve, require understanding the temple’s “rules of the road.” Each team works to identify the temple bylaws that best provide guidance in handling the situation. One question reads: “A group of dog-loving congregants thinks the temple should start an annual ‘Blessing of the Pets’ service, where they could bring their furry friends to sit, stay, and heel before the Torah. Who gives the paws-up or paws-down?” The fastest team to locate the answer (Article VII: the rabbi is the authority for all ritual matters, in consultation with the temple’s ritual committee) wins.

Competition fuels the game, outlandish scenarios provoke laughter, folks enjoy wrestling with various interpretations of the bylaws, and, most importantly, board members learn. As Bottorff points out, “When leaders are educated in the basic rules, protocols, and minhag (customs) of synagogue governance, it strengthens the congregation.”


Union for Reform Judaism.