It is with a certain amount of pride that I write today’s blog entry. As a native Kansas Citian, I was delighted to read in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle about the various steps the community is taking to welcome the interfaith community into their midst. But the pride is twofold; one of the interfaith couples interviewed for the piece explain how they utilized the resources offered by JOI’s website, read several of our books, and participated in our Mothers Circle program.
As most people reading this are probably aware, intermarriage rates in America hover around fifty percent. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the Kansas City area have tried to find ways to turn this into an opportunity – an opportunity to welcome interfaith couples and add to the rich tapestry of the local Jewish community.
One of the biggest outreach programs run in Kansas City is called Genesis, which was started by Susan Tivol and Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz. The program began nine years ago, and since then nearly 1,500 people have participated in Genesis events and courses. Tivol said the program provides couples with “tools and an opportunity to work through the interpersonal issues that they face in an interfaith marriage.”
Some couples, like Kory Hochler and his wife, who is not Jewish, participated in the program before they were married. He said Genesis was an opportunity to “be more open” and start the interfaith conversation.
“I think that the reality of the times we live in is that interfaith couples are likely to happen, and there’s an understanding in the Jewish community that if you try to exclude them or ostracize them you may lose people who may be vibrant members of the community,” Hochler said.
Genesis also happens to run the local chapter of the Mothers Circle, our program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. This was exactly what Amy Bryant was looking for. She was raised and remains a Methodist, but decided with her husband Jordan that they would raise their children Jewish. They moved to Kansas City two years ago, and Amy signed up for the Mothers Circle.
“These are women we feel we owe a big thank-you to that they have committed themselves to raising Jewish children in a household with a Jewish partner,” said Tamara Lawson Schuster, Genesis program coordinator.
Some of the congregations in the Kansas City area have also taken steps to include interfaith couples in synagogue rituals, especially Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Though there are restrictions on non-Jews participating in ritual acts such as reading the Torah blessings, congregations try to include both members of the couple in life-cycle events.
“We expect both parents to participate in the passing down of the Torah – after all, in the majority of families, both parents have determined that the child is receiving Judaism as their faith and culture, so we want both parents to participate in the symbolic passing of the Torah to their child,” said Rabbi Vered Harris of Congregation Beth Torah. “This has caused tears for some parents; they have been so moved by the acceptance and validations of their commitment to their child’s Jewish identity, regardless of their own spiritual journey.”
But reform temples in Kansas City are not the only ones working to create an inclusive atmosphere. Conservative synagogue Beth Shalom (where my family has held membership for six generations) will soon start a program called Keruv (Outreach). This program will address “non traditional family units, who are committed to maintaining an interfaith relationship and want to maintain a connection with Judaism.”
Rabbi Alan Cohen, who is stepping down after 19 years at the helm of Beth Shalom, said of the Keruv project: “The congregation is very eager to establish programs and a plan and make interfaith couples feel as comfortable as possible within the synagogue.”
These are all tremendous steps towards growing and strengthening the Kansas City Jewish community. I am proud to have come from such a warm and welcoming community, and I’m sure these programs will continue to draw in people seeking an environment of acceptance.