Denver Opens its Doors to Interfaith Families

It’s interesting to see the many ways that communities react to the growing number of intermarried families. Are they welcoming them in, or turning them away? And if they are welcoming, what are their methods? What actions are they taking to engage these families and include them in the Jewish community?

These were the questions covered by Margaret Jackson in a recent article in the Denver Post. According to the 2007 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community Study, the Jewish population has grown 33 percent in the last decade. While that is cause for celebration, they are not immune from the national trend of rising intermarriage, which grew from 39 percent to 53 percent in that same decade. That number puts them at just about the national average, and it is “requiring Jewish leaders to take a hard look at how their community deals with interfaith couples in its quest to preserve its identity.”

The article starts with a story we hear all too often, where a synagogue won’t let the interfaith couple become members. Gary and Aimee Wagner could participate in all the synagogue activities, they were told, but Aimee, a “non-practicing Catholic,” could not officially become a member. Even though they had decided to maintain a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family, the synagogue chose to keep them segregated. Luckily they found a congregation to welcome them in. But this was not an isolated incident, and such refusal will only cause some families to disengage from the Jewish community. And once they are disengaged, the chance their children will be raised Jewish drops dramatically.

“Intermarriage isn’t going away,” said Rabbi Steven Foster of Congregation Emanuel. “We have to respond to it in a way Jews haven’t done before.”

Denver is focusing on engagement, since that is the best way to ensure Jewish continuity. One organization working towards this end is Judaism Your Way. They try to find alternative ways to connect interfaith families with the community and the religion. There is also Stepping Stones, started by Rabbi Foster, which tries to support and educate interfaith couples and their families. It’s wonderful to read about a community taking such a strong initiative in opening their doors to the growing number of interfaith families, and maybe one day Denver will take on some signature JOI programs like Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth, or Grandparents Circle. These could help give interfaith families even more entry points to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Yaakov Meyer of the orthodox congregation Aish Denver, which also welcomes intermarried couples, brings up a legitimate concern when he says it’s “extremely difficult to raise children Jewish if one parent is not.” But we have an answer – inclusion. Don’t push families away because one parent has a different religious background. Welcome them in, and they will want to be a part of the community. Sometimes it really is just that simple.

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