Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we often talk about Jewish communities trying alternative structures to welcome in more families and individuals. Whether it be for High Holiday tickets, Shabbat services, Hebrew school, or by implementing our Public Space JudaismSM model. In Newton, Massachusetts, one school is indeed functioning in an alternative format. Instead of being attached to a synagogue, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies functions independent of synagogue membership, allowing it to attract a large number of interfaith families. The school also offers students the option of a b’nai mitzvah, some of which take place in local synagogues, but many of which happen in backyards and conference centers.
The Jewish Advocate recently featured an article, “Teaching the lesson of faith(s)” by Elise Kigner (available on-line to subscribers here), about the school, which maintains a traditional Sunday School curriculum focusing on learning Hebrew as well as studying Torah and Jewish culture, says director Dori Stern. She goes on to say “I try to give them an experience that is fun and traditional.” The article also describes one interfaith family’s decision to send their children to the school instead of join a traditional synagogue:
“Marjie McDaniel said she and her husband Eamon, who isn’t Jewish, explored joining a local Reform temple when their kids were young. The Natick couple was put off, however, when they learned there were restrictions on how much a non-Jewish spouse could participate in services… The Sunday School, however, felt right. It was a place where kids could get a Jewish education, without them joining a temple. And the Sunday School services feel comfortable for her husband.”
When an interfaith family decides to raise their children Jewish, we like to say that this creates a Jewish family where there would not have been one. It is then the responsibility of the Jewish community to welcome these families in and give them the tools and resources to do so. By creating an environment in which interfaith families feel not just welcome, but comfortable, the Sunday School of Jewish Studies is breaking down some of the barriers we so often discuss in our work, such as cost and inclusiveness, and opening their tent in new and innovative ways.