Monday, August 24, 2009

Core Interfaith Programs Hard to Find

The central workshop of interfaith programming is certainly the Couples Discussion Group. The idea has been around for several decades and like mother's milk, it's an old idea that is still good today.

The problem is that there are fewer communities that offer couples discussion groups. Groups are time and labor intensive. It takes money and tenacity to do the marketing, reach the couples, build their trust and get them signed up for a group. Then you have to run it! For seven or eight weeks. That means that a facilitator commits on the order of 14 to 16 hours to 5 to 7 couples. Fees must be kept reasonably low, so these are not money makers for agencies or synagogues.

When I get emails from couples around the country looking for help I look for a couples group. A few months ago I was emailed and then called by a young woman seriously dating a Jewish man. They were in New York City. Of all the cities where you'd expect to find interfaith programming, surely that was the city. Even the 92nd Street Y wasn't offering groups. I turned to my network of colleagues. Since the young man was raised in the Conservative movement I wanted to connect him with a Conservative program or person if possible. Fortunately, Rabbi Charles Simon of the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs told me to send them his way.

But it has been equally hard in Los Angeles and Florida.

My wish is that a national funder would put money into supporting these groups - which provide a vital and powerful experience for the interfaith couple. I would like to see these groups available in every Jewish community.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Comments on the Bronfman Book

Several questions/comments were sent to me about the last post.

1. How did you (Dawn) get the book?
Rosanne Levitt, in a visit to the east coast, spoke with an employee of the Bronfman Foundation. She told the woman about the Alliance’s efforts to support advanced education among Interfaith Outreach workers and was offered several copies of the book.

2. Given that Bronfman didn’t connect with the professionals will you (Dawn) be sharing your thoughts with Bronfman and copying key individuals?
I spoke with the same young man who interviewed a number of us for the Foundation about a year ago, Ben Greene. Other key individuals in the work would be YOU ALL!

3. I have begun reading the book but have not found it compelling.
As a professional in this field you will find that the material in the book is already well known to you. In fact we discussed some of this in our Think Tank last September 2008. The book is basically a layperson’s survey of current data. The good news is that we can hope that more people will read and learn some of this basic information. The bad news is that, as a novice, his deductions are not always on target.

Two more thoughts
Perceptions of interfaith couples/families
One problem is that Bronfman uses his intermarried son to gain insight. This is a very common error: The survey of one. You now have a single individual’s experience representing a huge population. This is frequent in our line of work. A parent sees their child intermarry and it impacts them. They come to us with an adamant view informed solely by their child. Or an intermarried Jew comes and believes that all interfaith couples’ marriages are just like theirs. It would have been useful had Bronfman then been aware of this and ackn

Level of sophistication
Second, the challenge to those of us who are long time practitioners in this field is that we may feel discouraged by the lack of experience around us. All the more reason that we need to work on developing a more sophisticated and informed professional group.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hope Not Fear - the new book

I recently received a copy of Hope Not Fear by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. The first thing that struck me in reading it was that here is a wealthy man with extensive access to probably anyone he wanted to interview and yet he did not speak to a single individual who is currently working in outreach to interfaith couples. He spoke to people who do a lot of talking about it, to people who do outreach that happens to include interfaith couples, but no one who does this for a living. The closest he came was Dru Greenwood who used to run the Union for Reform Judaism's Outreach Department. But Dru has been gone several years.

What this tells me is that Professional Interfaith Outreach is so far under the radar that even Bronfman couldn't find it.

What does this mean?

First I think it reflects the community's continued ambivalence towards the entire issue of interfaith marriage. We are afraid that any effort might give permission to intermarry. So we don’t fund ongoing, strong programs. Thus no programs emerge onto the general community landscape and consciousness. How many programs have we seen open and close?

In this environment very few professionals continue to work in the field for more than five years. Therefore, no experience is developed, no institutional memory is sustained. Programs are constantly run by novices. I could count on my two hands the professionals that have done this work continuously for more than 10 years.

If you were going in for surgery would you want a doctor who was making it up as he/she went along or would you prefer someone who had actually done your procedure hundreds of times on hundreds of different people?

Until we transcend fear and begin to believe that we as a community will survive, we will continue to have programs that rotate in and out of existence with staff that lack experience sufficient to address the needs and challenges of this growing population.