JFS focuses on Jewish men in interfaith relationships

JFS focuses on Jewish men in interfaith relationships

Effort is funded by Berrie Innovation Grant

The challenges facing interfaith families are more than just deciding between church and Chinese food on Christmas day. Often, the Jewish partner doesn’t have the answers to his or her spouse’s questions, and Judaism can disappear from the home because of that.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is partnering with Jewish Family Service of North Jersey to launch “How Should I Know?” geared toward Jewish men in interfaith relationships. The three-session program, which will begin in October at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne, is meant to strengthen both partners’ knowledge of Judaism and spur them to create a Jewish home, organizers said.

“It’s focused on the assumption that Jewish partners in interfaith relationships have all of the answers to their non-Jewish partners’ questions,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Manhattan-based JOI. “That’s an erroneous assumption. What this program does is help the Jewish partner prepare to answer the questions that their non-Jewish partner would have about basic Judaism.”

“How Should I Know?” is meant to empower Jewish men in interfaith relationships, says Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey. Courtesy JFS of North Jersey

The sessions will include discussion on why be Jewish, how to create a Jewish home, how to articulate to a non-Jewish spouse the desire to create a Jewish home, how to handle lifecycle events, and how to address holidays – both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Traditionally women tend to be the ones to focus on the religious aspects within the home,” said Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey. “Through this JOI initiative we’re helping men find their own voices and be able to articulate what they would like to see.”

JFS held an outreach program in Fair Lawn last year for parents of adult intermarried children. That program attracted 15 participants and more on a waiting list. Kaufman isn’t sure what kind of response the JOI program will receive but she is hopeful

“We felt through JFS we can provide Jewish men who are in these interfaith relationships with the education and support they need, provide them with some tools, and help them navigate the issues that obviously come up with interfaith marriages,” Kaufman said.

JOI received a Berrie Innovation Grant last year from the Berrie Fellows Network, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, that went toward development of its “For the Men” initiative, targeting men in interfaith marriages. In addition to “How Should I Know?” the initiative includes “The Nuts and Bolts of Raising Jewish Children,” with such topics as becoming a Jewish role model, holiday and lifecycle celebrations, and how to answer questions about life, death, and God.

Earlier this year, JOI held a pilot program of “How Should I Know?” in Indianapolis, Ind., which received positive feedback, according to Olitzky. If the Wayne pilot is successful, JOI will circulate the program nationwide.

“Our goal is always to provide low-barrier access to programming, particularly for those interfaith families but also for those unengaged by the Jewish community in general,” Olitzky said. “This is a reflection of the increasing openness that the Jewish community is showing to interfaith families, and I welcome that change in attitude and approach.”

JFS hopes to repeat the program if it is successful, according to Kaufman. Because of the Berrie Grant there is no charge to participants for the pilot program. If JOI cannot provide funding for future programs, JFS will continue the program on its own, Kaufman said.

“We’re just very excited to be able to partner with JOI, especially on this new initiative,” she said. “There is a need for it in the community and I hope this will be successful.”

For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111. For more information on “How Should I Know?” call Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at (973) 595-0111.

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