Program reaches out to intermarried men
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Program reaches out to intermarried men

Avodat Shalom uses JOI syllabus to get men talking

Intermarried couples can’t always predict the challenges they will face, says River Edge resident Russell Sagerman. But sometimes it helps to talk with others in the same situation.

That is the premise behind the recently concluded program for intermarried men held at Temple Avodat Shalom. Dubbed “How Should I Know” and targeted to Jewish men with non-Jewish partners, the venture was created by the Jewish Outreach Institute.

“The project was funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant … so we committed to piloting the program in northern New Jersey, an area we felt would benefit from the program,” said Liz Offenbach, program director of JOI. (The Berrie Fellows program is administered by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.)

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Rabbi Neal Borovitz

A previous segment, for non-Jewish men with Jewish partners, was held in the fall. Members of both groups belong to Avodat Shalom, though the programs were originally advertised to the entire community.

“It gave us the opportunity to give answers to people who needed them,” said Sagerman of the most recent program, which brought together 10 intermarried Jewish men. “It’s not so easy to go to somebody and ask for help. But when you’re sitting at a table having coffee with a group of people who have things in common,” it’s much easier to do.

Sagerman, who serves on the Temple Avodat board and is active in the shul’s religious activities committee, served as program facilitator, “staying as close to the JOI syllabus as we could.”

Still, said the group leader, who is himself intermarried, the group “seemed to find a life of its own in terms of what direction it wanted to go.”

The curriculum, he said, spurred “inclusive and sharing discussion,” and it was clear that the group did not respond as readily to structured activities – such as writing on flip charts – as it did to verbal interchange.

Nevertheless, said Sagerman of the JOI syllabus, “it got things moving.”

Participants came from a wide range of religious backgrounds, said the facilitator, adding that a number of them were involved in both interreligious and interracial marriages.

“It brought up some very interesting individual hurdles for them to get over,” he said. One member is married to an Asian woman, another to a Hindu. Some are married to Christian women raised in very religious families, while others are married to Christian women who gave up religion at an early age.

“It’s very interesting to hear about other people’s experiences,” said Sagerman, adding that the group suggested to one participant, married to a practicing Roman Catholic, that he bring his daughter to the shul’s Purim carnival in order to expose her to Jewish practice.

The question, Sagerman said, is “How does he impart the influence of his Jewish culture?” One answer is “making our synagogue a ‘haimish’ kind of place where a child wants to go.” Group members also suggested that the father begin a family ritual of lighting Shabbat candles and making challah with his daughter.

Rather than categorize group members by age, Sagerman said it was more helpful to look at the ages of their children, ranging from preschool age to fully grown.

The goal of the program, he said, “was to assist people in this demographic in dealing with the challenges of having a Jewish home and raising kids in a Jewish environment.”

The syllabus got the ball rolling by asking participants to tell their “Jewish stories,” creating a timeline of significant Jewish events in their lives. In another session, attendees were asked “Why be Jewish?” and were asked to choose from a variety of options.

“We got a diverse number of reasons,” said Sagerman. “One of the last things was spirituality. There was a much stronger connection to family and tradition than to anything else. ”

The facilitator said holidays and family gatherings were cited often. In addition, some men said they were the last to bear their family name and “felt a responsibility to their heritage on both a personal and larger level.”

Another shared value was food, he said, and some men asked whether they should be the “Jewish cook” in their family.

While anti-Semitism was not listed among the JOI options, it still came up quite a bit in discussion, said Sagerman.

The group leader noted that while “we didn’t become a support group, there was a lot of support there.” The group that met last fall did become a support group, he said, and now meets once a month.

Sagerman, who noted that feedback from participants was “absolutely positive,” said he has provided his own feedback to JOI and hopes there will be future programs of this kind. He pointed out that questions remain to be discussed, such as how to deal with children whose extended families are of mixed faiths, even when their parents are not.

Participant Michael Chakansky of River Edge said the group was valuable because “we talked about problems and how to solve them.”

In some cases, he said, men with younger children were made aware of challenges they might face as their children grow older.

“We told them things we’ve tried,” he said. “Anytime you get people to talk, it’s positive. It breaks down some of the isolation. It lets people know they’re not alone, and it’s a platform to exchange ideas.”

Chakansky said some of the issues raised transcend interfaith marriages, involving “melding traditions together so they both feel they’re included.”

He said it would be helpful for the shul to offer the program to women as well.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of the synagogue, said he is hoping to pursue additional outreach programs to interfaith families, focusing on women next.

The rabbi said that he and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of JOI, “are talking about writing a proposal for an Adler Innovation Grant so we can reach out into the larger community.”

He noted that his ads for participants “did not work, so I had to recruit participants. Men don’t volunteer for discussion groups. You have to invite them. The challenge is how to reach out to others in the community and invite them as well. It’s not enough to say the door is open. You have to bring them in, in a positive, non-coercive way. That is the challenge we face.”

Borovitz called the JOI research “absolutely amazing and important. I’m proud that the Bergen County Jewish community has come together to work on this and grateful to the Berrie Foundation for funding the development of the program we piloted.”

While it is easy to find fault with the community for things left undone, he said, “sometimes we do things well.”

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