Miriam’s Cup: Interfaith Families in Toronto – A Brandeis Study

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Brandeis University’s Center for Modern Jewish Studies has released a study of Interfaith families in Greater Toronto. The project was initiated by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto with the desire to understand the needs and experiences of interfaith families. I have the pleasure of participating in UJA’s Interfaith Working Group, along with a thoughtful and passionate group of rabbis, Jewish professionals, lay leaders and non-Jewish partners of Jews. We have been in conversation in the last several months strategizing how to share the study with different constituencies and how to best offer resources, models and best practices to create a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community across the city. So far, we have presented the study to the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the Downtown Jewish Community Council, the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Community Centres.

Twenty-five years ago, when the founders of the DJC gathered to create a community that was inclusive of interfaith couples and families, there were almost no other communities in Toronto in which these families were met with warmth and welcome. At the time, intermarriage was broadly viewed by the mainstream Jewish community as a crisis in Judaism, an obstruction to the continuity of the Jewish people and a force destroying the Jewish future. These ideas are still held by many in the Jewish world. 

Over the past twenty-five years, Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations have seen that while the percentage of interfaith and intercultural couples and families has grown in this city, as it has throughout North America, intermarriage is not simplistically equated with the rejection of Jewish life. As we know at the DJC, when intermarried couples and families are welcomed, when conversion is an option rather than a requirement, when intermarried couples and particularly non-Jewish partners are supported and encouraged to learn, explore, participate and contribute, the likelihood is significantly higher that those families will want to join Jewish communities and will feel a sense of belonging in them, will celebrate Jewish holydays, mark Jewish lifecycle moments and will want to give their children a Jewish education and identity. 

More and more Jewish leaders are recognizing that their shuls and organizations need to respond to the growing numbers of intermarried couples who are looking for Jewish community and meaningful ways to engage with Jewish life. Although it is not an aim of the study to advocate for particular changes in policies or programming, its findings give a current and realistic picture of  factors that inhibit participation in Jewish life and factors that encourage it.

I think the study is quite exciting.

In many ways, its findings are not new to us but it brings the experiences of the DJC over the last twenty-five years into conversation with both other like-minded communities, mostly downtown, as well as with the larger Toronto Jewish community as it changes. It opens valuable opportunities at the DJC for us to reflect on the insights and important outcomes of our approach to inclusion. This is a useful catalyst for asking how we can take a leadership role in sharing our experiences with the wider Jewish community. The study also stirs questions that would be valuable for us to explore together – like, how do interfaith couples want to approach practices related to death and mourning – something our members have not dealt with very much yet? Now that inclusion and belonging for intermarried couples are deeply established, what is our vision for learning, growth and leadership? What are our goals for our children, teens and young adults? Are we giving them the tools they need to navigate their identity in the wider Jewish world? What is our vision for the Jewish future? 

Please join us on Sunday March 14th at 4PM for a presentation of the study by Yael Bendat Appell, Senior Director, Jewish Engagement at UJA and a community discussion.

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