How local Jewish organizations help interfaith teens connect to their Judaism.
Emily Schnell has been active in Temple Oheb Shalom’s youth group since 9th grade. This year, the Dulaney High School junior is taking on leadership roles in the group, part of the Reform movement’s NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth). She is events programmer and communications vice president.
“I joined for the social aspect,” says Emily, 16, a tall, lanky girl with long, shiny hair whose family moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Baltimore when she was 12. “But there is a religious element, too. On the High Holidays, the youth group runs the Friday evening service before the day of Rosh Hashanah.”
Emily, the daughter of Shelle and Peter Schnell, is being raised Jewish. Her mother is Jewish and her father is not. Emily attended Oheb’s religious school, became a bat mitzvah there and now helps the children and teachers in the Sunday school.
With an intermarriage rate hovering at 50 percent nationally, people who work in Jewish youth groups say it is not unusual to encounter children of interfaith families.
“I like that it’s a way to get involved in temple,” Emily says of the youth group. “I’ve become friends with people I wouldn’t have known before. I also like that you get to know the rabbis and other leaders.”
In interviews with leaders of several local high school youth groups, a common theme emerged. Regardless of what denomination they represent, they say that they do not make a distinction among the (interfaith) students who attend their meetings and come to their events. However, there may be subtle differences in their approach.
Bonnie Pollak is regional director of NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth), an Orthodox youth group for the affiliated and non-affiliated via programs in public and private schools. She estimates NCSY reaches over 1,000 middle and high school students in Maryland, Virginia and eastern Pennsylvania.
“We don’t specifically program to reach out to children of intermarriage, but when they attend [an event], they are not treated any differently,” says Pollak, who may not even know a child’s specific background.
Besides its school-based Jewish Student Unions, NCSY offers weekend Shabbatons. Children who are not halachically Jewish may be dissuaded from attending the latter. Says Pollak, “We’re highly subsidized and it’s all about Shabbat. For other programs like weekly dinner and informal classes, there’s no difference.”
“A lot of the interfaith we deal with, the ones who come to our longer programs, are being raised in a Jewish tradition. Many of them consider themselves Jewish,” adds Pollak, although by halachic standards they might not be.
Ariela Lerman is coordinator of Beth El Congregation’s youth activities, part of USY (United Synagogue Youth). Ms. Lerman, who comes from an interfaith background herself, says the Conservative shul’s religious school asks about children’s backgrounds, but the youth group does not.
From the religious school questionnaire, she is aware that a number of youth group members come from interfaith backgrounds. “But they are all Beth El members so we assume it’s fine,” says Lerman.
Sheri Knauth, youth director of the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation’s USY group, says that “the question of choice is in the forefront of every interfaith family, and teens have more options than ever before.”
So if they choose to come to the Beth Israel youth group—which, by the way, does not require family membership in the congregation — Knauth couldn’t be more pleased.
“USY’s policy is to create an environment that is safe and happy,” she says. “We do not ask, ‘What’s your Jewish persuasion?’”
Knauth finds that students often join Beth Israel’s youth group for the social aspect. Once they get involved, though, the religious element becomes more important. “They buy into the excitement of a Shabbaton, where you arrive on a Friday and leave on a Sunday,” she says. “It’s interesting to see their progression.”
The Baltimore Council BBYO, which operates out of the JCC, holds events at local venues like malls and ice rinks for children in 9th through 12th grade. According to Director Dori Zvili, at least one parent has to be Jewish. The presumption is, if kids are coming to a Jewish event, they meet that criterion.
As for NFTY, Rabbi Steven Fink, of Temple Oheb Shalom, believes that kids join for both social and religious reasons. Based on the demographics in Oheb’s religious school, he knows that a good number come from interfaith families.
He has even had situations where high school students whose parents are not members of Oheb, or of any congregation for that matter, want to join Oheb’s youth group.
The rabbi doesn’t mind. “We have a large, active NFTY group,” he says. “They can have fun and, at the same time, they can find personal meaning.”
Paul Golin echoes Rabbi Fink. Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which does consulting and professional training for Jewish organizations — Hillel and BBYO among them—that work with this population. Golin says the social aspect is the first draw for interfaith (and Jewish for that matter) kids.
“They have a group of friends who influence their activities,” he says. “If their friends join a Jewish youth group, so will they.”
But as they become more involved, the religious identity part becomes increasingly important, although it may not be apparent for a few years.
The Jewish Outreach Institute has done studies of young adult children of inter-marriage, people in their 20s. “The determining factor among those who identified as Jewish was their involvement in a Jewish activity,” like a Jewish youth group, says Golin.