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A Merger for Merged Families?
Howard Krein, a physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Ashley Blazer Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, apparently had little trouble finding a rabbi to co-officiate at their church wedding in Wilmington, Del., over the weekend.
Board members Bobbi Wasserman Koplin, Leonard Wasserman's daughter, and Justin Krik at an InterFaithways program
Hypothetically, if they had queried Interfaithfamily.com -- the leading Web source on all things interfaith -- they would have received an email response listing all the rabbis in the Philadelphia area who perform interfaith wedding ceremonies.
But the Boston-based organization is hoping that by the end of this year, couples like them will have an outreach professional on the ground here to offer personal guidance on navigating the Jewish community and the tricky waters of interfaith family life.
To make that happen, Interfaithfamily.com would merge with InterFaithways, the smaller, local Jewish organization currently devoted to serving the needs of interfaith families. The goal is for the two groups to combine forces to form a Philadelphia organization with enough resources and expertise to tackle some of the thorniest issues confronting the Jewish community today: intermarriage and the challenge of making Jewish life more welcoming and appealing.
The question appears not to be whether both groups want the union to happen but whether InterFaithways will be able to raise the funds required to make it a reality.
For the past decade, Interfaithfamily.com founder and CEO Edmund Case had been in contact with the late Leonard Wasserman, InterFaithways' former president. The two discussed their shared vision and occasionally toyed with the idea of merging. Those talks grew more serious toward the end of Wasserman's life, and have continued without him since his death in October.
During that time, Interfaithfamily. com launched a pilot program in Chicago that combines live events with online ventures. The idea is to replicate that effort here by hiring staff and offering an array of services.
Other local organizations and synagogues do outreach to interfaith families, but the 5-year-old InterFaithways has been the only organization devoted solely to this issue.
Rabbi Ari Moffic
The potential merger offers the promise of financial stability for the work done by InterFaithways, which has, among other things, offered training for rabbis, created an annual interfaith weekend for synagogues and hosted cultural programs that delve into the issue. Funds have been particularly tight since the group lost a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia two years ago. Since then, the organization has operated in a scaled-down fashion; currently, it has two part-time staff members.
"We can keep going as we have, hoping that we will be able to make it for another year," said Rabbi Meyer Selekman, vice president of the InterFaithways board. "My own feeling is that scratching all the time begins to cause blood for the fingers."
Interfaithfamily.com was founded in 1999 and was considered a pioneer in using the Web to engage interfaith families. It was an early adopter of blogs and social media to do everything from providing referrals about rabbis who will perform interfaith life-cycle events to sparking discussion about ways to observe holidays. It produced mountains of original content and served as a clearing house for sources about interfaith engagement.
But in the past few years, according to Case, the group's leadership has shifted its thinking, concluding that if Interfaithfamily.com established a physical presence in various communities, it could better train Jewish professionals and more effectively serve the needs of interfaith households, with the ultimate goal of getting more families involved Jewishly.
Both nationally and locally, Jewish organizations aren't doing enough or they lack the required expertise on the issue, Case asserted.
The merger would not only put Interfaithfamily.com on the ground in Philadelphia, it would also allow it to adapt for other cities some of the programs developed locally, including the Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend, which typically has more than 50 synagogues participating. "There was a big void that I thought was crying out to be filled," Case said, referring to the decision to expand beyond the Web.
For two decades, the high rate of intermarriage has been a chief concern among Jewish communal professionals. The recent high-profile marriages of Biden; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to his longtime girlfriend, Priscilla Chan; actress Drew Barrymore and art dealer Will Kopelman; and of course, the 2010 nuptial of Chelsea Clinton and localite Marc Mezvinsky, illustrate just how normal the trend has become.
Children take part in an Interfaithfamily.com event in Chicago. The group hopes to host programs in Philadelphia.
Over the last 20 years, attitudes have shifted, with many communal leaders now placing more emphasis on welcoming intermarried families than preventing intermarriage in the first place.
Locally, the issue came into sharp relief in early 2010 with the release of the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia." The survey found that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.
At the same time, 30 percent of intermarried couples said they were raising children as Jewish and something else, and 14 percent said they were undecided. Selekman and others have said that with the right kind of engagement, many of those undecided or dual religion families may identify more Jewishly.
Wasserman, the former chairman of InterFaithways who died late last year at age 86, had long believed the Jewish community could be more welcoming to interfaith couples. According to his widow, Dorothy, he and Case both thought a merger would be mutually beneficial.
"His is a very professional outreach," Dorothy Wasserman said of Case.
Both groups said their respective boards have approved a merger in principle. The real question is whether they will get the needed commitment of $160,000 a year over three years to make it happen and then be able to run a wide range of programs in Philadelphia. InterFaithways has been charged with raising most of that money.
Both Case and Selekman said they hope to have the financial commitments nailed down over the summer so they can begin the program in the fall. It's not clear what will happen if they fail to raise enough dollars.
Selekman noted that InterFaithways has several outstanding grant applications with Federation and some private foundations and that those monies would go toward the fundraising effort.
Recently, Selekman, Case and Dorothy Wasserman met with Federation officials, who expressed enthusiasm for the potential merger and what it could mean for interfaith outreach in Philadelphia.
"The goals and missions of the two organizations are similar," said Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz. "The possible merger will strengthen both organizations and certainly help to advance the cause of reaching out to and serving more interfaith couples in Philadelphia."
At one point, Federation had provided half of InterFaithways $150,000 annual budget. But in 2010, Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning decided not to fund the group for the following year. The reasons were never spelled out but, at the time, several sources said some of the members of the center committee lacked confidence in InterFaithways.
If the merger comes to pass, what will develop in Philadelphia would closely resemble what has evolved in Chicago and what is also being discussed in New York and San Francisco.
In Chicago, Rabbi Ari Moffic has been working for Interfaithfamily.com since last July 1. She has been meeting and advising couples, sometimes choosing to officiate at their wedding ceremonies. Moffic said that Chicago Jewish communal professionals have come to view her as a sounding board for all things related to interfaith outreach.
She just finished running a course on Jewish children in interfaith households. A total of 20 families took part, and half the classes were held in person and half were online. The rabbi also recently used a similar mix of live and online sessions to offer eight interfaith couples a course on love and religion.
Interfaithfamily.com has hired the Jewish Education Service of North America to conduct a pilot study of the Chicago program's effectiveness. The results won't be ready for at least a year.
For Moffic, there's little doubt her work is already having an effect, especially when it comes to personal follow-up.
"Reaching out to interfaith couples and families works best when it is based in real relationships -- relationships based on respect, understanding and openness," Moffic said. "Being a local presence affords me the honor of building relationships with interfaith families and professionals in Chicagoland."