Six years ago, a new organization was formed to offer a Jewish response to the estimated 53 percent intermarriage rate in the American Jewish community. While many view this statistic as a threat to the survival of Judaism, Leonard Wasserman, founder and current board chairman of InterFaithways-the Interfaith Family Support Network of Greater Philadelphia, interprets this demographic trend as "an unprecedented opportunity to perform the mitzvah of haknasat orchim -- 'welcoming the stranger,' and helping him or her to make a Jewish connection."
Originally known as Faithways, a program of Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Philadelphia, the organization is beginning its seventh year with a renewed commitment to providing support, counseling, education and community referrals to three distinct populations: those involved in relationships with someone who is not Jewish; parents or grandparents of a child from an interfaith marriage; and interfaith families seeking a Jewish connection.
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, the rabbinic director of InterFaithways, has seen a positive transformation of attitudes toward interfaith families. "Today, I am happy to say that many of our clergy are reaching out to interfaith couples and scores of synagogues are welcoming them," she said, adding that the organization works closely with rabbis, educators and other Jewish professionals to provide appropriate training and consultation.
Jewish educational programming -- such as Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, conferences and retreat weekends -- help interfaith couples explore Judaism in supportive, nonproselytizing settings.
"Just this past spring, we hosted an Interfaith Weekend at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel that tackled such issues as Jewish culture, family dynamics, couples communications, officiating at interfaith weddings and finding the right synagogue," said Raphael, adding that 44 synagogues participated.
Those who visit the group's Web site (www.interfaithways.com ) can join online discussion groups or explore resources on growing up in an interfaith family; inter-dating; Israel and interfaith families; Jewish holidays; and Jewish life-cycle events, provided by Interfaith Family, InterFaithways' national counterpart. The site also highlights upcoming community programs and events.
For more information or to set up an appointment with Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, call 215-782-1221 or e-mail: Rrayzel@shechinah.com .