For the first time, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, about 350 people joined together with InterfaithFamily for the Interfaith Opportunity Summit.
Starting bright and early on Oct. 26, community leaders, members and clergy from across the country gathered to talk about interfaith families.
There was a full day of speakers, panels and discussions on topics ranging from engaging interfaith couples and families in Jewish life to a new study presented by Alan Cooperman of the Pew Research Center. There was also a panel discussing the way race and sexuality affect interfaith couples.
The day of learning culminated in a lively reception and celebration, the second #ChooseLove Celebration, which honored two key leaders of the InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia: Bill Schwartz and Rabbi Mayer Selekman.
InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia had its start as InterFaithways under the guidance of the late Leonard Wasserman, to whom the evening’s celebration was dedicated.
Wasserman, who died in 2011, founded InterFaithways in 2002 as a Jewish Family and Children’s Service program; it later became an independent nonprofit. In 2012, InterFaithways merged with InterfaithFamily — founded in the early 2000s by Edmund Case, who spoke at the celebration — and became part of the Newton, Mass.-based organization’s InterfaithFamily’s Your Community initiative as InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, one of eight affiliated cities.
Leading up to the merger, in 2007, was the first Interfaith Family Shabbat Weekend, a signature program of InterFaithways.
Schwartz was proud of the fact that this Shabbat program has now expanded nationally — it was his idea, after all.
“The first interfaith Shabbat we had 20 synagogues,” recalled Schwartz, who serves on the national board of InterfaithFamily. “In 2015, we had over 70. Now, InterfaithFamily is going to take it nationally, and it started in Philadelphia.”
Schwartz, who attends Beth Sholom Congregation, has been with InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia since its InterFaithways days with Wasserman and is pleased with its growth.
“I’m proud that we’re helping more interfaith couples,” reflected Schwartz, who has two children in interfaith marriages, “and my feeling is that if we don’t welcome them into the synagogues, we’re going to lose them. And if we lose them, and we lose their children by not being friendly, by not saying, ‘We really want you. We like you.’ When I first came into this, interfaith marriage was a no-no, it really was. And I just felt that how can you blame children that fall in love with somebody of a different religion?”
The work InterfaithFamily does continues to impress Schwartz — particularly how many people it reaches online.
“I hope this is a movement that spreads,” he said. “Somebody had to do it, and we were one of the first, and I just hope that synagogues take note of this and make these people welcome.”
Rabbi Mayer Selekman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sholom in Broomall, has been passionate about interfaith work since a time when it was dangerous to do so. In the ’60s, he started officiating and co-officiating interfaith, interracial and gay/lesbian marriages and faced life-threatening consequences because of it.
But that hasn’t deterred him.
“I want Jewish tomorrows, and this is a way of getting Jewish tomorrows,” said the honoree, who serves as chairman of InterfaithFamily/ Philadelphia’s advisory board. “And also I have a love for accepting diversity and a distaste for rejection.”
He met Wasserman 10 or 11 years ago and noticed they were committed to the same work. For him, the summit showed just how many others are committed to the work, too.
“What you saw today, the entire day, was a demonstration of a growing nucleus of people who recognize the reality of interfaith marriages, who see the beauty of Judaism and its wisdom and want to find a way to make that beauty available to all who might be interested in it,” he said. “They learned there were throngs of other people engaged in the same mission. They felt less isolated and less alone and they synergized ideas, practices, thoughts, dilemmas that were all of extraordinary creativity.”
It also signaled how time has changed.
“Fifty years ago, no one was doing what I was doing because I thought this was going to be beneficial for Judaism and Jewish tomorrows. Look around,” he continued, gesturing to the full room of people who were munching on hors d’oeuvres. “I feel very good about that.”
For some in the InterfaithFamily community, the day exceeded their “wildest expectations.”
“We did this because we saw a need for a national convening, a national conversation on this topic of what are the next steps that are needed to engage interfaith families effectively in Jewish life,” said InterfaithFamily CEO Jodi Bromberg, who was pleased by how it turned out.
“People came with their whole selves, and it was respectful,” she said. “People were kind to one another in grappling with what are really tough issues and really important issues but often challenging to talk about in kind of personally painful ways for many people in the room. And so it was terrific.”
The name of the celebration, which included remarks from others in the InterfaithFamily community and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, is also significant to the work they’re doing.
“Historically, when talking about the topic of intermarriage, it’s been a topic that’s fraught with a lot of fear and a lot of anger and a lot of potential hurt and just a lot of negativity,” Bromberg explained, “and by reframing it as about choosing love and encouraging institutions and Jewish life to choose love, we’re hoping to flip that dynamic and also that narrative.”
Event co-chair Laurie Toll Franz echoed that — especially because she chose love herself.
“We believe that you should be able to choose someone because you love them, not because of what religion they are,” said Franz, who was married by Rabbi Selekman. “People aren’t marrying for religion, they haven’t been for a long time, so we’re encouraging people to choose love and then find your space where you fit in.”
One woman at the event — Dorothy Wasserman, Leonard’s widow — received a surprise third award.
“Don’t you think it’s absolutely amazing?” marveled Wasserman, watching the crowd mingle. “When I look at this crowd here tonight, there are people who are here, a little bit for the honorees, but a lot of these people are here because they relate to the cause, because we make people feel welcome no matter what, and that’s a very important aspect.
“If you can’t talk about things, you can’t make anything change.”
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