Debra Lipenta and John Michael met on Halloween 2015 — she dressed as the Black Widow, he as a lumberjack — and, despite their costumes, quickly recognized one another as kindred spirits. They had much in common and their values were aligned, including that each felt the strong pull of religious tradition and community. There was one problem: Lipenta was Jewish. Michael was Christian.
“I was concerned,” remembered Lipenta, who has worked in the Jewish community, traveled to Israel and for years led a Jewish Federation-supported Rosh Hodesh group for girls. Intermarriage had already played a role in her family. Her father had converted to Judaism prior to marrying her mother, and raised Lipenta and her brothers in a strong Jewish household — yet her brothers both had interfaith marriages and were raising Catholic children. It’s a story by no means unusual today. A 2013 Pew survey found the intermarriage rate among American Jews to be 58 percent, and 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.
“Judaism is a big part of my life, and I intended to keep it that way, and pass on those traditions,” Lipenta said. She raised the difficult issue with Michael early in their relationship, and was relieved at his willingness to engage. Michael remembered, “It was very important to Deb to raise her children Jewish. So we said, ‘Let’s explore this further.’” That’s when they called InterfaithFamily.
Jewish Federation-supported InterfaithFamily helps interfaith couples engage in Jewish life, and helps Jewish communities to welcome them. Through informational programs and meetups, classes and individual consultations, InterfaithFamily encourages couples to communicate and find a form of Judaism that speaks to them. “The dynamic in those groups was so open and loving,” Michael said. “It was a safe and inclusive space where the rabbi really wanted us to talk out these tough issues together.”
With a deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds, faiths and needs — and a deeper appreciation for each other — Lipenta and Michael were married in October 2017 by their InterfaithFamily rabbi, in a ceremony sprinkled with homages to both faiths that made everyone present feel honored and included. “Mazel tov!” all assembled cried when Michael broke the glass, while the rabbi alluded to shattering barriers to unite communities.
For Lipenta and Michael, inclusiveness is an instinctive way to grow themselves, their communities and their worlds. “A community is a special thing, like having a second family,” Michael said. Lipenta added, “The more we can be open-minded, and live with open arms, the larger our community can become.”
When you are inclusive, you make room for lives and perspectives different from your own — and in so doing, you embrace your capacity to grow larger than yourself.
For more information about InterfaithFamily, visit interfaithfamily.com/community/philadelphia/.
jkidphilly: Bringing Jewish Families Together
The seasons are changing, and with it are new programs and activities we can choose for our children that will shape their lives. Basketball? Art? Choir? For families with young children looking to incorporate Judaism into their lives — or meet other local Jewish families — add a jkidphilly program to your list. Jewish Federation-supported jkidphilly’s calendar is packed with fun, educational and inspiring programming rooted in Jewish traditions, tailored to engage children, their parents, and grandparents too. Just ask Eileen Kupersmith, who already raised her own children and now is delightedly re-experiencing Judaism through her three grandkids. “It is gratifying when our children embrace the beliefs we hold most dear,” Kupersmith said.
With 40 years of experience in early childhood education, Kupersmith knows the importance of jkidphilly’s experiential programming, which encourages children of all ages to immerse themselves in Judaism through play, art and the outdoors. Through events like Chanukah at the Mall and Grandparents’ Celebration, Kupersmith and her husband help their grandchildren discover age-old Jewish values of “giving tzedakah, doing mitzvot, and being a mensch,” she said. Big jkids (ages 7-12) can sign up to do mitzvot on a regular basis. The fun continues on jkidphilly’s website, which is stocked with games, videos, activities and even Spotify playlists to help little ones discover Shabbat, Jewish holidays and the importance of Israel.
But jkidphilly isn’t just for kids. They frequently host Moms’ Nights Out to connect mothers to one another, and help set up everything from playdates to holiday celebrations, allowing both kids and parents to forge relationships. And, of course, there’s plenty for bubbe and zayde. “My heart is filled with hope when I see them living the traditions and values that our people saved for thousands of years — l’dor v’dor,” Kupersmith said.
jkidphilly offers programs all year long for all Jewish families across Greater Philadelphia. Discover their abundant resources and programs at jkidphilly.org/.