What does a Hebrew school teacher tell a Jewish child who is upset at the prospect of attending a wake for someone on the Christian side of his or her family?
How should a teacher respond when a student says, “One of the things we had for Passover dinner was ham”?
Questions like these were put to 100 area educators on Sept. 7 as part of a seminar held at Marlboro Jewish Center on teaching the children of interfaith families in the religious school setting.
Attending the event, cosponsored by the MJC religious school and Keruv Committee, were teachers and principals from MJC’s religious and nursery schools and from Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan, Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, and Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.
Lynne Wolfe, a consultant for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs’ Keruv Institute, facilitated. An arm of Conservative Judaism, FJMC has been out front within the movement in encouraging greater sensitivity to families with members from different religious traditions.
The Keruv Institute (from a Hebrew word meaning “bringing closer” or “outreach”) runs seminars and training sessions for rabbis, synagogue lay leaders, and now educators. The programs are an acknowledgement that intermarried couples are increasingly becoming part of Conservative Jewish life.
“The teachers are on the front line; you are the first people who see the children from interfaith families,” said Wolfe.
From 1991 to 2005, Wolfe directed Pathways, an outreach program for interfaith families sponsored by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, the Jewish federation covering Essex and Morris counties.
Now living in San Francisco, Wolfe holds the title of “mentor” within the Keruv program.
“Children who grew up in Conservative congregations, who went to Hebrew school, who went to a program in Israel, who went to Solomon Schechter schools were now in the greater world — and they intermarried,” she said. “They found someone they loved, and the person they were marrying was not necessarily converting to Judaism.”
FJMC is credited with prodding the movement to embrace keruv, under the principle that the chances of a child in an interfaith home being raised Jewish will diminish if synagogues and schools don’t create a welcoming space for them. Two years ago, a movement-wide keruv subcommittee was created representing the four major Conservative organizations.
“If the teachers don’t know how to respond to these kids, they can hurt their children,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, FJMC executive director and an originator of the Keruv Initiative.
“If the teacher says, ‘You cannot do these things in your home’ and the student says, ‘We do these things in our home,’ if the teacher has handled it poorly, not only is Johnny going to be upset, but his parents are going to be upset, as they rightfully should be,” he told NJJN in a Sept. 16 phone interview. “This requires teachers’ developing a new sensitivity about how to respond to children in an age-appropriate manner when these situations arise.”
At MJC, after Wolfe’s introduction, participants gathered in small groups to discuss scenarios that have taken place in their classrooms. The seminar concluded with members of all the groups reconvening to share their responses.
The teachers who took part, said Rabbi Michelle Pearlman of Monmouth Reform Temple, “left feeling better prepared for their students and families and more enlightened and positive about a critical issue in Jewish life today.”
MJC’s Rabbi Michael Pont said the initiative is aptly named. “Keruv is a Hebrew word that means ‘to bring close.’ I believe that anyone who wants to come close to Torah is not only welcome, but I, as a spiritual leader, am thrilled,” he said.
“Given that we have a growing number of students in our schools from interfaith homes, I am proud that we had a terrific session to aid teachers in welcoming them and their families.”
According to Simon, synagogues that use the Keruv program or those that have made independent outreach to interfaith families “have become more welcoming, more open, more sensitive to intermarried couples. Ten years ago, most intermarried couples who came to a Conservative shul couldn’t get in the front door. Now everybody is going to welcome them. That is a success story.”