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Sunday, 17 February 2008

Interfaith Couples Eye Israel for Jewish Identity

Interfaith Couples Eye Israel for Jewish Identity
More than half of American Jews marry non-Jews these days. In Atlanta,
the demographic study of the community two years ago found that the
number is 67 percent - two interfaith marriages to one Jewish union.
That same study reported that the children of interfaith couples rarely
grow up with a Jewish education, much less a Jewish identity, unless
both parents commit to creating a Jewish home.

A new program from Israel Encounter hopes to change the trend. The
organization is taking interfaith couples to Israel, with the non-Jewish
partner traveling free.

Recognizing the reality that interfaith marriages are going to happen,
the program introduces the Israel experience to non-Jews married to or
contemplating marriage to Jews, showing them what it means to be Jewish
in Israeli and American societies, helping them recognize the role
Judaism can play in their family, and teaching them the joy and beauty
of Jewish customs, holidays and beliefs.

The goal of the program is not conversion. That's always an option but
not part of the agenda of Israel Encounter. The aim is for the
non-Jewish spouse to make a commitment to raising Jewish children in a
home imbued with Jewish values and practices. The trip is open to
couples living in the Atlanta area with children up to age 10 or with no
children.

Mitch Cohen, who founded the program with Steven Chervin, said: "This
program is especially important when the woman of the interfaith couple
is not Jewish. Women are the spiritual backbone of the family. They
usually determine the spirituality of the couple, and it's important
they understand the importance of the Jewish experience. ... We also
hope that the participants will bond and form connections during the 10
days of travel and intense experience together in a magic place."

Thanks to a grant from a local foundation that wanted anonymity, the
cost per couple is $3,500 for round-trip air fare, hotels, tours with
professional guides, two meals a day and transportation in Israel.
Participants will explore "who is a Jew," coming to understand the
concept of Jewish identity in Israel and what it's like for people not
born in Israel but living there now, comparing the physical move to
Israel with the spiritual move to Judaism, whether or not conversion is
a part of the journey. Group members will spend Shabbat in Jerusalem,
where they will attend services and visit the Kotel.

There will be pre-trip meetings and post-trip follow-up.

Atlanta Rabbi Albert Slomovitz will join the tour. Formerly a pulpit
rabbi at Congregation Gesher L'Torah and a Navy chaplain, Rabbi
Slomovitz has extensive experience with interfaith relationships. His
time at Loyola University of Chicago, a Jesuit school, prepared him to
discuss issues of Christianity. He'll make himself available for any
questions in a relaxed, nonthreatening atmosphere.
Israel Encounter is dedicated to outreach, using the trip as a tool
because "the Israel experience is so powerfully transformative for
people who were born Jews," said Chervin, the director of the Goodman
Institute at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, who also teaches at the Melton
Adult Mini-School and Emory University. "We're extending it to the
interfaith community in the hopes that it will help engage couples to
raise Jewish children. Conversion is not our expectation or purpose. We
do hope this program will be a model for a national program of outreach
eventually."

Cohen began working in Jewish outreach more than 10 years ago when he
facilitated a program for interfaith couples raising Jewish children. He
teaches "Introduction to Judaism" at the Marcus JCC and is certified as
an outreach fellow by the Union for Reform Judaism. He last year led a
trip to Israel designed for converts to Judaism and wrote about it for
the Jewish Times

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