Ten Steps for Day Schools to Become More Inclusive of Interfaith Families

There have been more children born to one Jewish parent than two Jewish parents over the past 15 years, and that trend shows no sign of abatement.

Yes, we said “opportunity.” We live in a different community today than even a decade ago. It has become clear that for as many Jews who supposedly “marry out” and leave the community, there are an equal or perhaps even greater number of households where spouses from other religious backgrounds have “married in.” While there are conflicting statistics on how Jewishly interfaith families raise their children, one thing is clear: there have been more children born to one Jewish parent than two Jewish parents over the past 15 years, and that trend shows no sign of abatement.

If we wish to help these families raise Jewish children—and we believe it is our moral imperative to do so—we must ensure that day schools offer a welcoming and supportive environment to the intermarried and their children. To reach out and welcome in interfaith families, “business as usual” must change.

Day schools have to be willing to identify the existing barriers that obstruct the participation of interfaith families and lower them, if not eliminate them altogether. Sure, a small percentage of interfaith families will enroll their children in our schools regardless of the obstacles, willing to participate without any changes while sometimes quietly enduring discomfort, slights or difficult conversations at home about “authenticity.” The majority of intermarried households, however, will have to be sought out through creative and targeted marketing and open educational programs, and promised a much more positive and inclusive experience. It is one thing to catch people when they are already running in our direction—winning over those who might be hesitant to join us is a different matter entirely.

When considering changes to become more inclusive, day schools will have policies to grapple with such as cost or admissions—what some sociologists have named “the game”—but what we might find even more challenging will be creating a welcoming ambience about the school (what some refer to as “the spectacle”). The latter reflects the attitudes of the teachers and students that sometimes are expressed (both explicitly and tacitly) in unfortunate ways. Together, “the game” and “the spectacle” form the ecology of the day school, and as equal partners, attention must be paid to ensuring that both help to create an inclusive environment for interfaith families. This can be done in ways that do not challenge the school’s understanding or practice of halakha (Jewish law), though they cannot be addressed without challenging the school’s ecology.

Here are ten things that your day school can do to begin creating a welcoming environment for interfaith families:

1. Since websites have become the first point-of-contact for nearly every institution—as they present a safe, anonymous environment that can be accessed at any time and at any place—the homepage of your school’s website should prominently feature a message that clearly and warmly welcomes all. Don’t assume anything, and don’t make hints. Go ahead and say it: We welcome all students from all kinds of Jewish families. And make sure that any photographs that are included on your website reflect the diversity of the institution.

2. Don’t wait for students and their families to come to you. Go out to where they are to recruit. Use what we at JOI call Public Space JudaismSM—low barrier events in public venues with easy access so that potential students and their families can “stumble onto” the Jewish community. Make sure that the event is not just about recruitment for your school. Instead, it should be a content-filled event—perhaps a holiday experience—that reflects the kind of learning experiences and educational opportunities that can be found at your day school.

3. Be a presence in their lives from the first day they encounter your school. By offering periodic programs as a service to all parents in the community (both in public spaces and your own) on topics such as birth, parenting, early childhood tips, you can demonstrate that you are a resource and support network and can meet the universal needs that come with raising children. In this way, when it comes to choosing a school, interfaith families will see that your school is responsive to their parental needs and not just their Jewish needs.

4. Use inclusive language in all of the materials produced by your day school. While it is obvious to take such an approach to recruitment materials, this practice also needs to be taken into consideration when composing materials used inside the school, including the simplest forms and sign-up sheets. Inclusive language removes assumptions: assumptions that all parents are Jewish (or married, or same-sex), that all Jews know Hebrew or Yiddish, that all Jews practice Judaism in a certain way, and so on.

5. Make sure that there are staff members who reflect the diversity that you are trying to foster, especially with regard to interfaith families. It is important that families and students see that adult members of interfaith families are welcomed and supported and can affirm their Jewish identity in positive ways, such as by teaching or working at a Jewish day school. Intermarried Jews who have raised strongly-identified Jewish children can be role models for our community—as can be their non-Jewish spouses who helped them do so. The focus is on creating Jewish households.

6. All interfaith families are not the same. The majority of those that will send their children to day schools are not “interfaith” families at all. They are Jewish families where one adult partner comes from a different religious background. In most cases, that partner left the practice of that religion in childhood. Treat them as you would every other family in your school.

7. In these families, even those with strong Jewish individual and family identities, there will be extended family members who are not Jewish. Thus, these children will be actively exposed to other religious cultures. Don’t avoid this issue, but don’t embarrass or shame students for it either. Use this situation as an opportunity to raise awareness of diversity and create a positive learning experience. Train your staff in maintaining the focus on Judaism while addressing the issue with sensitivity and confidence. Celebrate the diversity of the student body as reflective of the modern Jewish community.

8. Be mindful of take-home assignments. Steer clear of projects that make assumptions or ask students to explore the religious identities/family background of two parents/caregivers. Also, strive to create a level playing field within the classroom by assigning work that can be handled regardless of Jewish cultural or religious memory. It is important to remember that not all students have parents who were raised in observant or culturally engaged families.

9. Emphasize the universal ethics and values (emerging from Judaism) that guide the curriculum and uniqueness of the school. Highlighting these in your materials can alleviate parental concerns that the school’s focus is too narrow or sectarian. Rather, try to communicate that the school understands the inherent value of its role as a part of the entire community.

10. Be a house of learning for all. Know that many parents—intermarried or inmarried—may feel uncomfortable with their children deepening their Jewish learning without having the opportunity to do so. Sensitively acknowledge and address these potential concerns through your literature and interactions with parents. Additionally, offer opportunities for parents to learn during evenings and weekends, through study groups, classes and workshops. ♦

Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org), and the author of many books and articles that bring Jewish wisdom into everyday living. Dr. Olitzky can be reached at kolitzky@joi.org.
Eva Stern is a senior program officer at the Jewish Outreach Institute. Eva can be reached at estern@joi.org.
Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky and Eva Stern
Published: Fall 2007