By Charles Bernsen
Jack Simon and his wife, Andi Simon, recently returned from a trip to Israel with eight other interfaith couples from Nashville, and he recalls the moment during a group discussion when one of the Jewish partners talked about feeling conflicted, perhaps even a little resentful, when asked to help decorate the family Christmas tree.
“I could identify with that,” he said. “And it was comforting to know that there are others who are facing the same kind of issues we do … that there are others we can turn to when we have questions.”
Sponsored by Nashville’s two reform congregations and underwritten by a New Initiatives grant from the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the 10-day Nashville Interfaith Couples Leadership Mission was part of a continuing effort “to build a bridge of goodwill without expectations,” to the local interfaith community, said Rabbi Mark Schiftan of The Temple, who led the trip along with his wife, Federation Associate Executive Director Harriet Schiftan, and Rabbis Laurie and Philip “Flip” Rice of Congregation Micah.
The idea for the trip grew out of a discussion between Rabbi Laurie Rice and Rabbi Schiftan about the results of a 2015 Federation-funded demographic study of the Middle Tennessee Jewish community, which found that the local intermarriage rate is 56 percent and that more than a quarter of the adults living in Middle Tennessee Jewish households are not Jewish. The numbers confirmed what the rabbis already knew well: Intermarried couples are not an anomaly in Nashville, especially for the Reform congregations, where they comprise up to half the membership.
The trip also illustrates how Reform congregations here and elsewhere increasingly are dealing with this reality by eliminating barriers for interfaith couples. Thus clergy at both The Temple and Congregation Micah not only perform intermarriages, they do not insist that the non-Jewish spouse convert or that the couples raise their children as Jews.
“I can’t control what Jews will do in an open and free society,” Rabbi Schiftan said. “What I can do is keep the door open for them. It’s the obligation of the Reform movement to serve these couples and allow them to be part of the Jewish community in the way that best suits them.”
Said Rabbi Laurie Rice, “I am not the Jewish police … Our message to interfaith couples is: We will meet you where you are.”
The nine interfaith couples represented a mix in terms of their congregational membership and other communal involvement as well as how long they have been married, whether the non-Jewish spouse identifies with another religion or is intending to convert, whether they have children, and how they intend to raise their children.
It was the first visit to Israel for all the non-Jewish participants and some of their Jewish partners as well, and group spent much of the trip as first-time tourists normally would: They walked the ancient ramparts of the Old City, stood at the Kotel and atop the Mount of Olives. They experienced the bustle of the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, where they toured Independence Hall and the Rabin Center and then strolled the open-air market at Carmel; they bathed in the Dead Sea, sampled wine at a Golan Heights winery, gazed at the Judean Desert from the top of Masada, visited ancient ruins and an early Zionist community; they discussed art with a Kabbalah-inspired painter in Tsfat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem.
“The best place to connect to Judaism is Israel,” said Rabbi Laurie Rice in explaining why the interfaith outreach effort to the form of a trip to the Jewish homeland.
One goal of the trip was to deepen the couples’ appreciation and understanding of Judaism and Jewish life, particularly the importance of Israel in Jewish identity. But the trip also was intentionally structured to encourage the couples to explore issues that arise in interfaith marriages.
To that end, Harriet Schiftan moderated four evening discussions in which the couples explored questions like what they hoped to learn during their time in Israel with other interfaith couples, what advice they would give their younger selves or others entering an interfaith relationship, and what kinds of things can be done to encourage and facilitate their participation in Jewish life. She began each discussion with a statement of values: “We care about you. We value you. We respect you, all of you. And we respect your decisions. Our job is to be sure as a community that we are welcoming you and that we are providing all the programs and services that assist you in your Jewish Journey as you make Jewish decisions.”
The idea was not just to be welcoming but also to encourage the couples to start similar discussions, informal and formal, within the local interfaith community. Since returning to Nashville, they have participated in a group presentation at The Temple following Shabbat service on Feb. 24 and will make a similar appearance on March 31 at Micah.
Meanwhile, Jeff Greenfield, who was on the trip with his wife, Carolyn Greenfield, has made two slide-show presentations about the trip at University School of Nashville, where he is head of the middle school.
“We packed so much into nine or 10 days that it’s a way for me to process the trip and make sure I remember everything,” he said.
The Greenfields, members of The Temple, have been married for 20 years and were the oldest couple on the trip. He’s Jewish, she’s Episcopalian and their three children – the oldest is a senior in high school and the youngest in the seventh grade – have been exposed to both traditions in the home.
“I was struck by the sense of pride that the people of Israel have, especially the 18-year-olds who serve in the military,” Carolyn Greenfield said. “As the mother of child that age, seeing the maturity and pride of these young soldiers had a real emotional impact on me.”
For his part, Jeff Greenfield marveled at the sense of history and spiritual significance that pervades Israel. He was particularly moved by the site of Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre crying as they rubbed the stone where the cross on which Jesus died was said to have stood.
“You realize this is really sacred space,” he said.
Jack and Andi Simon have been married less than six months and were among the youngest couples on the trip. He’s Jewish and she was raised Catholic but now identifies herself as Christian. Although they don’t yet belong to a synagogue, both are involved in the Jewish community – he’s the children’s program director at the Gordon Jewish Community Center and she’s a teacher in the GJCC’s preschool – and plan to raise their future children as Jews.
For Andi Simon, the trip was an opportunity to learn more about the religious and cultural community she has become a part of.
“I know Israel is important to Jack, and I wanted to be part of that experience and understand why,” she said. Like many others who are unfamiliar with Israel and think of it as a nation beset by enemies, she was somewhat surprised to find that “I never felt unsafe in Israel. And I felt welcomed everywhere I went.”
Jack Simon said the most important aspect of the trip – one he did not at all expect – was the impact of going as part of an interfaith couples group, particularly the evening discussions ranging from weighty matters about personal religious beliefs and spirituality to practical issues like how to honor a partner’s religious tradition in the home or deal with in-laws of a different religious heritage.
And because they work at major Jewish institution, the Simons are well-positioned to carry the conversations started on the trip to the broader Nashville community.
“A lot of the kids at the center are the children of intermarried parents,” Andi Simon said. “I’ve had so many parents come up to me and say, ‘You and Jack are just like us.’”
As the executive director of Congregation Micah, Celia Lerch is similarly positioned. She was on the trip with her husband of two years, Aaron Lerch, who was raised in a secular home where religion and spirituality were not important. Although Aaron hasn’t decided whether he will convert, he often attends events at Micah and the couple has agreed to have a Jewish home and raise their future children as Jews.
The Lerches jumped at the chance to go to Israel. His only experience of Judaism has been in Nashville, and the trip was a chance to understand it in the context of the Jewish homeland.
“The most impactful time for us was at the Kotel,” Celia Lerch said. “All nine couples gravitated in pairs to the egalitarian section. It was a spontaneous thing, not forced or planned. And it was very moving for everyone.”
Both Rabbis Schiftan and Laurie Rice described the trip as “transformational” for themselves and their spouses as well. Observing the interfaith couples confront important issues of religion and identity in the context of the Holy Land “caused us to reflect on how our own marriage works,” Rabbi Rice said.
The trip also had an impact unrelated to intermarriage: It “deepened the bond of trust” between the clergy of the two Reform congregations, said Rabbi Schiftan. Over the past year they have begun holding joint services for a few weeks during the summer and, in addition to another interfaith mission, they are planning to expand The Temple’s Town Hall Series to include both congregations. •