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Behind the Headlines: Federations, Synagogues Join Forces, Break Taboos to Fight Intermarriage

As Jewish federations begin to confront the issue of intermarriage, they are increasingly entering a mixed marriage of their own.

They are getting into bed with synagogues.

Cooperation between federations and synagogues should hardly seem unusual, unless one realizes that the two sets of institutions have rarely worked together in the past.

They have long been separated by a wall, akin to that keeping apart church and state in American constitutional ideology.

Now, for a variety of reasons, the wall is starting to crumble.

“Federations must provide the resources that congregations need to ‘reinvent’ themselves to meet the challenges of the very complex Jewish world revealed in the 1990 population survey,” said Barry Shrage, the professional president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Shrage was referring to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported that more than half of all Jews who married since 1985 married a non-Jew.

To bolster this new approach, the Boston federation will help area synagogues expand their programming for young families.

In San Diego, a coordinator for youth activities — including synagogue youth groups — is being funded by the federation.

In both Cleveland and Detroit, a new central organization to oversee the city’s Jewish educational activities will have a board made up of representatives of both the federation and the synagogues, as well as of the area’s Jewish schools.

As Jewish identity rises to the top of the agendas of federations across the country, this new-found cooperation marks a trend that is likely to continue.

WORKING IN A VACUUM

“We have to see federations relating to synagogues in a much different way than in the past. Everyone has attempted to make their contribution to the community, but somewhat in a vacuum,” said Marvin Lender, chairman of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity.

The commission, convened by the Council of Jewish Federations, embodies the new relationship. It includes representatives of the synagogue movements, as well as more traditional federation constituencies.

The commission held its first steering committee meeting in early August and is scheduled to convene formally in the fall.

“This is a long-overdue recognition that synagogues and federations really have much more in common in terms of their concerns vis-a-vis Jewish life than they have differences,” said Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America and a primary consultant to the Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity.

Both federations and synagogues are beginning to recognize that they need each other, because for both institutions, the old ways are no longer working.

Federations need the loyalty and outreach potential of the synagogues, and the religious institutions need the enormous fund-raising capabilities of the communal organizations.

Federations were founded at the beginning of this century to advance the goals of social welfare and acculturation to America. Created largely by the established, wealthy and assimilated Jewish community of German origin, the synagogue-going, traditional, poorer Jews arriving from Eastern Europe were seen as objects of benevolence — not as partners.

Over time, the concern for Jewish survival began to dominate the federations’ agenda, shifting resources away from general philanthropy to specifically Jewish causes like Israel and the rescue of Soviet Jewry.

Now, the goal of Jewish survival has taken on a new meaning and is being applied to the synagogue-linked area of Jewish identity.

Part of the synagogues’ attraction for federations flows from the findings of recent surveys that despite efforts by federations to be seen as the central address of the Jewish community, they have failed to win the soul of American Jewry.

ATTACHMENT TO SYNAGOGUE OVER FEDERATION

In an oft-cited finding by demographer Steven M. Cohen, 36 percent of American Jews feel attached to their synagogues, versus 9 percent who feel that way toward their federation.

Another finding that has pushed federation leaders to reach out to synagogues is that most of those seen as “unaffiliated” with Jewish life are, in fact, past or future synagogue members.

For their part, synagogues have long felt underfunded, unable to secure the allegiance of those who knock on their doors.

The convergence of these concerns is accelerating a re-evaluation of the once-widespread notion that religion has as little place in the philanthropic welfare and social work of the Jewish federations as it does in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Representing themselves as the central organization of the Jewish community, the federations set up and funded secular organizations, such as Jewish community centers and boards of family services, which they funded directly and which were directly accountable to them.

Now, “the whole notion of community is being redefined,” said Rabbi Perry Rank, of Temple Beth Ahm in Springfield, N.J.

“It used to be that community was defined on a federation level as non-denominational. Now it’s being defined as all of those who are nondenominational, and the denominations,” said Rank, a Conservative rabbi.

Rank’s synagogue has participated, with the two others in Springfield, in a program called Shalom Springfield, in which the federation brings programs into the synagogues.

Rabbi Avis Miller, associate rabbi of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, has a wish list for federation support that is fairly simple: money to support personnel and material for effective outreach programs.

For the Jewish community to adopt new ways that work, “it will be with all of us changing,” said Carl Sheingold, an assistant executive vice president at the Council of Jewish Federations, speaking about synagogue-federation relations at a recent conference sponsored by the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies.

“What won’t work is saying, I’m OK, you have to change,” he said.

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