UJA-Fed.’s ‘Open Door’


When Danielle Zeiler began seriously dating her husband-to-be, Scott Greenwood, she made it clear that if they married, their children would be raised Jews.

"He said fine, but then when we became engaged, he said he wanted his religion represented in the marriage also," recalled the 26-year-old. "I said we had a problem."

Another problem surfaced over the question of who would officiate at the marriage.

"I wanted a rabbi, he wanted a priest," she said. "When I told my grandmother we were having a priest, she said, ‘I’m not coming.’ … I said either we have both religions [represented] or there would be no religion and we would be married by a justice of the peace."

While trying to iron out these difficulties, they learned of a course for engaged interfaith couples given by FEGS, a UJA-Federation agency. It is the first program of its kind funded by UJA-Federation, part of a $150,000 annual expenditure. The program (begun with little fanfare) puts the organization at the center of a heated debate about whether to spend charitable dollars on Jews committed to a Jewish way of life or the intermarried whose commitment is questionable.

John Ruskay, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president, said he supports such outreach and viewed these programs as "a very positive first step" in working with intermarried couples. In coming years, he said, the "Jewish community will want to learn a great deal more about how to reach out and engage intermarrieds who seek to connect and be involved in Jewish life."

He noted that UJA-Federation has also funded a program at the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute to train staffers to work with interfaith couples.

But Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee and a proponent of the "inreach" strategy, questioned that approach. He said "most observers would agree that the best possible target [for Jewish programming] are those who are open to them but are under-involved. There’s a small minority of mixed marrieds who would fit that."

He asked also that whether UJA-Federation, by making an investment in this area, is risking "creating a cultural climate in which intermarriage becomes acceptable. If our efforts are so much geared to making mixed marrieds feel comfortable, to what extent will it make it difficult if not impossible to articulate the message that Jews should marry Jews?"

Evelyn Roth, executive director of FEGS’ Long Island division, said the message the program conveys is "that the door is open to you. … Come and learn how to make the connections to the Jewish community that you may need or want. The purpose of the program is not to give direction or instructions, but to give couples the skills and tools to work problems through themselves. We’re not a religious institution, we’re a community-based Jewish family service agency."

The FEGS’ program is one of five courses for interfaith couples funded by the Mazer Family Fund. This is the third year the fund has supported such programming, which is being held at FEGS’ offices in Nassau and Suffolk, the Suffolk Y JCC, Westchester Jewish Community Services, the Samuel Field Y JCC in Little Neck, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in Manhattan.

Anita Altman, deputy managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission, stressed that "this is not a conversion program. The purpose is to create an environment in our agencies and in the community in which interfaith couples can be connected."

One of the administrators of the fund, Debra Nathanson Giaime, 34, of Melville, L.I., is the great-granddaughter of Abraham Mazer, founder of the Hudson Pulp and Paper Co. fortune. One of his sons, Joseph, died childless and left one-fourth of his wealth to the Jewish Communal Fund.

For the past 12 years, Giaime and her cousins have been advising the fund where to donate the money. She said they developed an interest in intermarriage because she and many of her cousins are intermarried. So, with the help of officials at UJA-Federation, they sent out requests for proposals to UJA-Federation agencies asking them to devise programs for such couples. The Mazer Family Fund allocates half of its $300,000 annual contribution to this project.

Danielle and Scott Greenwood (they were married seven months ago by both a priest and rabbi) took the FEGS’ course, known as Couples College. They are now in a post-marriage program for intermarried couples at the Suffolk Y JCC, and are taking a basic Judaism class at the Y.

(In fact, three of the six interfaith couples who took the post-marriage course are now enrolled in the basic Judaism class, according to Nancy Oren, director of the Y’s post-marriage program. And she said meetings of parents and grandparents of intermarried couples would soon be starting at the Suffolk Y’s satellite center in Port Jefferson.)

Danielle said she and Scott are now planning to join a synagogue, something Danielle said her parents are "thrilled" about.

"They said they would pay for us to join," she said. "My sister and I were not bat mitzvah. My parents were never members of a synagogue, and on the High Holy Days we went to my grandparents" synagogue. I always felt that we didn’t belong there, and I wanted to belong."

Giaime said she was pleased to hear that because "it was my dream that they would all join synagogues," she said of those in the intermarried programs. And she said that her husband, Victor, actually "inspired me to bring more Judaism into our home."

She said the idea to offer interfaith couples a course in a Jewish context came about in 1988 when she and her husband-to-be took a course offered by the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

"We had to take it in order for a priest to participate at our wedding" with a rabbi, said Giaime. "My husband was very close to the priest. He grew up with him as a child and wanted him at the wedding. The focus of the course wasn’t religion, it was about marriage, learning to communicate and how to build a healthy relationship. And it occurred to me that there was nothing in the Jewish community that matched this."

Giaime said she always knew that her children would be raised as Jews, no matter whom she married, but that she was concerned about others who entered interfaith relationships without deciding that issue.

"I think it’s important to make the decision about how to raise the children before they are married," she said, "so that the children are not raised without any religion or spiritual identity."

Roth of FEGS noted that in the "almost three years we have been offering the program, we have worked with 50 couples. One decided not to marry and virtually all of the others who discussed how they would raise their children, decided to raise them Jewish."

Bayme said that although there are "short-term successes, absent conversion to Judaism it is unrealistic to expected long-term, sustained commitment to leading a Jewish life. So the primary response to mixed marriage should be in-marriage and talk of conversion. And when conversion is not in the cards, it should be kept alive as a long-term possibility.

"But in emphasizing outreach," he said, "we run the serious risk of undermining the first two responses: prevention and conversion to Judaism."