Embracing the Dual Faith Family
Two Interfaith Families Share Their Journeys at Beth El
By: David Harrison
When Robert Hiken’s mother-in-law picks up the grandchildren — Seth, Gabriella and Parker — from the Berman-Lipavsky Religious school and the Pauline Mash School for Early Child Education, she consistently notices the warm, welcoming feelings that are extended to her.
If that is at all noteworthy, it is because Robert’s wife, Elizabeth and her family are Catholic.
“Our children have been attending infant/toddler and the preschool since they were 12 weeks old. The school community has always been welcoming to both my Jewish family and my wife's Catholic family. Elizabeth’s mother, a practicing Catholic and retired kindergarten teacher, does almost all of our pickups and drop-offs as well as parent and grandparent days. The community at Beth El has been amazing, to the point where she has commented about how good the teachers and staff are at explaining the Jewish customs to those who do not practice.”
Hiken joined the congregation after a positive experience with the schools. And now, as the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas holidays approach this year, Robert and Elizabeth can feel even more secure in the knowledge that Elizabeth is a full-ﬂ edged member at Beth El.
“Growing up my whole family would celebrate Shabbat dinner together at my grandparents' house. We would all get together (and still do) for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. My family has integrated Elizabeth and her family into our special occasions. At the same time, my family is still able to celebrate Elizabeth's heritage with her family at Christmas, Easter, and other Christian Holy Days. Our family has always been very open to including people of different backgrounds and it means a lot to me that our synagogue ofﬁ cially now does the same.”
In May, Beth El took a bold step by voting unanimously as a community to update its bylaws, recognizing that non-Jewish members of interfaith families can become fullﬂ edged members of the congregation. It was a change, said Beth El Senior Rabbi Steven Schwartz, that allows Beth El to practice what it preaches.
“Beth El has always been a leader in terms of a progressive approach to Conservative Jewish life,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “For many years now we have been pushing the envelope in terms of integrating interfaith families at Beth El, particularly in the way people who are not Jewish are able to participate in our services. The idea has always been to make people feel as welcome as possible, and to understand that the non-Jewish member in a family plays an important role in raising Jewish children.”
Gail Willoughby is a perfect example of the confluence of the history of Beth El and the move to recognize interfaith families. Gail’s grandparents, Benjamin and Betty Smelkinson were among the congregation’s founders in 1948. “I grew up at Beth El,” she said. “I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t at Beth El.”
Thirty-seven years ago, Gail married Wayne Willoughby, who is Lutheran. The couple has two children, Matthew and Dana, who celebrated their B’nai Mitzvot at Beth El, continue to attend services and remain active. Dana now helps prepare Beth El children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. Over the years Wayne Willoughby has served on Beth El committees, regularly attended services and contributed to the Beth El community in ways large and small. But until that vote in May, he could not be considered a member of the congregation. For congregation President Denise Franz, amending the bylaws became a personal goal for her term.
“I have been listening to the concerns of congregants for many years, mostly when their own children intermarry, and I have been frustrated by the limitations that the Conservative movement had placed on synagogues. When I read that the General Assembly of Kehillot of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the umbrella organization to which Beth El and other Conservative synagogues belong, began to allow synagogues to expand membership to include non-Jews, we as a board were eager to make it happen.”
“The process was extremely respectful and the support was overwhelming,” she said. “Beth El members continue to think progressively and to act as ‘mensches,’ welcoming both spouses in a dual faith marriage.”
While Franz said that questions remain regarding how to incorporate non-Jewish family members in particular circumstances, everyone agrees that this was a beneﬁ cial and important ﬁrst step. And families with children currently being educated at Beth El feel newly welcomed. “It encourages us greatly to know that we are part of a progressive synagogue that recognizes our family dynamic,” Robert Hiken said. “I feel a larger sense of community and welcoming atmosphere knowing that my WHOLE family is included. Beth El has been nothing but the best for our family.”