Thursday, August 12, 2010 | return to: news & features, local


Interfaith website takes local group into its fold

by dan pine, staff writer

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The Bay Area–based interfaith outreach agency Jewish Welcome Network has merged with a similar Internet-based organization, (IFF).

Sort of.

“It’s not quite a merger or an acquisition,” said JWF executive director Karen Kushner, “but an expansion of IFF. The name Jewish Welcome Network may continue in the future.”

On its website, Massachusetts-based IFF bills itself as an online resource for “interfaith families exploring Jewish life, and the grassroots advocate for a welcoming Jewish community.”

That is not much different from what Kushner has been doing since founding her organization in 2002.

Kushner says her new position as chief education officer for IFF means JWF “falls under the umbrella” of IFF. She will continue writing interfaith information booklets, leading workshops and consulting with Bay Area clergy and interfaith couples.

It also means her mission to bring interfaith couples and families into the Jewish fold remains unchanged. She still has one-year grants from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, with a mandate to use that aid to assist Bay Area families.

“I see it as IFF West,” added Kushner of her new role. “[IFF] and I have the same goals, to help interfaith couples find their way into Judaism. [IFF president Ed Case] has done a remarkable job of creating a place where people invisible to the Jewish community have a place to go, talk to each other, learn and put their voices into the community.”

She believes there aren’t enough people or community dollars to support what she considers the most important issue for the Jewish community: interfaith marriage and assimilation.

The changes at JWN echo the shifting landscape for nonprofit organizations like hers that are struggling in a bad economy. Another local Jewish organization, Interfaith Connection, has folded, though Building Jewish Bridges, an East Bay–based interfaith outreach group, carries on.

As does Kushner, who feels her work is crucial for the long-term survival of the Jewish community.

“If 50 percent of our young adults are finding partners in other cultures, that means two-thirds of the Jewish community in the near future is going to be interfaith families,” she said. “We can’t tell people who to marry.”

A therapist by training, Kushner is married to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the scholar-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. The couple moved to the Bay Area in 2002, and a year later she initiated Project Welcome, an organization backed by the Union of Reform Judaism.

She is also the co-author with Anita Diamant of the book “How to Raise a Jewish Child.”

The subject of interfaith marriage has always been a source of controversy within the Jewish community, with some, most often from Conservative and Orthodox quarters, striving to prevent or condemn it.

Kushner instead sees interfaith marriage as “a great opportunity and great gift to the Jewish community.”

There are many Jews, she said, “who are ambivalent or uneducated about Judaism. When they partner with someone not Jewish, that partner asks questions and often is more interested in having a religion for the family. They often bring them into Judaism. You have to find a way to make them feel welcome, otherwise they go elsewhere.”


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