In December, wife and husband Tara and Josh Lamkin hosted their parents for the second night of Chanukah, a tradition they inaugurated last year at their Skokie home.
A similar Chanukah scenario has played out at Jewish homes across the globe, but what makes Tara's feat of hosting the holiday more unique is-unlike Josh-Tara isn't Jewish. Yet, it's important to the Lamkins to usher certain Jewish traditions, like Chanukah, into their home. In addition to hosting her Jewish in-laws for the holiday, Tara invited her non-Jewish parents over as well so that when the Lamkins have children one day, her family will be familiar with Jewish traditions.
Tara, who calls herself a non-practicing "secular Christian," and Josh, who is a Reform Jew, married two years ago. The Evanston natives dated briefly in high school and then reunited at the end of college.
The topic of religion surfaces at the Lamkin home a lot lately as the couple contemplates having kids, who the couple says they will raise Jewish. They also talk about Tara possibly converting to Judaism in the future. "These [interfaith] conversations come up at least every other day," Tara said.
To help them navigate these weighty conversations, the Lamkins have turned to Interfaith Family/Chicago (IFF/Chicago), a two-year initiative funded by a local grant to empower Chicago-area interfaith couples to explore Jewish living. The funding for IFF/Chicago came from several sources including an anonymous funder, the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, and the Marcus Foundation in Atlanta.
The Lamkins learned about IFF/Chicago through Rabbi Ari Moffic, who officiated at their wedding. Moffic, the Chicago-based director of IFF/Chicago, works with interfaith couples and families through the initiative to discuss interfaith issues, offer resources, and introduce them to Jewish communal professionals, Jewish clergy, and other families in similar life situations.
IFF/Chicago, which launched in July, grew out of Interfaithfamily.com, a national nonprofit organization and web-based resource. The organization's mission is to empower people in interfaith relationships-individuals, couples, families, and their children-to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and to encourage Jewish communities to welcome them. Interfaithfamily.com plans to expand the "IFF/Your Community" Chicago model to New York and San Francisco too.
Intefaithfamily.com celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Back in the 1990s, Ed Case, a Jewish Boston-based lawyer, decided he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life after being a litigator for 22 years. He returned to school to get his Master's in Jewish communal service and, upon graduation, he started working at the now defunct Jewish nonprofit organization called Jewish Family & Life. There, Case published the online magazine Interfaithfamily.com. In 2001, Interfaithfamily.com incorporated, and the next year, Case took over operations, with offices now located in Newton, Mass., San Francisco, and Chicago.
He's on a mission to help interfaith families in their religious journey after he dealt with his own interfaith challenges upon marrying a non-Jewish woman. But several years ago-after 30 years of marriage-his wife converted to Judaism.
Case says embracing interfaith families presents an important opportunity for the Jewish community. "What really matters is whether interfaith families are going to raise their children with a Jewish identity," he said, "and if more than half of them do, the Jewish community grows in size."
Here in Chicago, intermarriage has risen from 30 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2010, according to the 2010 Chicago Jewish Population study conducted by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The proportion of children in interfaith families who are being reared as exclusively Jewish has jumped too-from 38 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010, according to the survey.
Abbey and Aaron Finkelstein are one such interfaith Chicago couple, who are raising their six-month-old daughter as a Jew. Aaron, a Jewish Highland Park native, and Abbey, who is a non-practicing Christian from Springfield, Ill., married two years ago, with Moffic officiating at their wedding. "We agreed that it was important to raise our children with a point of view," Aaron said. "I had an identity as a kid associated with being Jewish and that identity is important."
Moffic says she's thrilled with Chicago's reception to IFF/Chicago. "There is such a positive feeling about working with interfaith families," she said. "It's so invigorating to be in a community where people feel that interfaith families enrich Judaism, enrich Jewish living, enrich the Jewish community, and want to learn how to reach them and get involved."
Moffic teaches two interfaith classes-with both online and live sessions. "Love and Religion," starting Feb. 1, is a workshop for newly married and seriously dating interfaith couples discussing how to share religious traditions in their lives. The second class, "Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family," which kicks off Feb. 27, explores bringing Jewish traditions into family life.
IFF/Chicago has teamed up with several Chicago-area Jewish organizations on interfaith programming. PJ Library-a program that sends Jewish books and music to families each month-hosted Moffic at its "Ultimate Playdate" event in the fall. Then, in January, the rabbi hosted an interfaith Shabbat dinner for JCC Chicago's Sidney N. Shure Kehilla program. Also in January, the Community Foundation for Jewish Education co-led the CFJE Principal Kallah with IFF/Chicago, to teach Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jewish directors of education and pre-school directors of education how to reach out to interfaith families.
"Getting interfaith families plugged into organized Jewish life," Moffic said, "is the best way to ensure that children have a Jewish identity."
The PJ Library is part of JUF's Joyfully Jewish Family Programs and is a gift to Chicago-area families from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, local donors and local early childhood Jewish educators.
The Community Foundation for Jewish Education is a support foundation of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Sidney N. Shure Kehilla is a partnership of Florence G. Heller JCC, Anshe Emet, Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, Temple Sholom, Emanuel & Or Chadash) and GAP: Graduates & Professionals division of The Hillels of Illinois, both partners in serving the community supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
For information about IFF/Chicago or to register for Moffic's interfaith courses, visit www.interfaithfamily.com/chicago.