Interfaith Program Facing Elimination

By Jennifer Siegel

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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A groundbreaking outreach program aimed at interfaith families faces elimination as a local federation looks for ways to trim its budget.

The 15-year-old Pathways Program, run by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, could close as early as this summer following a recommendation last week from the organization’s allocations council. Some board members of the organization, which serves suburbs west of Newark, said the program’s performance has lagged in recent years.

The looming termination of the Pathways Program is alarming interfaith activists across the county. Though Pathways is a local effort, its director, Lynne Wolfe, is believed to be the country’s only full-time interfaith outreach worker employed by and based in a local Jewish federation. Some interfaith activists say that Wolfe’s possible dismissal reflects a declining commitment among Jewish organizations to interfaith families. In late 2002, citing budgetary pressures, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s national congregational arm, eliminated 13 regional interfaith outreach positions.

“Attracting more intermarrieds to Jewish life is as important as anything else that the Jewish community can do, but there’s no programming being done for it,” said Ed Case, founder of the nonprofit “In the federation system that raises and spends at least $800 million a year, the amount spent on intermarrieds is less than $800,000.”

There is no definitive count for the number of interfaith families in the United States with at least one Jewish spouse. But most estimates put the number at about 1,000,000 households. Nearly one-third of all Jews who are married today are intermarried, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey conducted by United Jewish Communities, the national coalition of Jewish federations. The study puts the current rate of intermarriage at 47%.

The nondenominational Pathways initiative attempts to reach interfaith families through a religious education program for parents and children, discussions groups for interfaith couples as well their parents, yearly conferences and social events. The goal is to help interfaith couples explore their options in a nonjudgmental environment and to help them make the transition to synagogue life, Wolfe said.

Last week, the MetroWest federation’s allocation council recommended eliminating Pathways’s $87,000 budget for fiscal year 2005 and replacing it with a $50,000 allocation for a more modest yet-to-be-developed interfaith initiative. The federation remains committed to interfaith families, said Arthur Sandman, the federation’s associate vice president for program services. The federation’s allocations committee felt that Pathways was “no longer able to reach the number of families that we feel made it cost effective,” Sandman said. A series of classes for parents and children — the core of the program — suffered from a lack of enrollment in recent years, Sandman and Wolfe agreed. As a result, last year Wolfe changed the biweekly educational program to a series of cultural events held on a monthly basis.

But Wolfe — who was among seven people named by the Jewish Outreach Institute last year to the inaugural class of the Outreach Hall of Fame — said that focusing on short-term enrollment fluctuations is a mistake.

Outreach is “a long-term effort,” she said. “Sometimes I get a call from somebody who says, ‘I got on your mailing list five years ago, but now I want to do something.’ That’s what [Federation officials] don’t get here — that people don’t make these lifetime decisions on a dime. You have to be there when they’re making them.”

In the short term, Pathways’s fate remains in limbo: MetroWest’s executive committee will make the final decision in June. Sharon Barkauskas, who participated in one of the first classes of the program, said she hopes the committee will consider all that the Pathways program has done to bring families like hers into the Jewish community. She and her husband, who had very little Jewish knowledge when they joined the program, now belong to a Conservative synagogue near their home in Parsippany and attend adult education classes together; Barkauskas, a past president of her sisterhood, celebrated an adult bat mitzvah last June.

“I’m so passionate about what Pathways has done because not only did it give us that entrée into the world of Judaism, it got us in the direction of going towards a synagogue life,” Barkauskas said. “As time goes on, we are still exploring, growing and learning.”

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