This glossary is designed to spark conversation in your organization about interfaith inclusive language. There are many terms that may be appropriate in different situations – for example, what may be perfect for marketing materials might not work for a ritual policy document and vice versa.
Keep in mind that interfaith couples and families are not only the people who belong to your community – they are also likely members of your staff, your lay leadership, and your own family!
The words we use are ever-evolving and we know that language has the power to be a source of healing or hurt. We encourage you to frequently consider to the language you choose to ensure that it communicates your organization’s values.
It is important that all of the staff and lay leadership of your organization are comfortable with these terms. The first person that an interfaith couple encounters is likely not a member of your clergy or senior staff!
If you have questions about this glossary, or would like training on interfaith inclusive language, contact Tema Smith, Director of Professional Development at firstname.lastname@example.org
What do we mean by “Interfaith”?
There is a wide range of families captured by the term “interfaith”. Unfortunately, the term itself is not precise and sometimes not quite accurate – however, it is the best one we have in our vocabulary at this point to describe Jewish families where the partners come from different religious traditions or backgrounds.
Interfaith couples and families can be Jewish/another faith, Jewish/no faith, adoptive, blended, extended, or something else! Sometimes, a Jewish/Jewish couple can have an interfaith family if someone in the household has converted, or members of their families of origin have married people from other backgrounds. In many cases, interfaith families only practice Judaism in their homes.
Why don’t we say “Non-Jew”?
When we lead with language that identifies someone by what they’re not, this can be viewed as negative and may lead to unwanted feelings of difference and isolation.
Alternatives: Person/partner of a different background; person/partner who isn’t Jewish; person/partner of another faith; consider naming the person’s religion; or… ask people how they want to identify!
Although it can be a bit more cumbersome, language that describes an individual in an affirming way rather than by something they are not is a powerful way to communicate that we see them for who they are. These terms do not take away difference, but rather highlight difference in more positive and inclusive ways.
If you are speaking about a group of people where it is necessary to point out their Jewish status, consider “people from other backgrounds” or “people who are not Jewish”.
Dos and Don’ts
DO: Use interfaith inclusive language even when you’re not addressing interfaith-specific issues or interfaith families.
The more normalized inclusion is, the more welcome people will feel. And while a change in acceptance and attitudes have led to these changes in language, normalizing this new language will reinforce and strengthen that acceptance as well.
DO: Remember that you can’t tell if a couple or family is interfaith simply by looking at them. Likewise, you cannot tell which member of an interfaith family was not raised Jewish by their race, hair color or texture, or any other aspect of their appearance.
DO: If it is necessary to refer to a couple or family’s religious identity, use descriptive terms like Interfaith, Intercultural, Multi-heritage, Multi-faith. Many interfaith families consider themselves to be simply Jewish families! If you’re unsure, ask people how they want to identify!
DON’T: Never use historically derogatory terms like shiksa, goy.
“Shiksa” comes from a biblical Hebrew root “sheekootz” which means an abomination. Although “Goy” simply means nation, this term has developed in a derogatory way and has a long history of “othering” individuals outside of the Jewish community.
DON’T: Do not use language that classifies Jews from interfaith families as different, like patrilineal Jew or half-Jew.
Terms like this imply that a person is somehow not fully Jewish, or is less Jewish than someone with two Jewish parents . We recognize that in some congregations, it may be necessary to refer to patrilineal descent in questions of Jewish status for ritual purposes. However, “patrilineal” should not be used to describe people outside of this context.
DON’T: Do not refer to a person’s conversion status by referring to them as a convert or a Jew-by-choice.
According to Jewish law and tradition, once they have converted, they are fully Jewish. It is up to them whether to share their journey.
Language for policy
Some organizations may need sensitive language to identify people from other backgrounds for the purpose of ritual or governance policy. You may consider using a Hebrew term to do so, for example, Ger Toshav (stranger who dwells among us); Haver Toshav (friend who dwells among us); or Ahuv Toshav (beloved who dwells among us). If you choose to use these terms, it is important to that they be clearly translated and defined, so that the entire community understands them.
A Note on Self-Identification
Sometimes, people may use a word we have suggested avoiding, or some other term, to describe themselves or their family. That is ok! You should never correct them, as they have likely put thought into why they have chosen to use this term, and it holds meaning for them about their family’s Jewish identity. Correcting them may make them feel othered or put down. Respect the words they choose but we recommend continuing to use inclusive language to refer to them and other interfaith families.