Future of Interfaith: New Program Head Has Firsthand Experience

Friday October 1, 2004. In the short time that Helena McMahon has been the manager of Interfaith Connection, two incidents have proven that her services are appreciated well beyond San Francisco. While she didn’t give specifics because of confidentiality, she told of two couples, both foreigners, who sought her advice: One couple was working here and the other was just on vacation. They both found out about Interfaith Connection at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. In both instances, she said, the couples were interfaith and from a country where the only form of Judaism is the traditional one, and therefore such relationships are looked down upon. “It’s been amazingly touching to me to see how meaningful that’s been for these people to learn that there’s a whole world out there where they can be accepted,” said McMahon.

In one case, the non-Jewish partner came in alone, to talk. This person felt quite nervous but left with a great sense of relief. “Just to have that interaction with someone opens up a new path for people,” said McMahon. “Maybe they’ll bring that back to their communities. It’s nice to feel that our reach may be farther than we think.” A few months ago, McMahon, 35, replaced longtime director of Interfaith Connection, Rosanne Levitt. McMahon is a native of Queens, N.Y., and the daughter of two cantors; in fact, her mother, Hilda Abrevaya, was the first woman in the world to be hired as a cantor. McMahon is back at the JCCSF now, in Levitt’s position, especially ironic since in her former days on the programming staff at the JCCSF, they were both part-timers and shared an office. Back then, “I looked at her position, and thought it was a wonderful thing that she was doing,” said McMahon. “It’s amazing how things come full circle.”

McMahon also has a deeply personal connection to her work as she is married to an Irish Catholic. They are raising their two daughters Jewish. Though McMahon was working at the JCCSF at the time they met, they never attended any of Interfaith Connection’s workshops. Since McMahon was already getting a degree in counseling, they talked about the issues a lot. Both of their daughters attend Brandeis Hillel Day School. McMahon has master’s degrees in both counseling and cultural diversity. She’s been in private practice for three years and continues to see couples, individuals and families.

As the daughter of spiritual leaders, McMahon took in a fairly mainstream view of Judaism and perhaps absorbed a bit too much of synagogue politics. While in Israel, during her junior year of college, she began to better define what being Jewish meant to her. “That philosophy has led me into this work, and I feel the same things for interfaith relationships,” she said. “We need to be open enough to allow people to define themselves, rather than applying institutional or religious definitions to what we think people should be.” McMahon said she pursued her second master’s in cultural diversity because she had always been interested in what brings people together as well as divides them.

She also had worked as a Jewish educator, and began doing diversity training sessions around multiculturalism. She found she was most drawn to hearing people’s stories, learning about the personal obstacles that prevented them from being open to others. McMahon began at Interfaith Connection in April, conducting the discussion series and workshops for interfaith couples on various topics, including raising children. She’s also trying to do some community-building, to give interfaith couples more opportunities to socialize with each other.

Overall, McMahon said her main goal is “to provide a safe place where people feel really welcome and comfortable, no matter what their religious background, and how involved they are religiously. Because when you accept someone where they’re at, chances are they’re going to feel much more apt to join the community and be a part of it.” Interfaith Connection offers discussion groups and workshops on topics from relationships to raising children and celebrating holidays. Information: (415) 292-1252 or www.intfaith.org.

Alexandra J. Wall is a staff writer for j. the Jewish newsweekly of northern California.

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