A Symposium on “Doing Both”

At InterfaithFamily.com, a fundamental point of our mission is arguing that interfaith families should make a religious choice for their children. But it is interesting to hear the perspectives of those who advocate for the opposite view, that it’s OK to raise children in a dual-faith household.

Interfaith Community is one of the handful of organizations nationwide that have this opposing view, alongside the Interfaith Families Project in Maryland, the Family School and Jewish-Catholic Couples Dialogue Group in Chicago, Ill., and Dovetail Institute. These organizations exist on the fringes of the established religious community as nearly all religious educators and leaders stress the impossibility of adopting two religions simultaneously.
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Baby Talk

Rabbi Lev Baesh

I participated in some fascinating discussions about birth ceremonies last week. The occasion was another excellent Outreach Training Institute program held on June 14, 2007 titled “Embracing the Covenant: Brit Ceremonies in Interfaith Families.” Dr. Paula Brody of the Reform movement’s Northeast Council runs four of these programs a year, funded by CJP, the Boston federation.

One of the most interesting parts of the day was a presentation by Father Walter Cuenin – author of one of the most popular articles ever published on our site, Is Heaven Denied to an Unbaptized Child?. Apparently, Catholic theology and practice has changed in many respects that apply to intermarriage situations, but “the people” aren’t always up to speed on the changes. For example:
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Thank God for Non-Jewish Moms

Recent research has shown that children are more frequently raised in the mother’s religion than the father’s religion, so when a non-Jewish mom raises a Jewish child, their family is bucking the odds. What’s more, these women are often the ones driving their children to Hebrew school, reading their children Jewish children’s books and buying their children dreidels. What a noble sacrifice they make to their husband’s religion.

A beautiful example of such a mom is Amy Cummingham of New York, who writes about preparing for her son’s bar mitzvah in The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, S.C. Cunningham is a committed Christian who attends church on a weekly basis, but agreed to raise her children Jewish because she “felt that the world could not, should not, lose any more of its radiant Jewish people.” She did indeed drive her children to Hebrew school twice a week and even went so far as to work events at the synagogue. She has some goals for the bar mitzvah ceremony:
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How to Be a Good Jewish Grandparent

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Julie Wiener’s new column focuses on the Jewish Outreach Institute’s new book, Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not to Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren. One of the book’s main points is that grandparents can be a powerful model of Jewish identity for their interfaith grandchildren, but they must respect their children’s boundaries.

The book is an answer to the many people who call the Institute when an adult child intermarries, eager for future grandchildren to be raised Jewish yet nervous about appearing meddlesome. My friend “Leah” whose brother recently married a Buddhist woman, tells me that her mother feels so awkward that she frequently tries (to her daughter’s annoyance) to make Leah a go-between, asking her to “remind him that Rosh HaShanah is coming.”

“There’s a general sense of not knowing what to do and feeling paralyzed,” Rabbi Olitzky says, noting that the new book offers “optimism,” as well as concrete suggestions. Those include throwing “the best holiday parties ever”; fostering a positive relationship with your grandchild’s parents and, if possible, offering to help pay for things like Jewish summer camp or other Jewish activities.

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Thoughts from Outreach Workshop on Death and Mourning

Post by Ronnie Friedland, Web Magazine Editor:

I attended a fascinating conference, Comforting the Bereaved: Issues of Loss and Mourning in the Interfaith Family, an Outreach Training Institute program led by The Union for Reform Judaism, Northeast Council, which was organized and run by Paula Brody on Wednesday, March 28. The conference had varied interesting speakers who spoke about nuances of interfaith mourning I’d never considered before.

An intermarried woman spoke of two funerals she had attended recently, one for her grandfather, the other for her Jewish husband’s grandmother. The speaker, a non-Jew, mentioned that her family is not comfortable expressing their emotions, unlike her husband’s family, which is. These differences were manifest in the different mourning rituals for these funerals she attended. Her family was very comfortable with gathering for a family dinner the night before her grandfather’s funeral, then attending the funeral and then returning to their normal lives the day after the funeral. The long shiva period for her husband’s grandmother, and all the emotions expressed, made her uncomfortable, and she felt overwhelmed.

Jews-by-choice spoke of the emotional complexities of arranging funerals for loved ones from their non-Jewish family, how feelings they had had of ambiguous loss are amplified at the time of bereavement. In addition, one mentioned how a member of his congregation left a basin of water and towels outside his home for when he returned from the Christian funeral, and how affirming this was for him of his Jewish identity. Another mentioned the loneliness of loss for Jews-by-choice, who don’t have Jewish family members to attend shiva with them. One spoke of the comfort of having Jewish mourning rituals a requirement for him.
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April Aggravation? The Spring Situation?

Sue Fishkoff calls it “April aggravation.” We call it the “spring situation.” Whatever you call it, there’s something to it. It’s the annual conflict between Easter and Passover in interfaith families, and the JTA’s Fishkoff has written a story about our survey of interfaith families juggling the two holidays.

The survey specifically looked at interfaith families raising their children exclusively in Judaism, and we found results both familiar and surprising. Generally, they negotiated the holidays in the same way they negotiated the December holidays: they celebrated more Jewish rituals, kept the holidays separate and saw the Jewish holiday as more religious than the Christian one. But once we started slicing up the population, we found some interesting results. There was no difference in Passover behaviors between families where the woman is Jewish vs. families where the woman isn’t Jewish, but there were significant differences in the Easter behaviors, especially “secular” rituals like decorating Easter eggs and participating in an Easter egg hunt. There were also significant differences between Jewish and Christian respondents on their level of comfort with, and anticipation of, Easter.

Not the Sunday School You Remember

The Washington Jewish Week had a very interesting article yesterday about a new, non-traditional Sunday school starting at a synagogue in Maryland.

It’s interesting for a number of reasons: first off, the impetus for the new school came from a woman whose daughter is married to a Catholic man and has two children. The fact that a grandmother was looking for ways to communicate Jewish heritage to her interfaith grandchildren highlights a phenomenon that we expect to see more of in the coming years. We expect to see grandparents take an increasing role in the Jewish education of their grandchildren as the grandparents are often the population most concerned about passing on Jewish heritage.
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The Entire Lifecycle, in Three Articles

Three interesting articles today, each focusing on a different stage in the lifecycle of an interfaith family:

  • The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles has a short story on the recent RAVSAK conference in L.A., where IFF Publisher and President Ed Case spoke. RAVSAK is the association of Jewish community day schools. Community day schools are unaffiliated with any movement and are therefore open to Jewish people of all backgrounds, including children of intermarriages. In the article, Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, points out how in the past day school enrollment flowed from a family’s religious observance, but now the path is often reversed. Many families become more religious and more Jewishly identifying because they send their children to Jewish day school. Day school becomes an opportunity not just to educate the child, but to educate the parent.
  • According to Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, increasing numbers of college students are looking to convert to Judaism. A story on their website mostly focuses on kids who grew up with other faith traditions, but also notes that some of the students are children of interfaith families. The article relates the particularly sad story of a student who grew up Jewish but whose mother is Catholic and was told on a birthright trip that the State of Israel did not consider her Jewish. Now she’s pursuing an Orthodox conversion. Good for her, I guess, but I suspect that message will turn more people away from Judaism than turn them toward it.
  • January’s JTA story on interfaith burial options continues to inspire locally focused stories on the topic. The latest one is from the Cleveland Jewish News. One thing that strikes me about these stories is that there really are a lot of Jewish burial options for interfaith couples. Many Jewish cemeteries have separate sections for intermarried couples and many Reform congregations freely allow their intermarried members to be buried with their spouses in their section of the local Jewish cemetery. One stumbling block that has yet to be resolved, however, is how to handle the funeral services for non-Jewish partners who actively practiced their faith. I don’t know of any Jewish cemeteries that will allow Christian markings on a tombstone or a non-Jewish religious service at the grave.
  • Non-Jewish Moms in Atlanta, Interfaith Couples in Cali

    Next Monday, participants in the first Mothers Circle program in the country will be speaking at the Jewish Federation North Metro Campus in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The Mothers Circle is a nine-week course for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children started by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. In the Atlanta Jewish Times, one of the early participants, Abi Auer, eloquently explains the value of the Mothers Circle: “Everyone who is involved in the Mothers Circle has made a sacrifice to give up some of those things we were raised with,” she says. “You don’t know what you don’t know when you are raising Jewish children and weren’t raised Jewish yourself.”

    The JTA had a recent story on how Federations are becoming more sophisticated in how they allocate funding. One example of what the article calls “priority-based” funding is the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, which put money towards interfaith sensitivity training after finding that 75 percent of the couples in Sonoma and Marin counties were intermarried.

    To Bris or Not to Bris?

    While everyone in an interfaith relationships knows–and plans–in advance for the issue of what kind of wedding ceremony to have and how to raise the kids, circumcision often creeps up unexpectedly on an unsuspecting interfaith couple, usually one that assumed they were secular. Circumcision is perhaps the only cultural ritual that is almost as common among secular Jews as it is among the Orthodox. The strong desire of the Jewish partner to circumcise their sons can of course be a bit of a shock to the non-Jewish partner.

    On Salon.com, Neal Pollack, a terrific writer and author of the forthcoming book Alternadad, writes about his and his wife’s decision to circumcise their son. He’s Jewish, she is not. She felt circumcision was barbaric and detrimental to their child’s health and sexual enjoyment; his parents said they would betray 6,000 years of tradition by not circumcising their grandson. Pollack discusses in an amusing and poignant way how he and his wife came to their decision, and how the procedure went.