The other day I blogged about an article about intermarriage that got a lot of recent attention. Three Jewish women’s non-Jewish husbands didn’t participate in raising their children Jewish. I said it was a sad story, but not typical.
Another article about intermarriage, this one in the Huffington Post, also elicited a lot of comment recently: Interfaith Families: Can You Be Jewish and Christian at the Same Time, by Kate Fridkis. I won’t say this one is sad, but again, it’s not typical, and it’s problematic.
The article starts off with the provocative question, “Can someone identify as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously?” and says that people involved with The Interfaith Community
are doing just that by educating children of interfaith marriages in both Jewish and Christian traditions.
I know and respect Sheila Gordon, the founder of The Interfaith Community, as a serious and well-intentioned person. Sheila persuaded me years ago to list the IFC on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network, even though the Network is primarily meant to connect interfaith families with welcoming Jewish organizations, by contending that the Jewish identity of the Jewish partners was strengthened by their involvement with IFC.
After that InterfaithFamily.com still didn’t want to have much to do with IFC, although our thinking has evolved. We now would be happy to present, to people who gravitate to the IFC’s approach, the Jewish perspective and the model of interfaith families choosing Jewish identity for their children while learning about and respecting the other religious tradition in the family.
I’m sure that there are some number of interfaith couples for whom the IFC’s approach resonates. At IFF we would not presume to pass judgment on them or suggest they were making a mistake. But educating children in both traditions is not the approach we recommend.
Fridkis writes that “a growing number of people are unwilling to give up their religious tradition just because their partner has a different one.” I question whether she has any data to back up that statement. She may be right that there is a trend in that direction – but I hope she isn’t.
I also question what “giving up a religious tradition” means in this context. When IFF does holiday surveys, for example, we consistently find that high percentages of couples who are raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not as religious holidays involving affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Have the parents who are not Jewish in those families “given up their religious traditions”? Other than the theological beliefs – no.
I don’t like the imagined conversation Fridkis scripts in her article. She suggests that most interfaith couples are not observant “so maybe they can just flip a coin” and has the partner who is not Jewish describe Easter as “the most bored I’ve been in my life” and the partner who is Jewish saying “I eat bagels and lox ALL the time, though.” This depiction remains demeaning of interfaith couples even after Fridkis says “OK, so maybe people don’t really talk like that.” I hate to come off as humorless, but it isn’t funny.
The serious point Fridkis makes is the argument that educating children in both traditions allows for “more in-depth future exploration” and leaves them “better prepared to make their own choices.” Here is the brief counter to that: I once heard a young adult woman express the great sadness she felt when her parents left her to pick a religious identity and community – she felt like she was choosing between, not her mother and her father, but between her two grandmothers. And there are numerous personal narratives and “expert” opinions on InterfaithFamily.com to the effect that being grounded in one religious identity and feeling part of one religious community is important for children and young adults.
What motivates the Board and staff of InterfaithFamily.com is the firm belief that engaging in Jewish life can be a source of profound meaning and value for interfaith couples and their children. It’s a shame that Jewish leaders and institutions have neither presented Jewish life in compelling ways nor genuinely welcomed interfaith couples to engage in it. If that were to happen more of the folks who are attracted to the idea of “doing both” might decide that the identity of their family and their children is Jewish while one parent’s is not, and that the non-theological traditions of that parent can still be part of the family’s life.
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