Can Raising Children in One Religion Be Clear Cut?

Each week I post a discussion question on the Chicagoland page. We love your feedback, so check each Monday by 5pm for the question of the week and respond!

This week, the question was about whether parents with young children were joining congregations and registering children for religious school to start in September. In my family, I am busy signing our 5-year-old up for continued violin lessons (check out my recent blog post about the how the Suzuki method makes me wonder about Jewish religious school), swim lessons, pottery and gymnastics. She loves it all! I also just filled in the form for kindergarten religious school. True, my husband is a congregational rabbi, so this is a no-brainer.   

One person posted to the discussion board that she inquired about enrolling her young child in the Jewish preschool at her local Reform congregation and was told that if a child is being raised with any parts of another religion, then the school wasn’t for them. The question is not as clear-cut as it seems. I wonder how many interfaith families can say that they are raising their child solely with Judaism, to the exclusion of learning about and participating at times in Christian holidays or church services on occasion.

Yet many of these families want Judaism to play a meaningful role in their lives and want their children to learn about Judaism, experience Judaism, identify with Judaism and engage in Jewish communal experiences. These families would not say that they are raising their children in both religions. They want to raise children with Judaism primarily. But family dynamics are complex. Having family of a different religion can blur lines. Holidays and culture, childhood memories of songs or favorite Bible stories may get passed on by a parent who isn’t Jewish.  This same parent may be making challah on Shabbat, lighting candle, and hoping to take their child to Jewish religious school and synagogue services.

If we turn away families who want Judaism in authentic ways because the child may be exposed to Christianity, we are going to lose an enormous amount of families. Why not get these families in our doors, welcome them with sensitivity and inclusivity, with adult education, and joy-filled communal activities and allow their children to soak in this important part of their heritage? What are we afraid of? That these families will water down Judaism for everyone else? That children will talk about Santa? Many children of all religions in America talk about Santa because Dora’s Christmas Adventure is on morning cartoons. Are we afraid that families who are honest about their religious questions and struggles will give others an opening to raise their own concerns? Are we afraid that children who grow up with knowledge about and memories of Christianity will not continue Judaism? We can be sure of this if we deprive them of Jewish education and community.

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One thought on “Can Raising Children in One Religion Be Clear Cut?

  1. I enjoyed your post about whether raising children in one religion can be clear cut. I come from an interfaith background, where half my family is Jewish, the other half Catholic. My mother converted to Judaism before she married my father, so both my sister and I were raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School at a conservative synagogue and eventually had our Bat Mitzvahs and got involved in USY. All the while, we had exposure to Catholicism from one side of the family and attended their Christian holiday gatherings. I didn’t find this confusing as a child as my parents did a good job of establishing my Jewish identity and explaining that the reason we went to those christian holiday gatherings was to support and celebrate family, not specifically those holidays (and it should be noted we didn’t attend church).

    For example, when I gave my Catholic grandparents a gift at x-mas I was honoring their traditions..and even when they gave me a gift in return at x-mas, I merely accepted it as a Chanukah gift (though at-times off schedule). At Easter time, I accepted the basket of chocolates merely as a treat, and dined on kosher hot dogs while my Catholic family ate ham. I knew not to ruin “Santa” or the “Easter Bunny” for my Catholic cousins, and all was well. And now as an adult, I’m about to marry a Jewish man and hope to raise a Jewish family with the same respect for Christianity that I was taught to have. When I think about the idea of a synagogue turning a child away because they come from an interfaith family, I think it’s a real shame – both for the child and for the Jewish community they could have contributed to.

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