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.

Interfaith Community was founded in 1987 by a small group of Jewish-Christian families in New York City who felt rejected by churches and synagogues for their choice to practice two religions at home. The group has grown into a small organization with several chapters in New York state and one in Colorado, and offers counseling and support for couples, a formal educational curriculum for children, educational seminars for adults and some religious services and celebrations in both traditions. According to a recent report from a symposium the group held in New York in March, “[Interfaith Community] sees itself as helping to inspire children and adults to take religion seriously.”

About 100 people attended the symposium. Attendees included: interfaith families; adult children of the organization’s founding families; heads of congregational religious schools; Christian and Jewish clergy; and faculty and students from seminaries and universities. There was one rabbi, Rabbi David Posner of Temple Emanu-El, a major Reform synagogue in New York. Surprisingly, there was both a professor and student from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school. Said Kate O’Brien, the coordinator of the symposium and a graduate student at JTS, “We’ve brought ourselves out of the safety of our communities, and we are taking a risk.”

The conclusions of the symposium include:

  • There is no typical interfaith family.
  • Interfaith couples believe in the importance of cultivating mutual respect.
  • Many interfaith couples found that the fact of interfaith difference in their relationship led to them taking their own religious affiliation more seriously. Said one Jewish partner: “I’m more Jewish than I’ve ever been, because it’s all on me.”
  • Interfaith education can be, but doesn’t have to be, confusing for children. Not sure I agree, but if you’re going to try to do both, it’s better to do it in the structured context of a community than do it on your own.
  • Some clergy and religious educators regard the treatment of interfaith families as a matter of “justice.”
  • Even the most open-minded progressive clergy feel torn between the desire to be open and welcoming and their duty to preserve the distinctiveness and authenticity of their own tradition.
  • Adults in interfaith relationships should have more opportunities for religious education. “Their understanding of their own traditions–let alone that of their partners’–tends to be limited,” says the report.
  • “The long-term impact of educating children in two religious traditions is uncharted and needs to be studied.” Good point.
  • Seminaries should develop curriculum to prepare future clergy to work with interfaith families.

While I don’t agree with the premise of the IFC’s work, I do respect their desire to prevent interfaith families from “making it up as they go along.” But as they say, we still don’t know what the long-term effects or raising children in “both” is. Anecdotally, we’ve seen that it is detrimental to children’s emotional health and often leads to a default adoption of the more mainstream faith.

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One thought on “A Symposium on “Doing Both”

  1. 1/ If ‘the fact of interfaith difference in their own relationship’ made people ‘take their own religious affiliation more seriously’ then Ultra-Orthodox would be the Jews who took their religion the least seriously. Does that match the facts?

    2/ Why should Orthodox seminaries prepare their future clergy to work with interfaith families since by definition an Orthodox family cannot be interfaith?

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