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Two years ago, I was sitting at a table on a warm summer evening with five young couples. They were the newest cohort of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia’s “Love and Religion” workshop for interfaith couples. None of the couples had ever met before, and everyone listened quietly as we went around the table and each couple introduced themselves, sharing how they’d met and what had originally attracted them to each other.
Then I asked each couple to share when the issue of religion first came up in their relationship. Sarah (all names have been changed) said: “It was the first December. We’d just moved in together. He really wanted to have a Christmas tree and I made it very clear that I would never have a Christmas tree in my home.”
“I’m with you!” said Joan, who was sitting across from Sarah. “I’d never allow that! It’s just wrong for a Jewish person to have a Christmas tree in their home!” And with that, Sarah and Joan high five’d across the table… newly bonded by their refusal to let their significant others have Christmas trees.
Meanwhile, I watched another couple, Amy and Dan, squirm uncomfortably in their seats. It was Amy and Dan’s turn to share next and I happened to know that after much discussion Dan had agreed to Amy’s request to have a Christmas tree in their home the prior December, even though it made Dan, who’s Jewish, uncomfortable. Realizing that I needed to jump in as facilitator, I reminded the couples of one of the “ground rules” of our group: That we weren’t discussing what was “right or wrong” or judging each other, but creating a safe space for discussion for all of the couples to communicate openly and figure out what was best for them. Fortunately, we were able to move on, and the five couples bonded over the following weeks, sharing openly about the challenges and blessings of their interfaith relationships.
I’ve been thinking back to that summer evening a lot in recent weeks—as the topic of Christmas trees has come up multiple times in my meetings with interfaith couples… even though it’s July!
What is it about Christmas trees? Why are they so often such a big source of conflict for interfaith couples? Here’s some of what I’ve learned from working with many Christian/Jewish couples.
For the Christian partners:
-Some of their best childhood memories are of Christmas. Christmas trees remind them of family togetherness and warmth. They often want to have a Christmas tree not just for their own sake, but so that their children can experience the magical feeling that they had when they woke up on Christmas morning and found lots of presents under their tree. So many families have special traditions and rituals for decorating their trees, opening presents, etc. Parents who have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child often want to be able to re-create their experiences for their own children, even if their children are being raised as Jews.
-Many (though certainly not all) parents who grew up celebrating Christmas say that they don’t think of a Christmas tree as “religious.” They can’t understand why their Jewish partner is uncomfortable having something in their home that to them is all about family togetherness and fond memories, and doesn’t have religious significance.
For the Jewish partners:
-They often see having a Christmas tree as “selling out” their Judaism; the final step to full assimilation into the majority Christian culture. No matter what Jewish practices they do or don’t follow, they view having a Christmas tree in their own home as a boundary that they’re not comfortable crossing.
-Many Jews are concerned about what other Jews (often their own parents) will think or how they’ll feel coming into their home if it has a Christmas tree.
Recently, Sue and Mark, an interfaith couple, shared with me the frustration they’re both feeling as they discuss whether or not to have a Christmas tree in their home this December. Sue lamented: “It’s July, and we find ourselves sitting on the beach arguing about Christmas.” She said that every time they start to discuss whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree, they both start talking over each other and just shut each other out. Mark looked at me and wondered: “What should we do? What’s the right solution?”
Of course only Sue and Mark can determine what’s right for them as a couple, and what’s right for them this December may not be what’s right for them next December—and it certainly may not be what’s right for a different couple. But there’s one thing I could tell them is right for sure: to take the time to truly listen to each other and to each try to understand the emotions behind what their partner is saying.
Whether or not they’ll have a Christmas tree may be something that they finally resolve and come to agree on over time, or perhaps the issue will be a source of conflict for years. But if they can each respect where the other is coming from—and discuss the issue from a place of love and respect rather than anger and intolerance—then their relationship will be much healthier… in July—and in December.
If you are an interfaith couple where one partner is Jewish and one is Christian, do you plan to have a Christmas tree? Has having/not having a tree been a source of conflict in your relationship? Do you have other reasons than the ones I’ve mentioned above for having/not having a Christmas tree?
By the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia Team (Robyn Frisch, Wendy Armon and Robin Warsaw)
InterfaithFamily Shabbat—which actually consists of not just one Shabbat, but this year, the entire month of November—is a time for being thankful. InterfaithFamily urges all of us to make November a month of “30 Days of Abundant Appreciation.”
In honor of InterfaithFamily Shabbat, here are 30 things we are thankful for:
1) The generous individuals and foundations that fund the important work that we do, including The Lasko Foundation, The Rubenstein Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
2) The individuals and couples who use our clergy referral service to find Jewish clergy to officiate at their lifecycle events and who come to us for support and counseling.
3) The parents (both Jewish parents and those of other faiths) of interfaith couples who honor and respect their children’s choices and engage in meaningful and productive conversation.
4) The rabbis and cantors we refer for lifecycle events for interfaith couples and families.
5) The synagogues and organizations that list their events on our online Network so that interfaith couples and families can find welcoming places in the Jewish community.
6) Our fantastic InterfaithFamily Wedding Bloggers (who are also IFF/Philadelphia “Love and Religion” workshop alumni) Matt Rice (who married his wife Shannon in November 2013) and Sam Keefe and Anne Goodman (who were married in October 2014) for sharing their stories.
7) The members of our IFF/Philadelphia Facebook Group for posting about upcoming events, sharing their thoughts and supporting the interfaith community online.
8) The interfaith couples who have shared their stories with us and with each other in our “Love and Religion” workshops.
9) The alumni of our “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes and “Love and Religion” workshops who have hosted Shabbat Dinners subsidized by InterfaithFamily.
10) The parents who have participated in our online “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” classes—those who grew up Jewish and those who did not—who have seriously explored how to include Jewish practices and values in the lives of their families.
11) Tami Astorino, the fantastic facilitator of IFF/Philadelphia’s online “Raising A Child With Judaism In Your Interfaith Family” classes and in-person “Love and Religion” workshops for interfaith couples, for her ability to stimulate important and sometimes difficult discussions and to honor and inspire the participants in her classes and workshops.
12) All of the organizations that IFF/Philadelphia has had the opportunity to partner with, including The Collaborative, The Jewish Graduate Student Network, The Renaissance Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Einstein Healthcare Network’s Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases and jkidphilly.
13) The synagogues and organizations who have invited us to provide Sensitivity Trainings for their professional staff and lay leaders.
14) The Religious School and Preschool Directors who have brought IFF/Philadelphia in to train their staffs so that they will be better equipped to meet the needs of their students from interfaith homes, as well as the students’ parents.
15) The synagogues and organizations that have invited us to lead Adult Education programs on interfaith issues.
16) Rabbi Erin Hirsch and the GratzNEXT Professional Learning Program for Supplementary School Teachers for working with us to create the online teacher training program “Truly Welcoming Children of Interfaith Families.”
19) Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, Executive Director of Camp JRF, a wonderfully inclusive place, for having us come to camp this past summer to provide a Sensitivity Training for all of the counselors.
21) The Gershman Y, for inviting Rabbi Robyn Frisch to facilitate The December Dilemma: Strategies for Interfaith Families During the Holidays on December 14, 2014.
22) Ross Berkowitz and Steven Share of The Collaborative for working with us to create meaningful programming for young adults in interfaith relationships and individuals in their 20s and 30s who grew up in interfaith homes.
23) Ed Case, Founder and CEO of InterfaithFamily, for his vision and leadership. For 13 years InterfaithFamily has provided unparalleled resources and support for interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life.
24) Rabbi Mayer Selekman, who served on the Board of InterFaithways (predecessor to InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia) and is the Chair of IFF/Philadelphia’s Advisory Council. Rabbi Selekman is a true pioneer. He started officiating at interfaith weddings in the 1960s and has been advocating for the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in the Jewish community for years.
25) Leonard Wasserman, of blessed memory, Founder of InterFaithways, a visionary who saw intermarriage as an opportunity for the Jewish community, rather than a threat. And we’re thankful to Leonard’s wife of 64 years, Dorothy Wasserman, who worked with him to ensure the success of InterFaithways, and continues to support InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and serve on our Advisory Council.
26) Bill Schwartz, InterfaithFamily National Board member and IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council member, who leads our Philadelphia fundraising efforts. In 2006 Bill came up with the idea of having an InterFaithways Family Shabbat Weekend in Philadelphia and urged local synagogues to participate. Eight years later, over 100 synagogues and organizations in five cities are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014.
27) Laurie Franz and Mindy Fortin, two amazing women from Philadelphia who serve on InterfaithFamily’s National Board and who support our work in the Philadelphia community.
28) The fantastic Advisory Council of IFF/Philadelphia, the members of which support and guide us in the work we do.
29) The talented and dedicated InterfaithFamily national staff in Boston as well as in communities throughout the country that we have the privilege of working with, as well as the InterfaithFamily National Board.
30) The 63 Philadelphia area synagogues and organizations that are participating in InterfaithFamily Shabbat 2014 and The Jewish Exponent for being a Media Affiliate. And all of the individuals who are going to attend InterfaithFamily Shabbat services, dinners and programs, helping to ensure that this year’s InterfaithFamily Shabbat will be the most successful one yet!
What are you thankful for this November?