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A Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a 17-year-old Orthodox Yeshiva student sit down to eat Shabbat dinner… Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?
Well, it’s not.
It was my family last Friday night. We were also joined by my two younger children. In my family, we’ve got a taste of k’lal Yisrael—the whole Jewish community—under one roof. I often tell my younger kids jokingly (well, mostly joking) that if my oldest son goes on to get Orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination, which many males in his Orthodox community do) then I want one of them to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so we can have rabbis in all four major denominations of Judaism in our immediate family.
I was thrilled to have my oldest son home for a weekend break from his Yeshiva (Orthodox boarding school focused primarily on the study of traditional Jewish texts) and to have my whole family gathered together around our Shabbat dinner table. As I blessed my children after lighting the Shabbat candles, I put my hands on each of their heads and then kissed them, and I thought about how lucky I was to have each of them and how much I love each and every individual in my religiously diverse Jewish family.
Sure, having a very observant Orthodox child (which he has been for two years now) in our family isn’t always easy. I had always assumed that my kids would all live at home until going off to college at the age of 18, but instead my oldest began boarding at an out-of-town Yeshiva this past September, when he was 16-and-a-half, and I miss having him at home. But when he is at home it’s challenging that our level of kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) isn’t as strict as his. While my husband and I will eat fish or vegetables at regular restaurants, he’ll only eat at a kosher restaurant with a hashgacha (kosher certification) that he accepts. His lifestyle’s very different from ours so that, even when he’s not at school, it’s not really possible for him to travel with us unless we were to go to places where predominately Orthodox families travel, so that he can pray, eat and follow laws of modesty in ways that are comfortable to him. But those same lifestyle choices might be uncomfortable for the rest of us.
We make it work. When he’s home, we go to our favorite kosher restaurant. Last December we took our two younger kids out of school a few days early to go away over winter break so that we’d be back in time for our oldest son to come home for his long weekend off that started on December 29.
As I tell the interfaith couples that I work with, and as I’ve come to appreciate in my own life: Being in a relationship means respecting differences, honoring the person you love even when you disagree, compromising where you can, and knowing what issues are non-negotiable for you and for the other person. (For example, my son won’t attend a service where men and women sit together, so I accept that he won’t come to my synagogue when he’s home. And he accepts that, while I’ll wear a long skirt and follow the other laws of dressing modestly while visiting him at school, unlike his classmates’ mothers, I normally wear pants.)
Equally important is working hard not to judge the other person. When my son started to become very observant, my husband and I sat him down and said to him: “We’re very concerned about you being Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is so judgmental.” My son looked us in the eyes and without missing a beat said: “Do you have any idea how judgmental you’ve been of me and of my being Orthodox?” The words stung, because we knew he was right. We weren’t really being as open-minded, tolerant and accepting as we thought we were. Sure, it’s easy to be tolerant of whatever you’re already comfortable with. It’s a lot more challenging to be tolerant when something is outside of your comfort zone.
I often speak to parents whose adult children are in interfaith relationships. I tell them that when our children are young, we can choose how we raise them and what we expose them to. We have all kinds of expectations about what they should be like and what they should do as they grow older. And we think that by what we tell them and with the example we set, we can control how they’ll later lead their lives and the choices they’ll make.
Sometimes this is true. But other times, our children will follow their own paths, and fall in love with someone—or in my son’s case, a way of life—that’s different from what we’d planned. This can be difficult, but ultimately we need to respect and honor our children’s choices. This same advice I give to parents whose kids are in interfaith relationships applies to my own religiously diverse family.
Being in a family with intra-faith differences, like being in an interfaith family, has its challenges. But just like being in an interfaith family, it also has its blessings. The bottom line is that I love my wonderful, crazy family with all of our intra-faith diversity. It isn’t always easy, but it’s my family, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. I’ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Mother’s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didn’t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alter—it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richard’s family wasn’t particularly religious either. He wasn’t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didn’t think it was right. My grandmother, who lived with us, wasn’t supportive. They didn’t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didn’t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, “It’s your life, you make the decision.” And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didn’t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the ’60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldn’t be favoring one over the other. We didn’t care. We really didn’t take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friend’s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parent’s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didn’t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, we’ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naïve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dad’s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us. We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me: What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasn’t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I can’t believe I don’t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom: I would say I’m Jewish, just to make it easier. I never converted, so I know I’m not technically Jewish. But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My mom’s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Want to honor someone special this Mother’s Day? Make a donation to InterfaithFamily in their honor.
Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, “Why should I be Jewish?”
To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.
So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?
I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:
How can you even choose?
Is it a choice to be Jewish?
Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?
What if you don’t have Jewish family heritage?
How do you choose Judaism?
I want to add a few more questions to the above. If you’re in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggage—why voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?
Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?
How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated? Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that you’re not really Jewish, or your family’s not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?
Love of the past—of the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.
Love of the present—of the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.
Love of the future—to give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldn’t offer him any fruit, he answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.
Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. It’s an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know there’s a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.
Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe it’s the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism. I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.
Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.
This piece is a heartfelt, fictionalized snapshot of one person’s experience. It is not meant to be a judgment about having a Christmas tree. I would love to read about other people’s experiences…
Sarah had only been to her dad’s house a couple of times since he married Joanne, and her heart raced as she rang the bell. Quincy’s barking calmed her some. She knew that dog loved her.
Joanne wasn’t home, but her presence filled the rooms. Sarah saw her in the framed family photos of strangers, and her dad. She saw her in the decorative plate collection framing the kitchen archway, and in the silver thimbles on tiny shelves in the dining room. And she was in the tree…
Sarah had always loved Christmas trees. She loved helping her friends decorate them, and she loved hearing stories about treasured ornaments. She loved the way they smelled and the way the lights looked in the dark. She loved the warm cozy feeling they evoked in Christmas movies, but this tree was different.
This tree kicked her in the heart. This tree was proof of just how far her dad had strayed from their family. She didn’t see the dad who wouldn’t let her quit Hebrew school in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who only let her date Jewish boys in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who had raised her in this house.
Sarah was surprised by the strength of her reaction. The tree brought tears to her eyes. She sat on the floor with Quincy, and buried her face for a lingering moment in his soft fur.
She wanted her dad to be happy, but she also wanted her dad’s house to feel like home. She knew it never would. She also knew that she would make her peace with it, but for now, it just felt like another loss.
Today on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, “at least not right now.” She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an “interfaith couple,” a term which “does not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.”
I posted a response that I’d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesn’t mean a couple that is raising children “both” or in two faiths. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.
We think that the term “interfaith” has become what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term “interfaith” the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.
Allison writes that there are “plenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,” but doesn’t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition – and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than “interfaith.”
Allison writes in her article that her and her husband’s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are “many shades of gray.” But as we use the term, “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.
Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organization’s goal – which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations – is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.