The Religious Identity of an Interfaith Home is a Journey, Not a Destination

  

Religious Identity is a Journey. Mother and three kids hiking through a dense forest. Kids are aged 6 and 10.

Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”

But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, I’ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.

For my husband and me, our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post, I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.

We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a b’nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.

I’ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audience—dating, engaged or married young adult couples.

There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.

As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, “Just because you make a decision doesn’t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, “Of course, they do.” I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my book From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reason—because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?

One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background “still haven’t figured it out.” Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.

For me, their request was a call to action. I’m now helping these partners form a small group. I’m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.

My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.

Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.

My Husband: The Not Jewish, Jewish Parent

  
Jane's son Sammy and husband Cameron.

Jane’s son Sammy and husband Cameron.

The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.

Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.

Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.

I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.

Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.

As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”

When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”

“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.

I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.

Thanks for Giving Me Shavuot for Father’s Day

  

By Alex Schuh

Schuh family b'nai mitzvah

The Schuh family at their children’s b’nai mitzvah

One thing I love about being in an interfaith relationship is the seemingly endless array of religious holidays and celebrations of my wife’s and kids’ religion that pop up to surprise me again and again every season. Because the Jewish holidays are keyed to the lunar calendar, plus some other mysterious (at least to me) factors, the dates seem to shift widely throughout the year, which makes the whole thing a bit more exciting than planning around the Christian holidays (Christmas? It’s December 25 again this year! Hanukkah? I have no idea!). The surprise nature of the Jewish holidays revealed themselves to me again this year, when my wife announced what we would be doing on our wedding anniversary, which is June 11.

“Remember,” she said, “We’ll be going to the Havurah gathering that night.” I could feel my twin 14-year-olds leaning forward a bit from the back seat of the car to get more details.

“What for?” I asked.

“It’s Shavuot,” she replied, matter-of-factly. Hmm… Shavuot. Yes, I’d heard of it. In fact, Shavuot was instrumental in moving our Texas wedding date to the middle of June from early June. That was not an insignificant change, particularly since every additional June day in Texas adds another degree to the thermometer. Shavuot actually had an impact on my life and the start of our family, and the 100-degree weather of our wedding weekend (!), so I should have been able to call up some reference facts on it. I knew it had something to do with counting, but beyond that, I was clueless.

What’s Shavuot?” I asked. The kids were listening more closely in the back of the car, trying to discern what might merit a trip to the Havurah on a school night just before their final exams week, I suspect.

My wife hesitated for a moment. “I’m guessing it has something to do with a famous battle, agriculture or a feast of some kind—or maybe all three.” I offered.

“It’s, um, related to the Torah: when Moses received it.” She quickly checked Google on her phone, and sure enough, it is a commemoration of when God gave Moses the Torah. And, it did indeed involve counting: It occurs on the 50th day after 49 days of counting the Omer.

I remember our Rabbi in the Havurah explaining how it is determined when it occurs, although having never actually counted the Omer myself, I still don’t think I could have determined when it would occur that year. Because it doesn’t have any particular Torah commandments associated with it (unlike the other holidays) it can be celebrated in different ways, or without much fanfare at all (many Jews don’t give much attention to Shavuot, which explains why some Jews are not as familiar with it as they are with the other holidays).

It turns out that Shavuot is a very interesting holiday—most of them are interesting, but this one has some particular features that are worth noting. It’s known as the “Feast of Weeks,” as it is celebrated with a feast that gives thanks for the grain harvest (In Israel, not in Philadelphia, where we live). Shavuot means “weeks,” in Hebrew; it is actually a series of weeks (49 days) after Passover. Although it’s technically a grain-related holiday, it’s milk that gets the prime position in the food department, possibly because Israel is said to be flowing with “milk and honey” or because the Israelites abstained from eating meat before receiving the Torah. So, cheesecake is just as likely to make an appearance as cream of wheat (well, probably much more likely).

Shavuot is also one of three biblically based pilgrimages; the other two are Passover and Sukkot (another harvest holiday). Some people, like some of my Orthodox Jewish friends, stay up all night studying and teaching about the Torah on Shavuot. That would not work so well for my kids, who would be preparing for their final exams the next day.

On this wedding anniversary, I will be celebrating the beginning of “Father’s Day Week” with my twins and my wife during the festival of Shavuot. I am always grateful to have a reason to have a party with my family and friends, so Shavuot gives us the perfect reason this year. I am grateful once again to my children—my two wonderful Jewish kids—for their gift of a 5,000-year-old religion and all of the surprising, enlightening and tasty holidays that they give me season after season, year after year.