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.

L’dor V’dor

  
Little Jack and Mommom (Uncle Jack's sister) visiting Jack's grave

Little Jack and Mommom (Uncle Jack’s sister) visiting Jack’s grave

Sam and I have been together for almost five years, but Jewish memorial services and sitting shiva are still a new ritual for me.  Attending memorial services and shiva are a completely different experience with Jack.

The first time I went to sit shiva with Sam, was about a year and a half ago. I had several questions for Sam, “What do I wear? Do we bring anything? Will I have to say anything?” I forced Sam to stop at a kosher bakery on the way, because I come from a family that never goes anywhere without food. From the moment we walked in the door, without knocking or ringing the doorbell, I felt very awkward. The prayers were in Hebrew, and some Yiddish, and I didn’t know what to say to the family. I had only met this gentleman once before, very briefly at our wedding. I couldn’t contribute to the stories or memories of him, so I just sat there quietly and listened. Little did I know, that these stories would hold a dear place in my heart, as we would name our first born after this gentleman- Great Uncle Jack.

Because our Jack is still very young, we have not taken him to many shiva calls or memorial services. As much as we would like to be there for the family, we feel that some things would be inappropriate to take Jack to, at his young age. Because Jack is so loud and very active, I stay home while Sam pays our respects. We don’t want to draw attention with an infant, when the focus should be on the grieving family and memories of the deceased.

This rule flew out the window when a dear friend of the synagogue passed away. Sam would normally leave work for an hour or so to attend the daytime service, but this time, he had an important meeting that he could not miss. This family was close to us and we wanted to be present for them. So I packed up my very active and very loud 8-month old and a plethora of quiet toys and headed to the synagogue.

Throughout the service, Jack wanted to play. The toys kept him occupied until he wanted to talk and sing along. We normally take Jack to Friday night services, so he is used to the noise, people, and music. Friday night services are a much more joyous occasion, so I don’t mind when Jack sings or talks along; however, I thought it was inappropriate for him to talk and sing during the memorial service. I stepped out into the hall with Jack a few times, as to not completely disrupt the service with his cooing and babble. Afterwards, we gave our condolences briefly to the family and left before a full on baby-meltdown occurred.

We joined the family for shiva that evening. Again, Jack wanted to explore and sing throughout the prayer service. It was difficult to keep him (relatively) quiet in a living room full of friends and family. Afterwards, other members of the synagogue came up to us and said, “Jack is such a great reminder of L’dor V’dor (generation to generation),” “Don’t try to hush him, he is exercising his voice and may his voice always be heard,” “There’s nothing sweeter than hearing baby babble at services, the noise is more beautiful than the cantor’s singing” (sorry, Cantor)To those of you who said those wonderful things, thank you!

I think I get so caught up in him trying to sit quietly that I forget that babies will be babies. They will talk, cry, fuss and babble. To me, it feels like Jack is a disturbance; but to others, this sweet and beautiful noise is a reminder of the next generation. This reminder of the next generation was very poignant as we went with little Jack to Great Uncle Jack’s unveiling yesterday.

A Halloween Postscript: Why Opposition to Trick-or-Treating Won’t Strengthen Jewish Identity

  

I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.

This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.

As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.

Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.

Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.

According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.

Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.

I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.

We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.

We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).

These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.

Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.

Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.

American Jewish Community Must Learn From Jewishly Engaged Intermarrieds to Remain Vital

  

The Jewish community needs to engage more interfaith families in Jewish life.

When I set out to write my book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, I wanted to demonstrate through the telling of my family’s story that intermarriage has not been as bad for the Jews as many in the Jewish community would have us believe. I wanted to show that the reality of the religious lives of mixed faith families is more nuanced and richly Jewish, than is often portrayed through surveys, statistics, and snapshot anecdotes.

For years, the Jewish community’s belief that intermarriage is a significant factor in the decline of the Jewish population has been reinforced by how it collects its data. Jewish demographic surveys mostly look at rates of intermarriage and Jewish childrearing by intermarrieds. There have been few studies that I’ve come across that dig deeper into this issue through qualitative and quantitative research; few researchers, academics, or community leaders interested in understanding the hows and the whys of Jews who are intermarried.

This focus on calculating the percentage of Jews that intermarry and raise singularly Jewish children has failed to move the debate about how to best address intermarriage and its effect on Jewish continuity forward in a meaningful way. Instead, it continuously creates communal hysteria and vitriol with the release of each new study.

One of the problems with the data on intermarriage is that it captures the religious choices of families at a single point in time. This method assumes that interfaith family life is static. However, an intermarried family’s relationship to faith can be as dynamic as an inmarried family’s.

For example, some not Jewish partners choose to convert after many years of living a Jewish life. Previously uncommitted couples decide to engage Jewishly when a child is born or starts preschool. Interfaith families who identify as Jews of no religion become more involved after a significant life event. Families who start out as dual-faith later make the decision to have singularly Jewish homes. Children of intermarriage choose to identify as Jews in some way when they reach adulthood.

Until recently, most demographic studies have failed to measure the Jewish identification, engagement, and experience of interfaith families in a way that captures scenarios such as the ones highlighted above. However, after the publication of the Pew report, Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies asked the Pew research team to look at the rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews.

He found that over the years, “the proportion of adult children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish has steadily increased, reaching 59%” for children born after 1980. The result was almost evenly split between those identifying as Jews by religion and those identifying as Jews of no religion.

In discussing his findings, Sasson states in the Spring 2014 issue of Contact, “the higher-than-expected rate of Jewish identification among the adult children of intermarriage is…a significant milestone. The rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identify as Jewish exceeds the rate at which their parents claimed to be raising them as Jewish in the NJPS 2000-01 survey.”

Sasson’s data captures people like my cousin, the child of a Jewish father and not Jewish mother raised in a home with no religion. During his first year of college, he met other kids like him. Some of his friends had heard of Birthright and suggested that they all look into it.

The idea of exploring his Jewish heritage interested my cousin enough that he announced at his family’s secular Christmas dinner that he was planning to apply to go on the Israel trip with his friends. My Jew of no religion uncle, who had been turned-off by the faith after his bar mitzvah, did not resist the idea. He said, “I’d be okay with that.”

By collecting data on intermarriage and the child-rearing choices of intermarried Jews in the way that we do, we do not allow for the possibility that being Jewish or engaging in Judaism can become important or of interest to interfaith families and children of intermarriage over time. Dr. Sasson’s findings will hopefully get the Jewish research community to consider additional ways to study intermarriage’s effect on Jewish identity.

I hope to see more qualitative research being done too in order to better understand why intermarrieds are or are not choosing Judaism, and how they are engaging in Judaism if they are associating themselves with the Jewish people in some way. But, until communal leaders start asking these questions, it is up to intermarrieds who are actively choosing Judaism to make our voices heard.

By sharing my family’s interfaith and Jewish journey in From Generation to Generation, I hope others will be encouraged to share their story. Our narratives can help answer questions such as why, how, and when are intermarrieds making Jewish choices.

The Jewish community needs to learn from and leverage the experiences of interfaith families living Jewishly in order to draw more intermarrieds into American Jewish life. If it does not, the predictions of the communal pessimists will eventually become reality.

Sasson suggests that the Jewish community support efforts to maximize the percentage of intermarrieds raising Jewish children and welcome young adults not raised as Jews to explore their Jewish heritage. He seems to recognize what many Jewishly engaged intermarrieds already know; Jewish spouses will not sustain us, but Jewish engagement will.

From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity is available at Indibound, Amazon and other retail outlets.

Resource:

Theodore Sasson, “Investing in the Children of Intermarriage,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2014, Volume 16, no. 1, 8-9. http://www.steinhardtfoundation.org/wp-install/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/spring_2014.pdf