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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.
By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. He’s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each other’s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. I’ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.
Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadn’t seen her in a year or so—her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughter’s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, “Is she seeing anyone special?”
“Yes,” I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, “But is he Jewish?”
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditions—b’nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.
“No,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“That’s OK,” she said, “since he’s a great guy.”
I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, I’ve been getting this question from Jewish friends—even if they had married someone of another faith or don’t care about being Jewish personally—for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouths—before “Do you like him?” or “What does he do for a living?” or even, “How do you feel about him living in England?”
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give me—as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.
So I’ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe more—am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? I’m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.
My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday party—and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.
So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girls’ hearts. We think we were successful.
But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.
And people are questioning her choice.
And they are making me uncomfortable.
And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.
And that’s not all I care about, but I get it.
And I wish they would stop asking.
Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslim…I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.
Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.
But when these people keep asking, first thing, “Is he Jewish?” I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didn’t.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didn’t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didn’t rule out the possibility that one day maybe I’d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasn’t focused on finding a lifelong mate – and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends weren’t Jewish, and besides, I didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
It’s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they weren’t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everett’s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didn’t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didn’t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was “the one” and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
There’s that whole cliché of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. There’s no explanation, there’s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish there’s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But we’ve both been there, done that, so there’s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids – both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids don’t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
It’s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldn’t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me he’s bringing his TV because it’s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, I’ve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things I’ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. I’m ready for this next phase but also know there’s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. There’s a mezuzah on the front door. There’s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still haven’t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. There’s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I can’t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that I’d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I don’t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, and that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but I’m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that it’s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
Over winter break, an inmarried Jewish friend told me that her son was no longer dating the nice Jewish girl from his summer camp. He was now dating a not Jewish girl from his high school. I could tell my friend wasn’t enthusiastic about the relationship.
The following week, I received a message from another inmarried friend with two teenage sons. She had just read about the decision by the USY board to drop its policy prohibiting teen board members from interdating. She asked if I could write about the topic since dating was an extension of the intermarriage conversation.
I sensed that both of my friends were a little anxious about the subject even though they were Reform Jews with open minds, open hearts, and intermarried friends that live Jewishly. I also sensed that they weren’t sure how to talk about interdating, and no one was discussing it with them either. My friends were looking for information and some guidance.
This post is for them and other parents who are navigating teenage interdating. Dealing with adolescent romance is not easy, and the issues of Jewish continuity and intermarriage can add a layer of stress. Here are few things for parents to keep in mind.
Few high school couples marry. Estimates suggest that high school sweethearts comprise only 2% of new marriages, and a 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that only 14% of respondents age 18-27 met their partner in either high school or college. With dating abuse receiving much attention of late, it is more important that your child is in a healthy, positive adolescent relationship than a relationship with someone of the same faith. Talk to your teens; teach them how to date, how to respect themselves and others, and how to protect themselves from abusive behavior.
Critical Jewish experiences are better predictors of future Jewish engagement than the faith of a romantic partner. I note in From Generation to Generation that the level of Jewish activism in a home–ritual observance, Jewish education and social networks–is a stronger predictor of Jewish continuity than the faith of a love interest or marriage partner. Do you regularly celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays in your home? Do your teens participate in Jewish education post-b’nei mitzvah? Are they involved in Jewish youth organizations and activities? Do they attend Jewish camp? Has your family or teenagers traveled to Israel? Do they have Jewish friends? Answer “yes” to some or all of these questions and it’s likely that your children have a solid Jewish identity and will choose to make a Jewish home, regardless of the religious identity of their mate.
Telling your children “don’t” won’t ensure Jewish continuity. In From Generation to Generation, I quote an Orthodox father of five who says, “Guaranteeing Jewish identity is the sum of everything you do when you raise your children. It’s not just telling them don’t.” Simply prohibiting interdating won’t make Judaism important to your children and unless you plan to arrange your child’s dates, you have little control over the identity of his or her romantic partners. But you do have influence. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness, parents have the biggest impact on their children’s Jewishness when they are involved in and show a strong commitment to Jewish activities and regularly explain in an honest manner why they engage in Judaism. Talk to your teen about why Judaism and its continuation is important to you. Share your hope that he or she will want to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children irrespective of the faith of their partner. Don’t just do this once; make it an on-going conversation. Show them that you mean what you say by engaging in Jewish life in your home and community.
Welcome the stranger. Make an effort to get to know your child’s not Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend and create opportunities for him or her to learn about your family and your child’s upbringing. Invite them to join you for Shabbat dinner, a Passover Seder or High Holiday meal. Ask them to participate in your Hanukkah celebration. Use these occasions to expose your child’s beau to Jewish life, show them that Judaism is important to your family and give them insight into a different tradition. These experiences are an opportunity to break down stereotypes and build understanding and acceptance.
Interdating during the teen years is part of teenage social experimentation, but it can be difficult for parents. Preventing interdating is unrealistic and fearing the future you have little control over is unproductive. Focus your energy on influencing your teen’s connection to Judaism by planting Jewish seeds, nurturing them often and talking about the importance of Judaism in your lives. Not only will this help strengthen your family’s ties to the Jewish faith today, but it will increase the chances that Judaism will continue to blossom through your children tomorrow.
When I first graduated from my MBA program a lot of important things happened in my life. I got a new job, I got engaged to a Jewish man and I was called out in a lawsuit for being anti-Semitic. This is not something I think about much anymore, but I was specifically named in the lawsuit for my anti-Semitic ways. I remember the day I was served I thought, but I am marrying a Jew, how can I possibly be anti-Semitic? I am raising my kids as Jews. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me.
The woman who served the company with the lawsuit took what I did and said out of context, and the lawsuit was eventually ruled on in my favor. But, what she said to me has in some part stuck with me. She told me that the numbers of Jews are decreasing. By marrying a Jewish man I am in fact aiding in decreasing the number of Jews in the world. Her final conclusion was that I was so dedicated to ending the Jewish religion that I was giving my life to marry a Jew in my attempt to lessen the numbers. She called me some not to nice names as well, but I won’t repeat them. She was a little crazy.
I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have been trying to formulate a response to Steve’s comment regarding my recent post about not wanting my kids to intermarry. Is my reticence to allow my kids to do what I did rooted in my desire to prove her wrong? Or at least not let her be right. I think that there is more to it than that, but there is probably a small amount of truth there. I don’t want to contribute to the decline in numbers.
Being intermarried is not super easy, especially when the spouse does not convert. Right, wrong or indifferent, I was inaugurated into the Jewish faith with “a don’t ask don’t tell policy.” I look Jewish enough to pass muster at temple. No one questions me. I don’t correct people. While everyone at our temple is really friendly and I doubt any of them care, there is still a sense of not belonging that is hard to shake. My peers in this situation have responded by either converting or not being involved. There is a small stalwart group of us that is involved and not converted. We meet for coffee under the cover of darkness.
Again, the people at our temple are really warm and welcoming. What I am talking about is not a specific issue, but rather a general feeling. There is so much written and discussed about not wanting Jews to intermarry. There is still an underlying current of disapproval for making that choice. Just look around and see how easy it is to find a rabbi that will marry an interfaith couple, or a mohel who will perform a bris for a baby born to a non-Jewish mother, even if the non-Jewish partner is fully and wholly committed to raising the children as Jews.
Being a clueless optimist, it really never occurred to me that it might be hard when I made these choices. But, I am less pie-eyed about my decision, and I realize that it is not something most people can do. I do not want my kids to find themselves in a place where they forced to choose between their religion and their potential spouse. One way to eliminate that is to not date out of the faith. Old-fashioned, archaic one might say, but also avoids the potential for conflict.
Bottom line, marriage is hard work. The fewer areas of potential conflict you have with your spouse the better. I want my kids to be happy and successful, and as such, it seems marrying a Jew would be easier. That said, my husband and I make a good team. I don’t know that I could have found a better partner in my own faith.
I just learned yesterday that if you text a member of the opposite sex the word “Heyy” with two “y’s” you are in a relationship. Three “y’s” means you are married, one is only friends. I guess my husband and I are only friends because he only gets one “y.” While there was a certain amount of awkward joking about the subject, what I was learning was that my oldest son (in middle school) was starting to think that girls didn’t have cooties and that he might want a girlfriend, at some point, not now he quickly reassured me.
The girl he has a crush on is cute and she seems nice enough. I am pretty sure she is not smart enough for him, but she has enough spunk to put him in his place. I like her sense of humor and her unique style. BUT, you know there had to be a but, she is not Jewish. Talk about talking out of both sides of your mouth, but I don’t want my baby to date a non-Jew. I think it is so strange that I, of all people, am upset that he might want to marry a non-Jew. I actually sort of have this vehement need to demand that he does not marry a non-Jew. There might be a little foot stamping and room sending as well. Guess I have more in common with my Jewish elders that I thought.
I asked Mac about how he felt about dating a non-Jew. His response was that he was not likely to marry this girl. True. That there are not a lot of Jewish girls running around here in the epicenter of Christianity. True. That his father didn’t think it was important enough to marry a Jewish girl and their kids have turned out alright. True. That said, I feel like all the hard work and sacrifice I have made is really for nothing if it does not go further than my own kids. These kids need to create more Jewish kids. (This raises a whole issue of what sort of Grandma I will be, but I am too young and sassy to address that.)
We talked a bit more about whom he might want to marry. He said that he didn’t really care what religion she was, but he did want the kids to be raised as Jews. While this was marginally comforting, it did drive home the point that we do need to be extra vigilant in making sure that being Jewish is something important enough that our kids want to pass it on to their kids. This conversation is not over. Mac is just starting to think about girls and he is still really young. I am sure that we will have lots of opportunity to talk about the girls he likes and does not like. I hope that he makes good choices.
I am not sure what we need to do exactly about this, but I continue to try and create as Jewish a household as I can. We celebrate Shabbat weekly, we go to temple on a regular basis and the kids view themselves as Jews. I realize that I cannot make them “love being Jewish,” but I hope that they do. Cuz this non-Jewish mom wants some Jewish grandkids, or else you can just march yourself up to your room.