Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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.