Church, State, and Jewish Engagement

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening prayers at government meetings, even if predominately Christian, do not violate the Constitution. How do Jewish and Jewish interfaith families prepare to confront the mixing of church and state?

I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.

In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.  

The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider. 

The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America – adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?

Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes – they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.

As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.

All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.

Why We Chose Judaism

According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.

But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.

Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.

So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.

So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:

1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.

I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.

Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”

2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.

Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.

3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.

“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”

The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.

I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.