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“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.
Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.
Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.
Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?
Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.
By Melissa Henriquez
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
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.
Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2). By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
Once upon a time, Amy, a divorced Jewish girl from Jersey, met Matt, a divorced Irish Catholic boy from Philly, in the unlikely state of Maine. They went on some dates. Amy tried to convince herself Matt was too “nice and normal” and Matt ignored her and made her dinner and bought her flowers.They both realized pretty quickly that they were living a real-life Disney movie and suddenly the two found themselves blissfully in love, minus the talking animals of course.
Matt and Amy knew that they had a partner in each other, to support one another, laugh with, cry with and everything in between. They introduced their children to each other, they met one another’s families.They created a new life for themselves, together, figuring out how to start over in a serious relationship after divorce while already having kids and embracing the chaos, the unknowns, the differences and the sameness. Matt moved into Amy’s house, and to this day, continues to help her create what has become an actual home, reflecting the uniqueness of the kids and adults who live there.
This month, I celebrated my 40th birthday with Matt and my kids by my side. The significance of turning 40 has been huge for me, making me feel like I’m crossing some kind of real grown-up threshold and am caught between not quite feeling old enough to truly be the adult I imagined, while balancing paying a mortgage, organizing the household and parenting. Having Matt in my life to share it with makes the transition smoother, and as I have been reminded numerous times, 40 is the new 20 (without the ability to understand snapchat). So this week, with me settling into this new decade, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to really make things interesting for our family and friends, because that’s how we roll around here.
Using the power of social media, we enjoyed shocking everyone by announcing that we’re expecting this fall, which was as terribly fun to share as it was unexpected news (yes, our immediate families all knew prior to our announcement). And let me tell you—doing this at 40 with a 9-year-old and a 6 1/2-year-old at home is sooooo much harder than it was when I first started the journey of being a mom. I’m exhausted all the time and I somehow blocked out the joys of morning sickness, body aches and maternity jeans (actually, that last one I’m kind of in love with). But I’m feeling pretty good overall, and as my belly grows so does my excitement and nervousness about our expanding family.
Before Matt and I found out we were new parents-to-be, he joked to me one day that if we ever had a kid together I could pick the religion if he could pick the sports teams. A die-hard Philly fan vs. a New York sports fan was going to be hard enough with us living in New England, but there’s truth in laughter and my answer with a smile and a giggle was sure, darling, fair deal—never imagining that at 40 it could ever be reality. Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a child on the way, facing these very real questions about how we’re going to parent and what kind of impact our interfaith relationship will have on our baby on the way.
Our families have their own opinions and questions, many of which haven’t been vocalized, yet their subtle, careful questions paint a clear picture of uncertainty. Friends have been surprisingly more to the point, with direct questions expecting exact answers. My two kids, with their strong Jewish identities had their own Jewish birth stories, with a community naming ceremony for Roxy and a bris for Everett, both on the eighth day of their lives. Matt’s 10-year-old was baptized in the tradition of his own religious lineage, and it’s all Matt knows when it comes to connecting birth and religion.
We’ve discussed our own connections to these traditions and our journey of figuring out our “what next” has truly begun. What felt abstract about our interfaith relationship before is now “in your face,” and while I feel confident that our communication is strong and that we have the ability to be open and understanding with each other, there’s so much on the table that truly overwhelms me.
Raising a child is hard enough, even when the parents come from similar backgrounds. Add in divorce, co-parenting and a couple committed to each other who come from different worlds and aren’t engaged (can we please just deal with one major life change at a time?). Welcoming a child into this conglomeration? Well, this 40-year-old pregnant woman and her amazing boyfriend are doing a killer job of navigating, if I do say so myself.
Matt keeps me grounded through it all, with his calm demeanor and his “Stop worrying about everything, of course we’ll figure it out and I just want you to be happy” attitude. And he’s right, I know he’s right. I’m going to trust in him, and in this.
We might not have it all figured out, but this baby is already a blessing. The ride might be bumpy, but the destination will surely be joyous.