I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

  

By Lindsey Goldstein

I Wish We’d Had “The Religion Talk” Before Having Kids

Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasn’t sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.

My husband was raised Catholic but hasn’t practiced any religion since he left his parents’ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.

Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids weren’t profound. They went something like this:

Me: “How will we raise our kids with respect to religion?”

Him: “Well, you’re Jewish, so aren’t they Jewish by default?”

Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.

That’s fine and good, but I’ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being “nothing.” Or as my brother’s kids say, they are “half Jewish.” What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.

Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kids’ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with them—and unlike him, I practice my religion.

Yet this wasn’t a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.

When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.

As I have previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things I’d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she “graduated” from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.

The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have a bat mitzvah and she said yes. I explained to her she’d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.

Here’s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I don’t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we don’t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isn’t an easy path to choose.

Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they don’t have to.

The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being “different.” When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though I’ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasn’t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who “get me.”

No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.

And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I don’t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community. Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.

Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before us—and it won’t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.

That’s why when other interfaith couples say they’re going to “wing it,” I vehemently tell them not to—but rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.

In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.

I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringing—especially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, “Jewish.”

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.

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.