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Iâ€™ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. Iâ€™ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblingsâ€™ and my friendships. But repeatedly, Iâ€™ve realized that their tolerance doesnâ€™t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.
My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrumâ€“they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.
I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasnâ€™t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Gregâ€™s sexual identity might somehow influence our sonâ€™s sexuality.
So, it wasnâ€™t surprising that from the time my stepsisterâ€™s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girlsâ€™ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.
Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.
“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”
I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.
When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didnâ€™t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didnâ€™t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didnâ€™t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsisterâ€™s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephewâ€™s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.
*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the â€śsheâ€ť pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the childâ€™s pronoun is â€śheâ€ť and he is using his given name.
I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. â€śIt’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. Weâ€™re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. Weâ€™re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.â€ť
I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.
I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.
This week, InterfaithFamily is celebrating its important work and the leadership provided by InterfaithFamily Founder Ed Case and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston President Barry Shrage in making it possible for more of us to #ChooseLove without needing to decide between love and a Jewish life. Leading up to Thursdayâ€™s celebration, I hope you have had a chance to read IFFâ€™s own Liz Polay-Wettengelâ€™s â€śAn Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Familyâ€ť on Medium this week, as well as Molly Tolskyâ€™s great response on Kveller. In her essay, Liz Polay-Wettengel speaks some honest and difficult truths about her familyâ€™s path to, with, and outside of Judaism as an Interfaith family. Molly Tolsky underscores the importance of Lizâ€™s piece, and shares her own experience, one that rings true to so many of us, of how often Interfaith couples are whole-heartedly raising their famililes Jewishly, even while there are those in our community who still decry â€śthe problemâ€ť of their couplehood.
I am lucky that my familyâ€™s story is not filled with the denials, closed doors or simple noâ€™s described in these two pieces. A huge reason for this is based in a single exchange I had with InterfaithFamily, with Ed Case specifically, eleven years ago.
When Eric and I were engaged in Los Angeles in 2004, we knew we wanted to be married by a rabbi. We also knew we wanted opportunities for members of both of our families to be involved and engaged in the wedding ceremony. We had taken an Introduction to Judaism class together and had shul-shopped a bit, but we didnâ€™t have one rabbi we knew we wanted to marry us. My parents lived in Newton, where IFFâ€™s founding and national office is located, and they knew a little about Ed Case and IFF. They encouraged us to check out the IFF website, and I was happy when I first poked around to find a link about â€śSeeking a Rabbi.â€ť
I emailed the IFF general email with a request for some ideas about rabbis in Los Angeles who would be open to marrying us. Ed Case quickly wrote back with a list of potential clergy, at least a dozen long. We started working our way through the list, setting up interviews, and eventually found a perfect fit – a wonderful rabbi named Allen Freehling with whom we both easily connected.
A list of names in an email might not sound like much, but when I compare it to the stories my peers shared this week, I am reminded of our great fortune. Wedding planning is a huge endeavor, and the process lays a foundation for your identity as a couple. If the very first step in this process is to encounter a set of â€śnoâ€™s,â€ť it can derail both your planning and your spirit. Because IFF had actively engaged in assembling lists just like the one Ed Case emailed to me, we had a long list of Yeses to send us down a path that encouraged both our pursuit of Judaism and our identity as an Interfaith family.
This week, I am thankful that IFF was available to Eric and me to support our establishment as a family. Every week, I am grateful for the resources of this organization and the communities it creates to continue this support. I hope you find it helpful to you in some small or large way, too. If you are anywhere near Boston on Thursday, Iâ€™ll look out for you at IFFâ€™s #ChooseLove celebration.
I have a confession. I love the events posted on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network.
I am jealous. I wish we had similar events here. So I went on a mission. I wanted to find some kind of local support group for interfaith families with one Jewish parent.
I didn’t have any success finding anything established locally. The programs I found were beginner level designed to teach basic concepts of Jewish spirituality and culture, which wasn’t what I was looking for.
Naaleh offers a series of lectures on making Jewish holidays and life events meaningful to children. I have listened to a couple and Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller does present some great ideas for making Jewish spirituality come alive to children of all ages. I am looking for the ideas but put into the context of an interfaith family — when one parent isn’t Jewish.
Thankfully, Benjamin from right here on IFF helped me get some things rolling. He met up with some of the local Jewish Federation people at TribeFest. He pitched my idea and they loved it. He got me in touch with the right person and we’re trying to set up an introductory event, mostly to get people in the room and figure out where to go with this idea.
Benjamin suggested I work on articulating the goal of this support group: The goal is to help parents of interfaith families with parenting skills and decisions within a partial or fully Jewish household. For example, there are the winter holidays — do you celebrate one or both and how would you explain it to the kids?
Here are some of the questions that have crossed my mind:
– How do we keep the non-Jewish parent involved and not let them feel like the odd wheel?
I am trying to find practical answers to these questions. How do you answer the questions without sounding like you have joined some kind of cult? (“Yeah and then on Yom Kippur we swing a chicken around our heads…”)
I know there is no right answer, and in fact it’s the mixture of answers I would love to hear.
They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I am trying to find a village! I keep hearing about the 50% interfaith marriage rate and assume some of these people have children — where is everybody?
Do you have any experience with a similar kind of support network? Do you just rely on your local shul for support or do you have a parent group you meet with regularly? What do you talk about?
I would really appreciate if you would share your experiences or even what you would look for in a support group.