Dawn C. Kepler is director of Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach to Interfaith Couples, located in the East Bay area of San Francisco, Calif.
Sometimes Comfort Trumps Truth
An outreach professional's response to May You Live Until 120!, by Rosalyn Shafter.
Let me begin at the end and work backwards. Should Chris and Rosalyn tell Chris' elderly mother that he has converted? Why? There is everything to lose--her peace of mind, her comfort in her senior years--and nothing to gain. For those Jews who believe in an afterlife, Chris will arrive there to see his mother; he'll just be coming on a different set of wings.
Some Catholics have told me that the Church raised them believing that non-Christians (sometimes non-Catholics) will not go to heaven and they're not able to see it differently. Many others are able to accept more modern teachings of the Catholic Church. To those who want to have a theological foundation for this newer perspective, I suggest you read A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People, written by a group of Christian scholars.
When thinking about death and mourning it is useful to keep in mind that your plans are for those who survive you, not necessarily for your sake but for theirs. Rosalyn wisely considered what her husband would feel as he viewed her burial. Often we attempt to do what our loved one “would have wanted.” That's good, but when planning our own funeral, let's try to think in terms of what will comfort our loved ones. That doesn't mean having a funeral service in another faith, but it could mean planning or expecting that a partner will need something from their own tradition. So a Jew may sit shiva for a Christian. A Christian may pray to Jesus for their Jewish partner.
Finally, Rosalyn has a list of “Ds.” The one that jumps out at me is “dysfunctional family.” I have yet to hear a parent tell me, “I am a dysfunctional mother/father.” Rather I hear from the child, “I grew up in a dysfunctional family.” When loving and participating in the lives of our grandchildren of mixed heritage, be careful not to create competing or contradictory messages for those beloved little ones. The stories that adults tell me of what their grandparents did, secret trips to church or synagogue, secret rituals or promises extracted, reveal painful childhood experiences that are born of self-involved adults failing to put the child first. A child can eat foods from different cuisines, speak different languages, love many celebrations, but needs to know who she/he is. And religious identity needs to be specific, delimited and age-appropriate.