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What's in a Name? Maybe Too Much!

The Jewish Outreach Institute ( was originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of interfaith marriage. JOI's services have since grown to include training outreach professionals and sponsoring innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program ( JOI's primary mission is to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community and to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried and unaffiliated. This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the readership.

There is perhaps no tenser time for an interfaith family than the birth of a child. Even the challenges of marriage can pale in comparison. Lots of undecided issues and unresolved conflicts may arise. Things that formerly did not seem so important suddenly do. And, of course, parents on both sides want to "weigh in" with their opinions, threatening to eclipse one of the most beautiful moments in the life of a family. For having a child can be a wonderfully religious experience, if the new parents are allowed time to luxuriate in the joy and blessing of their baby.

Obviously, having a girl spares the intermarried couple the issue of "physical" entry into the covenant. But many other decisions remain, most notably that of the child's name. As the birth approaches, it seems like everyone becomes a personal interpreter of Jewish law--and family custom suddenly becomes "the way all Jews do it."

Everyone seems to "know" the right way to choose a name for a child. Superstitions abound. But the truth is: there are no rules. At best, there are only community customs. Perhaps the best advice for parents to follow is the advice of their hearts. Another piece of relevant guidance, from Jewish folk culture (as slightly amended from a midrash, or rabbinic legend, about the book of Ecclesiastes) goes like this: A person has three names. One is the name given by one's parents. Second is the name by which one is known (and referred to by friends). Third is the name that one earns for oneself.

Names help shape the identity of the individual. They remind us of-and connect us to-our family past. In a way, they provide children with a memory even before they are born.

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we try to sensitize rabbis and other communal professionals working with interfaith couples during this joyful--and challenging--time in their lives. We take a "care team" approach, making sure that each professional is fully aware of the interfaith family dynamic.

We also recommend that couples initiate a conversation about children and names sooner rather than later...maybe even before the marriage! Certainly before the pressures of pregnancy prevent clear thinking. Working toward a decision that everyone is comfortable with may take considerable time and effort. We all know how procrastination adds stress to any task; certainly, childbirth is one task that needs no additional stress!

Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at.

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is

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