Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Republished November 5, 2010
"I guess that God does not have it in His plan for me to be a mother. I don't know what I did to deserve this punishment?" a Catholic client said to me.
As I was in the midst of replying to her that I thought there could be other ways of seeing God's role in our lives, she interrupted, "Oh I know. Thank heavens I have a Jewish husband!"
With that, my client went on to explain that her husband, whose first and last names both "sound Christian," is the son of an observant Jewish mother and a Christian father.
"He's the president of our synagogue. And me, even though I still go to Mass every Sunday, I'm head of the temple sisterhood and I go to services every Friday night. If we do ever manage to have children, they'll be Jewish."
This was but one of the many times that I have seen the powerful role that faith--and intermarriage--plays in the lives of couples struggling with infertility and adoption. As a social worker counseling couples who are trying to build families, I see many interfaith couples who decided, at the time of marriage, that they would raise their children as Jews. That decision proved to be the easy part. The hard part has turned out to be having the children.
Although many do go on to have biological children, some move on to adoption.
Choosing between Domestic and International Adoption
All couples considering adoption must decide whether to adopt domestically or internationally. There are many factors that go into this decision--age of the child, sex selection, birthparent issues, humanitarian concerns, health etc. However, for interfaith couples there are some added considerations.
In domestic adoption birthparents select parents for their child and most prefer Christian couples. For the interfaith couple, this can raise questions about how much to "play up" the Christian part of the family and specifically Christmas, when they introduce themselves to birthparents through a photo album. Since Christmas is usually a very important part of the Christian member's family life, photos of these celebrations seem to have a "legitimate" place in the couple's collection of photos. On the other hand, if the couple plans to raise their children as Jews, they may feel an obligation to make this known to birthparents from the very start. How much will this jeopardize their chances to be selected by birthparents and will it prolong their adoption process?
International adoption raises a different question for interfaith couples: how complicated will it be to bring another culture into our family when we are already combining two very different heritages? For example, couples who adopt children from China feel a responsibility to bring Chinese culture into their homes and to be sure that their child is raised with a sense of pride in her Chinese heritage. How does this mesh with raising a child with a Jewish identity and education? I have heard Jewish parents of Chinese-born daughters question if their daughters will be "overloaded" if they go to Chinese language and/or dance class, and to Hebrew school, and participate in sports. Others have taken pride in supporting their daughter's dual "heritages."
I am reminded, in particular, of a Christian-born woman who converted to Judaism soon after marrying her husband, who remains a Christian. Their interfaith marriage was recently blessed with the arrival of a daughter from China. The mother, who proudly displays the Star of David around her neck and who chose a very traditional Jewish name for her daughter, told me with great delight, "The Jewish generations of our family begin with the two of us--a Methodist-born mother and a Chinese-born daughter."
Brit Milah, Naming, and Conversion
The interfaith adoptive couple faces the same question that all interfaith couples face: should we raise our children as Jews? However, this question becomes more complicated when the child is adopted. For example, new parents may not be able to welcome their new son into the faith with a brit milah, ritual circumcision, on the eighth day if he is adopted at an older age. For another, interfaith parents who might not otherwise feel a need to convert their child, will need to confront this question when adopting (since it is very unusual for an adopted child to be born to Jewish birthparents).
For the interfaith couple, the decision to raise their children as Jews must now go one step further as they enter into a formal conversion process. I remember one woman saying that although she felt she was leading a Jewish life, she did not plan to formally convert to Judaism. However, after she decided to adopt, she was re-thinking this decision. "I wonder how our daughter will feel knowing we converted her as an infant but I--her mother--remain 'technically' a Christian?"
Interfaith Marriage and Transracial Adoption
Anyone who considers adopting across racial lines gives careful consideration to what this will mean for them, their child, and their extended family. They look at the community they live in and explore how a child of another race will feel growing up in that community. Will there be others who look like him/her? Will he/she stand out as being different? What will it mean for our family to always be identified as an adoptive family among our neighbors, in the schools, and on the sports fields?
For the interfaith family there are additional questions. Couples planning to raise their children as Jews confront the question of what it means to be Jewish and Asian, or Jewish and Black, or Jewish and Indian or South American. Fortunately, there are numbers of non-white Jews in this country and throughout the world, but in most communities, they are few and far between. Interfaith couples who belong to synagogues tend to take a careful look around their synagogue before seriously pursuing a transracial adoption.
If an interfaith couple chooses to adopt transracially and to raise their children as Jews, how will this be for the non-Jewish grandparents who may already be adjusting to the fact that their grandchild was adopted? For some would-be grandparents, this may present a challenge and a stretch.
However, I am also reminded of one Christian couple who adopted from China and who credited the mom's sister's interfaith marriage with preparing the grandparents for transracial adoption. "My sister married a Jewish man and agreed to raise her children as Jews. As my nephew's Bar Mitzvah approached, my parents decided that we should all learn some Hebrew so that we could participate in the service. And so, my brother, my sister, and I, along with our parents, briefly studied Hebrew. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and although we didn't know it at the time, it seems to have paved the way for my family's readiness to welcome our Chinese daughter. Nate's Bar Mitzvah taught everyone that our lives are enriched when our boundaries are expanded."
Adoption is, as adoptive parents are repeatedly reminded, a lifelong experience. Interfaith marriage, also, is a lifelong experience. Undoubtedly, interfaith couples who turn to adoption face certain questions that may make their adoption experience feel more complicated, or perhaps, more challenging. At the same time, however, those who have fallen in love with someone outside their faith have already been reminded of some of the pleasures and rewards that come from stepping outside one's familiar territory and embracing difference.