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A Prenuptial Agreement for Interfaith Couples: Discussing These Questions Could Prevent Marital Problems Down the Road

Originally appeared in Dovetail: A Journal by and for Jewish/Christian Families. Copyright Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources (www.dovetailinstitute.org). Reprinted by permission.

Prenuptial pacts between couples with individual financial holdings have become increasingly popular and effective. The following questionnaire for interfaith couples is suitable for insuring vital communication that can help stave off problems arising from an interfaith marriage. The resulting pact can also be adopted as a legal agreement.

Religious Inventory
The first step is to gather background information. This is going to be fun, because you are going to find out so much about each other. As you share memories, feelings, and hopes, you will also be taking a religious inventory of your lives that will help you to make crucial decisions about the future you will share. The process could take days, possibly weeks.

Did you have a ritual circumcision? A christening? Were you baptized? Did you attend Sunday school, Hebrew school, parochial school? Did you have a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah ceremony? A First Communion? Confirmation? Did you have a "born again" experience? Would you want your children to have any of these experiences?

Which religious holidays are the most memorable for you? Reminisce about special moments on the Sabbath, at Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Christmas, Easter.

Do you believe in God? What is your concept of God? Do you believe in Jesus? Do you feel that your religion has given you strength, identity, an ethical frame of reference with which to relate to the world? Have you had a special relationship with a rabbi, priest, minister, nun, or guru? How did this person influence your life?

How does religion fit into the lives of your parents? Young people so often struggle to break away from their parents' lifestyles that it is difficult for them to assimilate the idea that all of us emulate our parents to some degree. But the fact is, our parents are our first role models. Their habits, mannerisms, speech patterns, and attitudes are programmed in our heads. We can't tell you the number of times we have heard middle-aged persons comment about their spouses, "He turned into his father," or "I close my eyes and hear her mother."

Do you own religious art, music, books, a mezuzah, cross, crucifix, nativity crêche, special Christmas tree ornaments, menorah, Kiddush cup, Sabbath candlesticks? Do you treasure these?

Is one of you committed to converting to the religion of the other? We emphasize the seriousness of this step. The decision can be a traumatic one, churning with emotions, which include fear of rejection by your family members. It must come out of a profound understanding of and commitment to the adoptive religion.

Your Interfaith Marriage Pact

Now, with your religious inventory on the table, you are ready to begin working on a draft.

1. Religious Identity
Pledge that, if each you has decided to keep your own religious identity without conversion, there will be no pressure to convert brought to bear after the marriage.

2. Home Environment
Determine whether there will be religious symbols in the home. Will a mezuzah greet visitors as they approach the doorpost of your house? Will a crucifix hang over your bed? Will paintings and posters with religious themes hang over the mantle or the sofa? Will religious books be on conspicuous display?

3. Children
Will your children be given a single religious identity? Will there be a naming in the synagogue when a baby girl arrives, a ritual circumcision for a boy, a baptism, or a christening? Will your children receive religious instruction? Which religious holidays will the kids celebrate? If they are being raised in one religion, will they participate in the religious celebrations of the other parent? Will they attend a church or a synagogue school, or a school for children of interfaith parents? If both of you die while the children are young, who will have custody? Who will be charged with their religious upbringing? What if the parent whose religion they're being raised in should die? Should your marriage end in divorce, how will the religious education of your children be handled, if one parent retains custody?

4. Holidays
Who will attend what religious services on the Jewish or Christian Sabbath days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Christmas, Easter, or various saints' days? Will these celebrations be observed in the home? Will there be Shabbat candles, a Hanukkah menorah, a Christmas tree, a wreath on the door, a nativity crêche? Will you send Jewish New Year or Christmas cards to family and friends? Will you hunt the Afikomen on Passover or eggs on Easter? What about minor holidays--Halloween, Purim, Valentine's Day, Tu B'Shevat?

5. Residence
What type of neighborhood do you favor? Do you want to live amid a concentration of people who share your ethnic and religious affiliation? Will your spouse be comfortable in that environment?

6. Finances
Determine whether a portion of the family's financial resources will be contributed toward the support of a synagogue or church, religious schools, religious social service agencies, overseas missionary or philanthropic organizations, the State of Israel support groups.

7. Death
When you die, would you want a member of the clergy to officiate? Of what faith? What traditions would you like incorporated into the service? Which mourning practices would you like to be followed? If your spouse will not be considered eligible to undertake or participate in these rituals, who will undertake them for you? Do you want to be interred in a cemetery that is Jewish, Christian, or nonsectarian? Do you want, and will you be allowed, to be buried beside each other when the time comes?

A Closing Thought
Any prenuptial agreement sounds forbidding, or at least unromantic. But for interfaith couples especially, working through these issues in a relaxed atmosphere can strengthen the bond between you and give you a structure for future discussions.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Richard Schachet

Rabbi Richard Schachet is leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue, Nevada's only Reconstructionist synagogue, in Henderson. He is a frequent officiant at interfaith weddings and other ceremonies.

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