Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Our Most Challenging Interfaith Topic: What Religion Would Our Children Have?
Earlier this year, Bonnie and I celebrated our tenth anniversary. In those ten years, plus the five years of dating that preceded them, we have put in place a game plan for how we would live our interfaith life together. Over this course of time, we have encountered many issues. In an interfaith family, none of them is easy to solve. Everything we debated had a thorny side to it. How do we tell our parents? Who will officiate at the wedding? Should one of us convert? But, I'd say that the most challenging of topics was in what religion we would raise our children.
It seems like just yesterday we were freshmen and meeting for the first time in the dorm at the University of Michigan. Although it only took a couple of dates before we brought up the subject of our different religions, neither one of us dwelled on it. We weren't serious yet. We were just going out.
"Wanna go see Rocky Horror Picture Show Saturday?"
"OK. Pick you up at 11."
I think we were more concerned about exams than we were about who celebrated Christmas and who celebrated Hanukkah. Kids were definitely the last things on our minds.
However, the days kept rolling along and so did our relationship. The next year we were sophomores. Still together. Then we were juniors. Still together. All of a sudden we were seniors and ready to graduate. By then, we were serious. Oops. How'd that happen? We started to think about what on earth we were going to do after school. We had begun tossing around the idea of marriage. It was light talk, but it was still there.
I think we both knew that we would someday get married, but now, the issue of our differing religions began to play an ever-important role. Simply being married to a person of a different faith was a tough issue, but certainly workable. Aside from the wedding day itself, the thought of just the two of us going through life wouldn't be so difficult. You celebrate your holidays; I'll celebrate mine. It could be a sort of a "live and let live" attitude. However, it wouldn't be just the two of us forever. We both, eventually, wanted children. There lay the problem.
"I can handle you being Christian, but I would like the kids to be Jewish," Bonnie had said.
"I'm all right with you being Jewish, but I'm not sure how I'd feel if our children did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God," I replied.
Fortunately, even though we were in love with each other, we didn't just jump into marriage without first working this issue out. We got engaged, but knew that we couldn't get married until we had found a solution. During the next two years, we talked about the dilemma constantly. We also read what few books there were on interfaith marriage. Unfortunately, there was no InterfaithFamily.com yet (cheap plug). But seriously, we could have used such a resource.
We weren't without assets, though. Bonnie's step-mom just happened to be a social worker who specialized in interfaith relationships. In this role, she helped us navigate through many of the tough interfaith issues. We also sought the wisdom of our other parents. While not experts in the field, they gave us sound advice based on common sense.
All of the input we got certainly helped. However, I would say that what worked best for us was just the hours and hours of talking to each other and trying to figure out what our religion meant to each of us. Every once in a while, our conversations would get heated, but we never for a minute wanted to give up. We knew we had come too far and loved each other too much to let anything get in the way of us spending the rest of our lives together.
In many interfaith families, the partner who is less religious often offers to raise the children in the other spouse's faith. Our problem was that we were both pretty religious, had strong family ties, and had wonderful memories of celebrating the holidays with our respective families.
In the end, we decided to raise the kids Jewish--partly because they would, in Bonnie's Conservative Jewish background, be considered Jewish (having come from a Jewish mother). Another reason was that Bonnie would be moving away from her family in Boston to live with me in Ann Arbor, where I was born and raised. She felt that a lot of her Jewish identity was a direct result of being around her parents and cousins. Raising our kids Jewish would help her feel that she was still in a Jewish home. On the other hand, I would still be living in the same town as my Christian family.
A friend of mine recently asked me how I decided to give this "gift" to my wife. She wanted to know what were the factors that made this the right choice. I had a little bit of a hard time answering that one. I finally said that, technically speaking, none of the factors is absolute. The criteria we used did not force us to decide one way or the other. There is no right or wrong answer. Our resolution somehow just felt right to us. Today, as we raise our five- and two-year-old daughters as Jews, it still does.