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Warshal: Choose one but not two religions

November 15, 2011

Originally published by the Florida Jewish Journal. Visit their website to read more.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that one in four American adults who are married or living with a partner are in a bi-religious relationship. The most difficult decision for these couples who have children is to decide in which religion to rear their offspring.

The Tablet, an on-line Jewish magazine, recently reported on one response to this dilemma. It is an organization titled Interfaith Community, which was founded 25 years ago in New York City by two intermarried women. Its aim is to rear children in both Christianity and Judaism from the ages of 4 to 13 in preparation for them to choose their religious identity when they mature. It now has seven nationwide chapters. There are other such organizations in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

One of the founders of Interfaith Community, Lee Gruzen, was quoted in the Tablet article: "I felt strongly that the children of mixed marriage had this special big gift handed them, not something that was going to be in conflict but something that was just a profound enrichment."

I'm not sure that it is such a special big gift. Let me reflect on my own experience with children reared in such a manner. I was the Reform rabbi in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For three years I taught the conversion class at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation. At that time the Hillel rabbi was Orthodox and he felt more comfortable if I taught the class. Being committed to outreach, I jumped at the opportunity to contribute my services.

My classes ran according to the university's calendar, one each semester. At the beginning of the semester I asked each student to explain his or her Christian upbringing. Invariably, at least one student would report that he or she was a graduate of a synagogue religious school. I would then ask why he wanted to be in my class. The answer was always the same. He was also a graduate of the local Baptist, Methodist, etc. Sunday school.

They explained that their parents solved their problem by creating an identity problem for them. Just as invariably, they were seeing psychologists or psychiatrists. They felt neither authentically Jewish nor Christian. These college students reported that they felt pressure to pick a religion but could not because the process of choosing was an implicit rejection of one of the parents.

I admit that my sample represents an anecdotal response rather than a scientific finding, but I know of no study that shows that a dual upbringing is emotionally healthy (or for that matter, showing the reverse) so I tend to stick with my own experience.

The Interfaith Community was highlighted in a Columbia University College of Journalism Report that quoted Samuel Heilman, professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, to the effect that this may be more acceptable today than 30 years ago: "In the post-modern world where multiple identities — racial, religious, ethnic — is a given…this is a whole new question."

I'm not sure that he is correct. It is one thing to say I am half Irish and half Italian, because I know that I am one hundred percent American. There is no real split identity here. There is no philosophy in being white or black and neither parent can ask the child to be his or her color — the child has no choice other than being what genetically he is. There may be tension outside of the family (and hopefully that is diminishing) but there is none within.

One of my intermarried correspondents indicated that he was against teaching both Christian and Jewish beliefs to his children (they are being reared as Jews) but that they blend rituals within the home, celebrating with a Christmas tree and Easter egg hunt "without religious significance, kinda like July 4th." If it works for them I have no objection, but it would not be my choice.

Please understand that I believe that a child of intermarried parents should not be shielded from Christianity. He or she should enjoy the beauty and significance of Christian symbols and simchas (Christmas dinner and Easter egg hunts, etc.) at their grandparents' home or at the homes of their Christian first cousins. In doing this they have the joys of both religions but with the knowledge that they are not "half and half," that they come from a wholly Jewish environment.

But Lee Gruzen's quote that children of mixed marriages were handed a "special big gift…that was a profound enrichment" was not entirely wrong. These children, being raised as Jews, have a broader understanding of humanity than the child of two Jewish parents. They have grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who are not Jewish and this broadens their perspective on life. They do not have to be taught the humanity of those who practice another religion. They live this humanity daily. Their existence within Judaism enriches our culture and is ballast against those xenophobic Jews who would exclude as irrelevant anyone who is not Jewish.

My conclusion is that unless I see some serious studies to the contrary, I will continue to advise young people contemplating marriage or cohabitation to make a decision one way or the other, but don't rear your children in both.

Rabbi Warshal is the publisher emeritus of the Jewish Journal and the author of Provocative Columns: A Liberal Rabbi Reflects on Beliefs, Israel and American Politics. He can be reached at brucewarshal@comcast.net.

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." Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. 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.
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