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
My life would have been infinitely simpler if I had switched my allegiances from the Conservative movement to the Reform movement at the time of my daughter's interfaith marriage three years ago. As we all know, interfaith marriages are accepted far more easily and welcomed far more warmly among Reform Jews. The dissonance created by this marriage, however, led to social activism by my husband and me within both our Conservative synagogue and our larger community of Boston. Positive changes have occurred that my husband and I would not have predicted at the outset of our activist journey, while other hoped-for changes still seem beyond reach.
This is our family's story of love, marriage, personal accommodations, and some subtle institutional changes as well.
Three years ago our daughter married a fine Christian man after a long courtship and considerable discussion and counseling about the religious and personal dilemmas that lay ahead of them. They were married in a Jewish ceremony, conducted by a Reform rabbi, with her uncle acting as chazan (cantor). Like many interfaith marriages, this one evoked many mixed emotions within their extended families, creating emotional turmoil as well as rejoicing for these two young people who so obviously loved and found joy in one another.
Family and religious loyalty issues felt threatening to many members of our families, especially among the more traditionally inclined. Nevertheless, we worked with these issues in as loving and respectful a way as we were able, and today we are delighted with our children's loving and solid marital relationship, and with our new baby grandson, who, we hope, will be the richer for his dual heritages.
As members of our Conservative synagogue do on the occasion of a simcha (joyous occasion), we submitted an announcement of our daughter's marriage to the temple bulletin. We have been members of this temple for 25 years. This is the same temple where our children attended religious school, and where they were bar and bat mitzvahed. We did not anticipate any difficulty with an announcement because a rabbi had officiated at the wedding and the couple had agreed that their children would be raised as Jews. However, neither factor mattered. Indeed, no one even inquired about the circumstances of the marriage. We discovered, astonishingly, that our temple would not announce our simcha, that it was temple policy not to announce any mixed marriage involving any member of the congregation or their progeny.
My husband and I were dismayed, frustrated and angered by this policy. Its effect was to make us feel that the temple was punishing us and our family for what seemed to be viewed as our daughter's indiscriminate, religiously illegal and certainly wrongful marriage. It was at this juncture that I decided to transfer membership to a Reform congregation. If my synagogue could not accept a marriage that was now an integral part of my family, then I refused to be a part of the synagogue. My husband, the take-charge optimist, asked, "Why not--before we resigned our membership--go to see our temple's new rabbi and tell him how we reacted to this bulletin policy and test the waters?"
We did meet with the rabbi in his study. We shared our deep disappointment and chagrin with him about the bulletin policy, which seemed to strongly suggest that in the future our children and grandchildren would be pariahs to the congregation. To our great amazement, the rabbi listened sympathetically to our comments and thanked us for them. He said that it was his intention as the newly appointed rabbi to modify attitudes and some policies within the temple and to make our congregation one that welcomed interfaith couples. He asked us if we would be willing to participate in this change. In fact, he asked us to be the chairs of a keruv (a reaching out and drawing near) committee.
At this same time, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston was making seed money available to Conservative synagogues wishing to begin keruv work, and our rabbi suggested that we apply for a grant. Our synagogue was one of five in the greater Boston community to receive seed money for our programs. The synagogue is a very large (more than 1,400 families) and influential congregation, so when we began advertising programs in the secular press that invited all interested people to attend lectures by authors like Anita Diamant and Gabrielle Glaser, who spoke about interfaith issues, we believe it made a difference. We have also run several workshops at our synagogue for interfaith couples, and other workshops for the parents of interfaith couples, so that they can process and discuss the changes within their families. These workshops have been run by social workers, and our rabbis visit the group during the final session in order to respond to questions and to firmly assert that interfaith families are welcome at our Conservative synagogue. This same message has gone out from the pulpit: Jews need to extend a welcome to the strangers in our midst, the rabbi says, for we were once strangers in many strange lands. These are positive steps, but we are aware that a lot more action is needed within the temple to create this sense of welcome.
One thing has not changed, however--our temple still does not announce interfaith marriages in its bulletin. As we have come to understand the larger picture, the Conservative Rabbinic Assembly strongly advises against such publication, although a rabbi would not be officially sanctioned were he to allow it. Currently, only one Conservative rabbi in the Boston area that we know of has made that decision to publish these announcements.
Thus, the bulletin issue remains deadlocked at present. Passions run very high and deep, and what seem like reasonable compromises to some do not seem so to others.
Despite this continuing and formidable barrier, I wish to recommend the activist path my husband and I have chosen because we have made a difference in our congregation. We have spoken and written publicly in our temple bulletin on an almost monthly basis about a heretofore mostly taboo subject. We have arranged public forums where interfaith issues are discussed. We have added books and pamphlets on interfaith marriage to our temple library. We have let other congregants know that their friends and neighbors are deeply affected and involved in interfaith dilemmas and need their compassion. And we have let our fellow members know that we need their help in order to create a welcoming community at our temple where interfaith families may be integrated and made to feel that they belong.