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Interfaith Couples Assess "Comfort Level" in Community

This article is reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Visit www.jewishchronicle.org.

"It was a difficult time for me when my lifelong rabbi in Boston refused to marry me" to a non-Jew, said Laurel Bobrowich of Whitefish Bay. "It was 25 years ago when he recommended another rabbi to perform the ceremony."

"I know he wanted to officiate, but felt his hands were tied. I felt better to be married by a rabbi from a spiritual perspective, but we had no history with him."

Similarly, Heidi and Michael Gardipee of Grafton went to Chicago in search of a rabbi in 1991 to marry them. "My husband wanted to be married in a Jewish ceremony by a rabbi," Heidi recalled. "Though I was raised as a Lutheran, it didn't matter to me. I just wanted to be married and in the scope of life, the ceremony only took a half hour. But I know he was hurt."

Kathy (Zieve) Norman of Sheboygan also had what she called a "rent a rabbi" from Chicago presiding at her wedding in 1990. "It was so impersonal and he was like an actor with a lot of 'shtick.' Frankly, the Presbyterian minister who co-officiated imparted more wisdom, and we didn't know him either."

"I will confess that I felt some bitterness to have strangers marry me. Honestly, we were both turned off."

A number of Wisconsin synagogues and rabbis are taking steps to try to prevent this kind of hurt and alienation. In recent weeks, The Chronicle reported that several Milwaukee-area synagogues are exploring how to be more welcoming to interfaith families--which generated a number of "Letters to the Editor," some in support, some not.

Rabbi Ronald Shapiro of Congregation Shalom announced he will officiate at some marriages between a Jew and non-Jew, as will Reconstructionist Rabbi Brian Field, a hospital chaplain in Madison. In addition, the ritual committee at Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue is examining the role of non-Jews in synagogue life.

Recently, The Chronicle interviewed a sampling of interfaith couples, some of whom felt the Jewish community was not welcoming at the time of their marriage.

In all three cases, the couples are raising their children Jewish because, according to Gardipee, "you can't be both. There is no such thing."

"A heavy burden"

Gardipee's journey into the Jewish community began at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center where she takes classes with her children. "I've learned so much at the JCC, especially from my mentors Idy Goodman and Aggie Goldenholz," she said.

"We're members of Temple Menorah where our children go to Hebrew and religious school," Gardipee continued. "I know they are not considered Jewish because of me. That is a heavy burden for me even though the rabbis and members have been very welcoming to us. I understand the historical tradition, but in this day of DNA, why should it be so important?"

John Bobrowich, who was raised as a Protestant, still celebrates Christian holidays "because that is part of my heritage. I feel our family has done a great job at blending our backgrounds, but my children are Jewish. We made the decision when they were little and I feel that we, as a family, have been embraced at Congregation Shalom and by Rabbi Shapiro since we moved to Milwaukee in 1994. I've never felt like an outsider and participated fully in my children's Bar and Bat Mitzvahs."

His wife added, "Had we not been married by a rabbi, I think we would have faced more obstacles in deciding how to raise our children.... Idealistically, we thought it important to expose our children to both religions, but realistically, they need to be one or the other."

Kathy Norman said, "My husband, Bob, is pretty much of an atheist so the responsibility of involving our children in religion is up to me. But he fully supports raising them Jewish." Norman said her husband "grew up in a suburb of Chicago where few if any Jews lived. He really never knew any until enrolling at Northwestern University in the 80s. He was raised as a Presbyterian and I think in the beginning chose not to convert so not to offend his family.

"But he knew Judaism is important to me and has been attracted to its cultural aspects. We belong to Congregation Shalom, where he attends family Shabbat services and some High Holiday services. And he's happy doing it."

Norman's husband never doubts her commitment. "I drive 180 miles a week so my children can attend Hebrew and religious school [at Shalom]," she said. "I know every store at Bayshore Mall, because unlike the other moms, I can't go home during class."

Norman said she was thrilled to read Shapiro's announcement "because I see no value in the old rigid rule which sends the message that Jews are not tolerant or inclusive. I think the old policy has caused Judaism to lose a lot of potential Jews because some interfaith couples chose not to raise their kids Jewishly because they never felt accepted as a family."

The Bobrowiches concurred. "Young people today, more than ever, need to have positive support of their rabbi and community," said Laurel. "I believe it's better to build bridges than walls."

Further, she thinks that couples who are turned away from Judaism at the time of their marriage will likely feel unwelcome when they have children. "It's easier to raise Jewish children in an interfaith family if you have felt accepted from the beginning," she said.

Even before having a family, the Normans wanted to belong to a synagogue. "There is one in Sheboygan which surely would have been convenient, but we didn't feel welcome," said Kathy Norman.

"A friend of ours was unable to have a brit because the mother wasn't Jewish," Norman continued. "That left a bad taste on our mouth as well, so I view Rabbi Shapiro's action as a step in the right direction. I wish he would be even less strict."

Gardipee believes that "It's who you are on the inside" that is important. "Michael's grandmother is the most observant member of the family, and she is thrilled that we are raising our children Jewish, as is my dad, who is happy that his grandchildren are being raised in a faith. There should be no barriers to living Jewishly."

Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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.) 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. 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. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."

Mardee Gruen is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, specializing in human interest and feature articles.

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