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It's Complicated-- My Orthodox Synagogue's Welcome for My Interfaith Family

January 4, 2010

I have been asked to write about the response of my family and my modern Orthodox community to my marriage to a non-Jewish man. The response was not the saying of kaddish (actually far from it) but neither was it complete acceptance. It's more complicated than that.

Juliet with her son
Juliet Stamperdahl with her son.

My story is not typical. While I am an observant woman raised in a Modern Orthodox community, neither my immediate nor my extended family is Orthodox. My parents attend the Modern Orthodox synagogue where I was raised and where I am still a member. However, they do not observe shabbat or keep a kosher home. They joined the Orthodox synagogue before there was a Conservative synagogue in our town. They stayed in the Orthodox community once there was a Conservative synagogue because they felt very connected to the people.

While my parents would have preferred for me to marry someone Jewish, I was 40 when I started dating Birger and by then my parents mostly wanted me to find someone with whom I could be happy. My mother anticipated our engagement and let me know that she and my father would be happy to meet Birger's parents should we get engaged. When I called my father with the news, he jumped into his car and drove down to the synagogue to pull my mother out of her activity. When I asked him what he was feeling, he said he was excited and "a little veklempt." When I asked my mother about it, she remembered being very happy. She does remember thinking that if Birger had been Jewish, she and my father would have gone back into the synagogue and announced it to everyone there. Although she said that this did not affect her happiness for me, I know she would have really enjoyed publicly sharing her joy with our synagogue community.

Some people in my extended family were less than happy about our marriage. I expected the news to be hardest for my 99-year-old maternal grandmother (z"l). I was the last of her 10 grandchildren to marry and the only one to intermarry. I visited her in Florida to introduce her to Birger, and in the lovely way she had of connecting with people, she leaned over to him and said in a stage whisper "My maiden name is Fram, it's (a) Scandinavian (name)." Contrary to my fears, she seemed completely comfortable with him. I suspect an aunt, uncle, and perhaps a couple of cousins were not happy with my decision to intermarry. However, like my immediate family, they were glad that I had found someone and they all came and danced at our wedding.

As for the response of my modern Orthodox community, it's helpful to separate the community's responses before and after the marriage. There is a distinction made in Jewish law between L'chatchila (beforehand), which is when you can still aim for the ideal halachic solution, and B'dieved (afterward), when what is done is done so one looks for an acceptable halachic position even if the situations is short of ideal. For example, it would be ideal to ask your sibling to borrow something before you need it, giving him or her plenty of time to respond. However, if you do borrow something without asking, you should at least apologize and return it in good condition.

Before we were engaged, I sought guidance from the rabbi at my synagogue. He was very clear with me that he was against the union and that there could be no halachic marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. He knew my age and desire to have children, so recommended that I consider using a sperm bank and asking my parents to help me raise a child. After I made it clear that I wanted Birger to help me raise our children, he counseled me to not marry and just have children with him. Had Birger and I had children together but not married, at least, the rabbi would have prevented a non-halachicly valid marriage.

In terms of the community, several people who were invited to our wedding did not come. Another couple who were asked to be a part of the ceremony were not comfortable doing so. I was present while one of the congregants was talking to her teenage children about how she felt about our marriage. I remember the mother saying, "It is bittersweet. We are happy that Juliet has found someone and sad that she is not marrying someone Jewish." I assume that is how most people felt. There must have been people in the community who had harsher thoughts, but I was lucky enough or they were thoughtful enough that I was not to privy to them.

Despite these reactions before we were married, since we have been married I have felt that the synagogue community has embraced my husband and now our family. People who were not comfortable coming to or playing a role in our wedding ceremony are comfortable coming to our house for meals or having us in their homes—including the rabbi. It is the rabbi's responsibility to steer the community and its members based on halacha. Before I was married, he could have prevented an intermarriage. After I was married, his role and the role of the community have shifted to helping me create a richer Jewish home and raise a better-adjusted Jewish child.

There is also a distinction between synagogue policy, which upholds a strict by-the-book halachic standard, and the rabbi's and the community's interactions with us, which are more nuanced. In terms of synagogue policy, there has never been and will not be any formal acknowledgment of our marriage. Birger cannot be a member of the synagogue or be listed as a kiddush or lunch sponsor. Our anniversary does not appear on the monthly anniversaries list. However, in terms of how we are treated, people have been amazingly welcoming of Birger and embracing of our family. Birger says he was self-conscious at first, out of concern for how he would be judged for intermarrying with a Jewish woman but that he has never experienced any actual mistreatment. The truth is that he is always warmly and often enthusiastically greeted whenever he shows up at synagogue.

My favorite reason for why my community has accommodated my intermarriage so well is that we have a very special community and the most wonderful rabbi. There is also the fact that Birger is such a lovely, thoughtful person. He has demonstrated that he cares about the people in the community and has jumped in and danced with the community in times of joy, such as on Simchat Torah and also been there in times of sorrow, such as at the recent memorial service for a beloved rabbi.

I also cannot ignore my history with the community. I grew up in this community and have always been a very active member. I bring our son with me to services every Shabbat, where he is a favorite of some of the older children. I also cannot ignore that I am a Jewish woman, which automatically makes my son Jewish under halacha, and which automatically makes Birger the father of a Jewish child. Birger says now he feels like a regular fixture in the community. I think that is true--the community has accepted us.

I know that things will not always be easy. Our son may--no, he will--hear his teachers and his friends' parents actively discourage intermarriage. His bar mitzvah will be a delicate dance between figuring out how his father and his father's family can feel included and not breaking any of the rules. In the coming years, we will need to actively seek out other families who are like us so that our son has multiple examples of interfaith families who have fully embraced Judaism and successfully navigated their multiculturalism.

I cannot lie to you and say that we were encouraged to marry or that the policies of the synagogue embrace or validate our union. I can say, however, that we are definitely treated by the community like we belong there. Maybe it is not so complicated after all. Observant families like ours, and like the others in our synagogue, need each other in order to live an observant lifestyle in a secular world. The people at our synagogue are there to be part of an observant Jewish community and our family is definitely a part of that community.

Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. 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." 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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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.
Juliet Stamperdahl

Juliet Stamperdahl lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her amazing husband and their adorable 2 year-old son. She holds a PhD in psychology and writes Statistics for Psychology course work for a living. She remains an active in the Orthodox synagogue in which she was raised and feels privileged to write this piece for InterfaithFamily.com.

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