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June 16, 2011
When we speak about "interfaith couples," create programming and debate best ways to help them make Jewish choices, can our language and our approach be the same for each couple?
I have come to understand that there is a spectrum of interfaith couples. On one end there is a couple in which the non-Jewish partner feels little connection to his or her religion of birth. For many of these couples, they are open to Jewish traditions and customs. The non-Jewish partner often proclaims at a pre-marital counseling meeting that they are planning to raise Jewish children. While this raises questions about the best way to educate the non-Jewish partner, there is a clarity of direction.
On the other end of the spectrum is the couple in which they both practice different religions. This is a much harder scenario in some ways because neither partner wants to "give up" his or her religion. They often want their future children to be "both" religions — to understand both, have had experiences with both and feel enriched by both. Neither parent wants a child to have to "choose" to align with one or the other parent throughout this whole process. And secretly, or not so secretly, both partners want their child to love/identity most with his or her religion.
Sometimes these couples seek out interfaith communities such as the Family School at Old St. Pat's in downtown Chicago. They offer an interfaith Sunday School which, according to their website,
...Is a community of children and adults who acknowledge that both Judaism and Catholicism are meaningful ways to find God. The Family School program provides a foundation for Jewish and Catholic faith as children grow into adults. Students who have graduated and chosen to reflect on their experience describe a sense of confidence and self realization about their combined heritage, traditions, history and values.
While it is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian, these families feel that it is possible to be knowledgeable about the two faiths and to be enriched by the texts, cultures and traditions of both faiths. At some point, each young adult (like all people) starts to figure out what they actually believe and want to adhere to. They start to understand who they are and where they feel religiously the most comfortable.
Should we put more energy towards those couples that are open to being "totally" Jewish? Is having a Christmas tree for a week of the year in the home creating a home that is Jewish? Does attending church with one's grandparents or extended family occasionally bring those families outside the rubric of maintaining a Jewish home and full identity? There is no mathematical formula for this. Are there certain scenarios which tend to lead toward more children of interfaith families self-identifying as Jews as they get older? And, what are the goals for Jewish interfaith and outreach/in-reach professionals? If the goal of interfaith work is to help families make Jewish choices and be welcomed by the wider Jewish community, then we should be more understanding of the whole spectrum of interfaith families today. If the premise is that Judaism adds meaning, purpose, roots, joy, peace, order, connections, community, friendships, etc., then it is incumbent on liberal rabbis and Jewish professionals (who are not bound by halacha) to work with any parent who was born Jewish, their non-Jewish partner who loves him or her and their children who may even be raised to also love another religion. All of them should be exposed to the gift of Jewish living and Jewish thought.