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Recently my twenty-five-year old son and I found ourselves driving in Kaua'i and started on an unexpected conversation. He shared his graduate school plans and talked about his relationship with his girlfriend. He mentioned that he really didn't know where things were going in their relationship, but if circumstances worked out, he could see spending his life with her. But then he interjected, "I never thought that I would be saying this, but I'm concerned because she's not Jewish. I can't see myself attending church or raising my children in any other faith."
This caused me to think of the Talmudic phrase that I saw on a friend's refrigerator that translated as "roots and wings." At the time, my children were seven and eight years old, and I was unfamiliar with the content or intent of the phrase. My friend explained that it refers to raising your children with solid "roots," and when the time comes, allowing them to spread their "wings." I realized that my son was reaching back to his "roots" and examining where they were taking him.
My husband and I have always been actively involved with our children--whether it be the JCC nursery school, our schools, temple activities, or sports programs in which they participated. We were always "there" to chaperone, be team parents, host an event at our home, or drive team members. Besides enjoying the social aspect of being involved with the community, we thought that it would provide examples of good role modeling for our son and daughter. Indeed it did. Our children have grown up to have excellent social consciences and are on their way to being a school social worker and a college professor. They have spread their wings and chosen their own paths.
Along the way, we set another example--how to have an interfaith marriage where Judaism is practiced. The kids were B'nai Mitzvahed (chose to assume the responsibilities and privileges of adult Jews), continued in Sunday school through confirmation, went on an Israel trip, and maintained Jewish friendships with both temple and school friends. We decorated our house for Christmas, but the Christmas tree was symbolic of the season, with no religious overtones. My husband is not an active church-goer, and the only times that they've been to church has been for funerals or a random celebration of some family member's lifecycle. Mom and kids are Jewish, and dad supports us while keeping his distance from religious observances.
Along with excellent values, we demonstrated that an interfaith marriage can work well. The subtext that our family works because the father didn't embrace any religion has been lost over the years. The kids recognize their dad's support without plumbing the depths of what factors contribute to an interfaith family's success.
Now our twenty-five-year-old son and twenty-three-year-old daughter are in committed relationships with non-Jewish partners. Our daughter's boyfriend and our son's girlfriend are fantastic young people, share our family's liberal values, are well educated, come from wonderful families, and fit well into our family unit. I adore these two young people and would gladly welcome them, but get brought up short whenever I remember that they are not Jewish. No matter how I view these serious relationships, I keep coming back to the issue of the difficulty interfaith marriages can pose. What is equally telling is that our daughter and our son are both struggling with where Judaism fits into their lives as they explore the next steps in their relationships.
Our daughter has pressed her boyfriend hard about raising Jewish children if they marry. Our son and his girlfriend have not broached the subject of religion in a marriage; however I know from the conversation last month that when the subject arises, it may be a turning point in their relationship.
When my husband and I were engaged, my future mother-in-law said to me, "I hope that you will give your children one faith." It was evident that Judaism was extremely important to me since we went to great lengths to have a rabbi and a Jewish wedding. Our children have heard this story over and over, and our way has seemed the logical way for life in an interfaith family to operate. Our daughter used to refer to the kids in interfaith families who didn't practice Judaism, as "gentiles."
My advice to my children and others considering interfaith marriage is to decide ahead of time what ONE religion you are going to embrace as a family. The concept of allowing children to "choose" their religion provides them no basic structure. Our job as parents continues to be laying the "foundation roots" and if we don't provide a religious framework, we are neglecting an important parental role. Of course, the subtext of my advice is that the ONE religion should be Judaism.
Yes, I would rather that my children be involved with a Jewish man or woman. Marriage is difficult enough without having to deal with the issues surrounding different religious practices. Yes, I try and remember that I took the path of an interfaith marriage that has worked out. I know after thirty years that having a common religious background would have made our marriage easier in many ways--participation in our havurah (study and/or worship group) would have seemed more natural, plus my husband could have been the leader of the seder. His lack of Jewish tradition has left me to be the sole parent in passing along traditions as well as Jewish values.
So, while I've given my children solid roots in Judaism, I also have to allow them the wings to decide their own directions based on mature, adult decision-making capacities. I believe that my kids will make good choices--only they may not always be the ones that I want for them.