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Can I Trust That My Interfaith Partner Will Really Raise the Kids Jewish?

At my twentieth college reunion I was shocked at who we had become. How many of my scrungy activist friends, whom I had met in college wearing blue jeans and espousing very alternative values, had ended up in wealthy suburbs with lives not so different from their parents! Looking back, I see that I met these folks during a liminal time in their lives when they were experimenting with possibilities. By their thirties and forties they had returned to the values and lifestyles, more or less, of their parents.

The person who asks, "Can I trust that my interfaith partner will really raise the kids Jewish?" is instinctively sensing that the partner he or she knows may not be the whole story. In certain socio-economic brackets in this historical period, young people have the freedom to try on different identities and to invent themselves for a period of time inbetween adolescence and adulthood. Erik Erikson spoke of this period as one of "identity crisis." For many, it's more of an identity exploration.

Religious participation follows this pattern of separation from, and later reconnection to, family. Many twenty-somethings take a break from religious participation between the college and childbearing years, even if they expect to be more involved at some future time. For Jewish people, their sense of being Jewish may be strong, but their Jewish involvement is at least temporarily invisible.

These same years are the peak years for mating. What happens when two twenty-somethings meet during this interlude and establish an interfaith relationship? It's hard for each partner to see the other's roots in a faith tradition because they don't see the partner engaged with religious life.

Yet it's very likely that one's religious background will have more meaning and be more compelling at later stages of the lifecycle, such as when there's a child to educate, or when parents experience failing health and eventually die, or when other life events call forth a desire for faith and spiritual connection. Partners can't take what each one says simply at face value. They should translate, taking into account the bigger picture, sometimes holding more than the partner him- or herself is able to hold in consciousness.

Thus the statement, "I don't care much about religious life and it's not important to me that the kids be raised in any religious tradition" could mean exactly that, or it could mean, "At this time in my life I honestly don't care about religious life and it's truly not important to me right now. However I appreciate what my parents gave me, and I know how important it is to them to pass it on. We'll have to see how my feelings about this evolve as I grow through the lifecycle."

It behooves each partner to really get to know each other's families. How have they expressed religious values? In what ways is their child positively connected with the family and in what ways does the child choose to be different? The family of origin determines the context for expectations that each partner will carry. Understanding a partner's background can give a deeper picture of who that person is.

In a partnership there has to be room for growth and change. Consequently, partnerships are not hard and fast contracts; rather they are spiritual covenants that allow for fluidity in relationship. "But you said thirteen years ago that Bat Mitzvah was an empty ritual, and now you're saying it's a meaningful rite of passage that you want for Abby. I just don't get it." Ultimately, for a relationship to work, the relationship has to be more important than any position within the relationship.

Fortunately, partners usually don't have sudden, overnight epiphanies; they evolve one step at a time, slowly, and if the partners share what's important on a day-by-day or weekly basis, they'll be in touch with each other's evolution. I've seen just as many cases of the non-Jewish partner evolving to value the expression of Judaism more highly than the Jewish partner, than I have of any conflict between partners caused by changing needs and desires.

Can you trust that your interfaith partner will really raise the kids Jewish? The answer to this depends on your own trust in yourself to stay connected to your partner and to respond to your mutual development.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah."
Rabbi Julie Greenberg

Rabbi Julie Greenberg has served a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia since 2001 and is also a licensed family therapist. Her book Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time will be published in March 2014 and available from Amazon and most e-book distributors. She can be reached at juliegberg@gmail.com or through rabbijuliegreenberg.com.

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