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An Interfaith Relationship - A Blessing or Curse?

November 21, 2013

This article is reprinted with permission from Inspirenjoy

Think of a great relationship in your life, romantic or platonic. I bet it's with someone who makes you laugh and feel comfortable and lets you be yourself. You share similar interests, beliefs, and goals for the future. You accept that person without hoping he/she will change. So what makes a relationship falter? When your non-negotiables, those few things in life that are truly important to you, are at odds with your partner.

For many of us, religion is non-negotiable. Myself included, up until 4 years ago. I was open to dating other religions -- in fact I dated almost exclusively non-Jews -- but I always saw myself settling down with a Jewish guy. Why? I thought:

illustration1) It would be easier for raising kids
2) We would have similar backgrounds and interests
3) I wouldn't have to explain myself
4) I could keep all of my traditions

A lot of times we do things because that's how they are done and that is what is expected of us. Growing up, I tried not to question my religion (if you don't count misbehaving in Hebrew School). As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my faith. I doubted the stories I heard and wondered whether I believed in God. I am extremely grateful for being raised with religion in my life, especially Judaism, because it gave me a strong moral foundation and sense of community. Still, I wonder whether I needed religion for that. I never fully embraced my religion, feeling that although I loved the traditions and felt comfort in their familiarity, maybe I was going through the motions without finding a deeper connection.

Whether the realization I recently had would have happened in a relationship with a fellow Jew I do not know. But I do know that for me, my concerns about settling down with a non-Jew went out the window very early on in my interfaith relationship. The first concern to disappear was my worry about having to explain why I do certain traditions. In fact, my interfaith relationship has given me a tremendous gift – the gift of having to explain myself.

Every Jewish holiday, every tradition, every blessing, I get asked “why?” from my Catholic boyfriend. I suppose that’s no different than a child asking her parents why we do things, but it’s interesting to answer the question for an adult from a different religion. We each bring preconceived notions about what it means to be from the others’ religion. And we have unique experiences that shape our understanding of our own religion. We have to answer the questions of "why?" both in a broad sense ("Judaism says this because ...") and in a specific sense ("I do this because ..."). Despite how uniformly we observe religion, varying experiences and personalities shape our experience, giving us each a unique view of our own religion.

When I began to face these "why?" questions, I realized that in a lot of cases I did not know why. Despite my years of religious school education and being able to read Hebrew, I knew very little about the religion. I had the basics down, but I could never explain beyond that. I had to seek the answers on my own. I started participating in a program called Next Shabbat that provides grants to host Shabbat and High Holiday meals with helpful resources (a"Shabbox"!) full of candles, prayer books, even music. I also found an impressively open-minded and welcoming Reform synagogue where my boyfriend Jose and I could learn more about interfaith relationships. We took a series of classes on Judaism 101 with fellow Jews, Catholics, atheists, those questioning their religion and those young and old of various ethnic backgrounds. We even had Shabbat dinner at the Rabbi's house with our classmates, many of whom were in interfaith relationships themselves.

Finding these resources helped ease my other concerns, like it being easier to raise kids if we were both Jewish. Yes, it may be easier, if you both agree on all of the traditions and want to pass them down, but many people from the same faith don't agree on every tradition. I see it as us having to discuss what traditions we value and want to pass down much earlier than same faith couples.

Number 2 and 4 on my list -- not having similar backgrounds and not being able to keep all my traditions -- are a little more nuanced. Yes, Jose has a different religious and cultural background, but that has been one of the biggest blessings in our relationship and something that has helped me learn more about myself and the world. I never knew much about Christianity or Catholicism and I'm glad I now have a comfortable environment in which I can ask questions. These questions make for lively discussions and sometimes feel like the setup to a joke ("What is the difference between a priest, a bishop, a cardinal?" felt like "So a priest, a bishop, and cardinal walk into a bar...") Some questions led to discoveries about the world. "Why do you not eat meat during Lent?" led to the revelation that that's why McDonald's brings out the Filet o'Fish every year during Lent. The fact that I was worried about being able to keep my own traditions was also bogus. On a year when Christmas coincided with Chanukah, Jose and I lit Chanukah candles and said the blessings while we were celebrating Christmas with his family.

A few months before his sister's wedding, my boyfriend's then 9-year-old niece asked a question that made us all giggle. His sisters’ fiancée is Italian, and they are Filipino, so his niece asked, “If you marry Auntie Michelle, does that mean I will become part-Italian?” When you get married you share everything and you become one unit; what’s mine is yours, right? So to Kaitlyn, that included ethnicity/nationality. How do you explain to a child that some things in life are unchangeable, like ethnicity, while some things can evolve, like religion? Most families probably approach religion as unchangeable -- you believe what your ancestors did -- but the truth is that religion can change for people who convert or find atheism or agnosticism.

Through interfaith relationships, people can find a stronger connection to their own faith, they may begin to identify as something different, or they may feel no connection to an organized religion. There's not one path for everyone. As someone in an interfaith relationship, I found a stronger Jewish identity for myself through teaching my traditions and values to my partner. Programs like Next Shabbat have solidified my Jewish roots and allowed me to share my faith with others. My Reform synagogue has welcomed us with open arms. Every holiday, we are thrilled to see same-sex families, multiracial and interfaith couples.

See, that's what is beautiful and new about my and future generations. We are not accepting to the point of losing our own identities. Our cultural and religious values are more fluid and open to change. That may be a scary concept, because it involves a risk that the purely Jewish or Catholic identity of old will be lost. But if we live in fear of losing that instead of adapting to a newer, more open society, we will lose future Jews, Catholics, etc. The young generation needs places that cater to many varieties of faiths and backgrounds, and if that flexibility cannot be found in one synagogue or church, those folks may seek other places of worship. My Catholic boyfriend is more "Jewish" in many ways than several of my Jewish friends -- he knows Hebrew prayers, Yiddish phrases and is eager to ask "Why?" and in turn learn about Jewish rituals and traditions.

So I wonder, does adopting a more complex and inclusive view of religion mean single religions will fade? Can we learn more about ourselves through those who are different than us? Can we find greater faith by coming together with those who are different or is it better to share your faith with those who are similar? From my own experience, I'd say that we can all benefit from seeking out those who are different and finding common ground together.

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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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.
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.
Emily Golomb

Emily Golomb is a writer, yoga instructor and marketing professional who enjoys trail running, playing soccer and snowboarding. She does something every day that scares her, like eating raw silkworms or traveling to Israel alone. She believes we should all do what makes us happy, not what people expect. She currently lives with her boyfriend in Philadelphia, PA.

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