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The Three Questions that Alienate Interfaith Couples

October 16, 2013

I have one rabbi friend who asks me every single time we speak, whether my boyfriend plans to convert. The answer has always been no; the answer will likely always be no. That's fine by me, but it's not fine, it seems, by so many of my friends and family who purport to be welcoming of interfaith families—as those families are held at arm's length from their own lives.

A recent JTA article declared, "The war against intermarriage has been lost." Setting aside this terrible insulting language (war: really?!), the gist of the article should be a relief: The Jewish community has increasingly come to accept the ongoing existence of interfaith couples and their families as a reality. Of course, they've—we've—been a reality for a long time, but only in recent years have mainstream denominations and organizations publicly admitted defeat in this so-called war against falling in love with people of other faiths.

Finally, our community recognizes that relationships like mine exist. Why, then, do conversations like the one with my friend continue to happen with such distressing frequency? It would seem that behind closed doors, the stigma associated with interfaith relationships lives on even if the community's unified public line is that we've moved past that. Most Jews—even the most progressive among them—still desperately hope for other Jews to marry within the tribe, to perpetuate the faith. They'll live with it if we marry a non-Jew, but they really would rather we wouldn't.

While that may be an understandable feeling, it is not the sort of sentiment that should be intimated aloud to those of us already involved in committed interfaith relationships. It is simply not appropriate to ask people like me of our beloveds' intentions or, at least, to ask more than once: to repeatedly imply that past answers like "No, he's not planning to convert" are simply not good enough and that you continue to hold out hope for a change of heart.

Whenever I'm faced with that question "Is your boyfriend going to convert?" I can expect the conversation to go one of two ways.

Sometimes, the questioner will follow with, "But he's not anything else, right?" The visible relief others express when I say my boyfriend doesn't practice any other religion is practically palpable. This question, and the common reaction to my response, implies that there are inherent tiers of acceptability when it comes to interfaith relationships: A Jew can marry an agnostic or an atheist and remain relatively safe from community scorn, but marrying someone who practices another faith is taboo, a disappointment, going too far.

The other common follow-up question is, "Will he let you raise Jewish children?" I resent the use of the word "let" here, much like the earlier use of the word "war," both implying that every aspect of interfaith life is fraught with aggressive push and pull, an ongoing series of battles and compromises. Yes, my boyfriend will "let" me raise Jewish children, if we decide to have children at all. However, given that we are not yet discussing engagement, let alone parenthood, I suspect that this question is only asked so that others can feel out my commitment to Judaism and judge me harshly if my answers don't stack up.

I am a committed Jewish adult, someone who's chosen to forge deep ties to the community despite a childhood that yielded few meaningful Jewish experiences or lasting connections. I work for a Jewish non-profit, give regularly to Jewish charitable organizations, attend Jewish holiday services and seek out Jewish connections in my personal life that have resulted in a close circle of Jewish friends with similar Jewish values. I happen to have fallen in love with a man who is not Jewish, but who is nonetheless a wonderful man, one who is crazy about me, who has learned to cook Jewish food with me, and who, unbeknownst to me, read up on Hanukkah before our first winter together so he could learn more about the holiday. My relationship with him does not degrade, devalue or demean my relationship with Judaism. In fact, it in some ways enhances it, encouraging me to share the traditions of my faith and to decide which elements of my culture are most important for me to cultivate and carry into adulthood.

When I’m asked about my boyfriend’s faith and his commitment to my Judaism, it's clear there are right and wrong answers to these questions, at least to those doing the asking. The initial "right" answer would be, "He's working on his conversion!" but when I’m unable to provide this response, questioners seek out the next most appropriate responses: that he doesn't cling to a faith that might compete with mine and that we promise to further the existence of the Jewish people. My answers to both of those second questions, by the way, are "yes" and "yes." But what if they weren't? What if I weren't sure?

Asked one too many times, a less-confident Jew might turn away from Judaism entirely, convinced her family will never be "Jewish enough" for a community that wishes her relationship were something else.

If the organized Jewish community is serious about welcoming interfaith families—not just accepting us but truly welcoming us—it's time we teach individuals to stop asking questions that hurt, alienate and send messages quite the opposite of welcome. In encouraging interfaith families to make Jewish choices, let's be sure not to push them away right from the start by implying that their relationships make us question their commitment to the tribe.

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. 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.

Maggie Goldman is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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