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Working Out Interfaith Issues before Marriage

There's nothing like bringing up the subject of marriage on a first date to scare a guy off. Although that's not exactly what happened, it's not too far from the truth. Fortunately, I didn't scare the guy off, and I didn't bring it up on the first date. I actually brought it up before the first date. Here's what happened.

Bill, a confirmed atheist, and I knew each other in college. We had many mutual friends, and were often in the same place at the same time. Upon graduation, I moved with three of my college roommates to Boston, as did many of Bill's closest college friends--my acquaintances. We all rented apartments in the same general vicinity (they were cheap, yet small and dingy) and about a year and a half later, Bill showed up. He got a job, rented an apartment of the same general description, and suddenly we were together all the time. I had become close friends with all of his friends before he moved, so our friendship seemed very natural and easy. Within a year Bill and I had also become close friends--going to movies together, watching the premiere season of The Simpsons together every Sunday night, starting a book club together, even food shopping together (he still denies this, but trust me, it's true!).

Bill and I enjoyed each other's company so much that we often toyed with the idea of taking our friendship a step further. I, however, always said no. Bill wasn't Jewish, and I had no interest in getting serious with someone who did not have the same religious upbringing I had had. So our relationship continued on a friendship path until one fateful day when we, yet again, discussed "being more than friends." When I again said "no," Bill promised me he would accept our relationship for what it was and stop trying to change it.

It was then that I discovered that we were in quite a predicament, as I was beginning to realize that we both had strong feelings for each other. While I was not yet in love with Bill, it was clear to everyone who knew us, and suddenly to me, that there was something special there. So right then and there we started to talk. Actually, I did most of the talking (not too difficult to believe for anyone who knows me), and Bill listened. He listened to me talk about what I knew my life would have to be like, regardless of whom I married. I told him I could marry someone who was not Jewish, as long as he did not intend to practice his own religion and was willing to participate in mine. I told him I planned to be married by a rabbi, under a chuppah (wedding canopy). I told him that my husband and I would join a synagogue and go to services on the High Holy Days. Bill listened to me explain all about Hebrew school and Sunday school, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for our children, and even a Jewish camp if our kids were interested.

After I finished my explanation, Bill joked that all he wanted was a date. The reality, though, was that our friendship was so strong that changing it would automatically catapult us into a full-fledged relationship. Because of this, I needed to know how he felt about my religious requirements. Bill explained that it was important to him that I understood that he was not looking for a new religion. He was very comfortable being an atheist and needed reassurance that once our hypothetical children were old enough, he could explain to them his own personal beliefs. On the other hand, Bill enjoyed the cultural aspects of Judaism and knew that he would not want to be left out of family events. Therefore, he was able to comfortably accept my "terms."

I love to tell our story for many reasons. It's funny, I think it's touching, and it illustrates an important point. Bill agreed to a lot of things for me. And while at the time he probably thought I was a bit of a nut job for going into such detail, he also appreciated the information. What if we had fallen in love without ever discussing how we would raise our children? What if he never knew that I expected my husband to be by my side in synagogue during the High Holidays? And what if he never realized how important it was to me to have our parents under the chuppah with us during our wedding?

I know there are many couples who, for whatever reason, never work these issues out before marriage, and before children--often because the differences in their religious beliefs and practices feel too big to resolve. And I am sure that compared to many, Bill and I had it easy. Since Bill had no interest in practicing his own religion and already knew a lot about Judaism from many of his friends, we had very few big issues to overcome. And although I would be accepting the role of the only Jewish adult in our future family, I did not feel like I was making much of a concession since I was so happy to be with Bill. Despite this, though, I believe that my point is still valid. Even though Bill did not have a lot to give up, he was agreeing to take a lot on. And because of this, he needed to have that information from the beginning. Anything less would not have been fair to him, to me, or to the future of our relationship.

Now that Bill and I have children, the fact that we discussed, negotiated, and decided how to handle our religious differences before we got married feels even more important than it did at the time. Religion is one of the many factors that make up one's identity. Both Bill and I are relieved that all those tough questions have been decided now that we are influencing and helping to shape our children's identities. We have also discovered that now that we have children, there are constantly unanticipated issues that arise that warrant thought, compromise, and negotiation. For us, it feels good to know that this is at least one issue that we were able to anticipate and work out back when our lives were not nearly as busy and full as they are now.

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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. 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.
Staci Kennedy

Staci Kennedy is a clinical social worker living in Ann Arbor, Mich. She is married to Bill and has two children, Samantha and Daniel.

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