Unlike birthdays or holidays such as Thanksgiving, which are celebrated by most in a generic fashion without religious significance, religions and cultures throughout the world recognize life-cycle events with very specific, meaningful rituals--rituals handed down from generation to generation.
For interfaith couples, encountering these life-cycle moments can be times marked with unexpected stress. Couples may find themselves at odds when confronted with choosing what to do. These times often trigger the realization of how important their own family rituals were to them and their families.
Even when interfaith couples have made the effort to discuss potential issues beforehand, they are often surprised by how strongly they feel when the time comes to make arrangements to mark these occasions. Especially in the early stages of marriage and parenthood, interfaith couples may not feel that there will be any problems.
So what can interfaith couples do to work through these dilemmas?
- Be honest with yourself.
Examine what you are feeling. Are you experiencing feelings of betrayal to family because you have made the decision to raise your children in a different faith? A sense of "disconnect" from family and the faith you were raised in? Concerns about how your family will react to the decisions you are making for your children?
- Talk about your feelings with your spouse.
Although you may want to keep peace and say nothing, it is better for both of you to speak honestly with each other about your concerns. You may be surprised to learn that you both are struggling with similar thoughts.
- Be proactive.
If you have unresolved feelings about how to mark these times in life, it will result in a stressful time for all. Try to resolve them before making plans. If you cannot come to a decision on your own, talk with friends or other interfaith couples. If they have already gone through the process of sorting out their emotions, they can be a great source of support. If you don't know anyone who has faced these challenges, try to find an outreach group for interfaith families at houses of worship or community organizations.
Whatever rituals you choose to mark life-cycle events with, the effort you make to include both families in the ceremonies will be crucial to the unity of the entire interfaith family--parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and extended family--for generations to come. Finding ways to incorporate and encourage each family's participation in the ceremonies will help make them a more meaningful experience for all.
If there is to be officiating clergy and you are not sure what is acceptable or not, speak with them during the planning stages. Let them know of your concerns. They will be respectful of your wishes, and may even give you some ideas for adding new traditions. You are probably not the only interfaith family that has requested their services and they may have some very interesting stories about the choices others have made for their ceremonies.
In interfaith families, it is especially important that the children see how to conduct themselves respectfully towards others. As parents, you are the mirror into which your children will look for a reflection of who they are to become. You are their guide to their moral landscape. How they will conduct themselves morally as adults is a reflection of what you do.
However your parents and family members may feel about your religious choices for your family, if the effort is made not to exclude, but to include them during these times, you will find that they are more accepting of your decisions. For all faiths, the purpose of rituals and traditions is to bring spiritual meaning to the occasion. If you have given consideration towards that end as you make your plans, you will succeed in providing a meaningful experience for all.
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Jeanette Bergelson is coordinator of "New Beginnings," a Jewish open forum support group for parents and grandparents with children in interfaith marriages, at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, N.J. "New Beginnings" focuses on the issues and emotions that parents of children in interfaith marriages face today. Jeanette and her husband Bill are the parents of three daughters, two of whom have married interfaith, and she is the "bubbie" of six beautiful, healthy grandchildren.