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Caught Between Two Faiths

January 31, 2006

Reprinted with permission of the New York Jewish Week.

One week he attends Hebrew school and studies for his bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Beth David in Commack, L.I., the next he receives religious instruction and preparation for his communion at St. Patrick Neri Church in Northport.

Religious leaders of both faiths agree that this is an untenable situation, but the boy remains at the center of a bitter tug of war between his divorced parents, a Catholic mother and Jewish father. And nothing is being done to stop it, though the situation is coming to a head as he approaches his 13th birthday.

In the extreme, the case highlights what can happen when intermarriages fail. It also illuminates what the Reform movement's rabbinical arm spoke out against in 1995, saying the education of a child in both Judaism and another religion "imperils their healthy spiritual development."

Indeed, if the child becomes a bar mitzvah, as is scheduled early next year, the Catholic Church has informed his mother that he will be excommunicated.

The child, said Rabbi Howard Needleman of Temple Beth David, is "very torn."

Ann Marie S., whose full name The Jewish Week is not printing to protect the child's privacy, said "the father put him into Hebrew school without me knowing."

She now questions how Rabbi Needleman could bar mitzvah a Catholic boy. But she also acknowledged that as part of the divorce settlement in 2003, she agreed that her husband would be permitted to raise their son in the Jewish faith.

Despite that, Ann Marie said she has taken her son for religious instruction to a Catholic school during the weeks he is in her custody. The boy lives with his mother every other week as part of the joint custody agreement.

Ann Marie said that after she learned her son was in Hebrew school, she realized her error in letting her husband decide the child's religion, and asked the court last year to change the divorce settlement.

During the court proceeding, she said she read aloud letters she had solicited from priests and rabbis who agreed that educating the child in two different faiths was confusing and should not be permitted. But she said the judge refused to have her son removed from Hebrew school, citing the divorce settlement.

Her husband declined to comment for this article, but Laura Joseph, president of Temple Beth David, said the synagogue is educating the child at the father's request.

"I am honoring what the courts have decreed and what my congregant wants me to do," Joseph said, referring to the child's father. "Until the courts tell me otherwise, I don't have a leg to stand on to say that [the child] can't come. We are not in a position to prevent him [from getting a Jewish education]."

Rabbi Needleman, spiritual leader of the 700-member congregation, pointed out that Ann Marie "agreed to the conditions in the divorce, and one was the religious education of her son. Now she is doing everything in her power to circumvent that agreement."

"We were presented with a very difficult situation," he said, noting that on at least one occasion Ann Marie called the police to enlist their help in removing her son from the school.

"We have tried to remain out of the fray and when the police were called, it sometimes spilled into our parking lot or hallways," Rabbi Needleman said. "But we never prevented her from taking the child."

He added that "if the courts decided tomorrow that he is not to be raised as a Jew, he would not be welcome in our religious school. We stand firm in our belief that the child should be raised in one faith."

Rabbi Needleman also questioned why the Catholic Church was continuing to educate the child knowing that the court has allowed his father to raise him as a Jew.

The Rev. Peter Garry of St. Patrick Neri Church said he had heard about this situation three years ago but was not aware of the latest twists.

"I acknowledged that the family has a membership here, but I know nothing of the present straits," he said. "I will revisit it."

Ann Marie said there will be another court hearing in October and that she again plans to get the court to reverse the divorce settlement. She said she is anxious for a ruling in her favor before the end of the year, otherwise "they will be bar mitzvahing a Catholic."

According to the 1983 patrilineal descent law of the Reform movement's rabbinical arm, a child of one Jewish parent is presumed to be of Jewish descent, but the child's Jewishness must be "established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people."

Mitzvot cited that lead "toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Kabbalot Torah (confirmation)."

Rabbi Needleman acknowledged that he is aware of the patrilineal descent decision and that he has been wrestling with it as it applies to this case.

"Obviously, it doesn't fit into a neat category," he said. "There are extenuating circumstances and we handle each case on a case-by-case basis and not with broad brush strokes . . . We will continue to monitor the situation and revisit the decision as the court and the parents tell us to."

In a letter Ann Marie provided to The Jewish Week, Monsignor John Heinlein, associate pastor of St. Lawrence The Mary Roman Catholic Rectory in Sayville, wrote on Feb. 6, 2003, that he and a rabbi officiated in 1985 at Ann Marie's marriage.

Monsignor Heinlein said that prior to the marriage, Ann Marie signed a statement agreeing that she would "do all in her power" to have her children baptized and raised as Catholics. Her fiance did not object, he wrote.

"They have two children, both of whom attended Christian preschool before entering public school," he wrote.

Monsignor Heinlein noted that both children were baptized, received penance and communion. Their daughter is now 16.

He said the boy in September 2002 was placed in Hebrew school two times a week for a total of four hours at the same time he was receiving his Catholic religious education one hour a week in preparation for his confirmation.

Ann Marie said her son's confirmation is scheduled to occur in January 2007 and that his bar mitzvah is to take place either in January or February 2006.

Just days after the judge rejected her request to change the divorce settlement, Ann Marie said she learned that if her son becomes a bar mitzvah, "he would be excommunicated from the Catholic faith" and would be prohibited from partaking of the sacraments of the Church.

She produced a letter from the Diocese of Rockville Centre that said his bar mitzvah would signal that he has "renounced his Catholic faith in favor of Judaism."

Although a bar mitzvah date has been set, Rabbi Needleman said it is "still undecided that it is going to occur." But he said that if the child "does stand on the bima for his bar mitzvah and affirms his faith in Judaism, I would be honored to stand by him."

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." 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." 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!") 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.

Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.

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