InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
Readers can contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about interfaith issues. Of course, Wendy will not be able to respond to every question, but she will try to respond to as many as she can and sometimes may combine questions on similar topics and address them in one article. She will use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect people's privacy.
Hi, I'm Jewish and have been dating a nondenominational Christian girl for about eight months.
Since my Bar Mitzvah twenty years ago I haven't been involved at all, due largely to my parents' divorce. They are both Jewish. There has been some celebration of Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, but I've never been back to any service.
My girlfriend and I have talked about marriage, and I do think she is the "one." We have a Christmas tree and menorah. I've been very picky when it comes to relationships, so I want it to work. She says that the kids will be raised in the Church but has pushed me to get back into my Jewish religion and wants me to believe strongly in “something.” She recently asked me to go with her to a Christmas Eve service at her church. I said probably not because I don't feel strong enough with who and where I am with Judaism and have some underlying guilt about going . . . as if I would be influenced somehow because I haven't practiced my own religion over the years. We had a miscommunication and she wanted me to go to support her in what she believes, just as she would support me and has offered to go with me to temple.
I also feel like when we have kids I would need to balance her taking them to church by taking them to the temple service just as often. I guess my roots are kicking in even though it's not been a big part of my life for some time. We are going to talk to a counselor but I would appreciate a quick word of advice from you as well. She also inquired about if a child can be baptized and have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Then there's the issue of the mother's religion normally governing the child's faith. Any thoughts?
Thanks for your time.
First of all, congratulations! It is a momentous thing to have found “the one,” and I share your excitement. It is interesting that as you are contemplating getting married and having a family your ambivalent feelings toward Judaism start to surface. For you, your ambivalent feelings may be linked to some unfinished business around your parents' divorce and the breakup of your home. However, it is also not uncommon for folks in your generation to have drifted away from religion altogether after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. What this means is that your vision of Judaism is probably frozen in time. What you know is what you have retained from childhood or remember through the eyes of a thirteen year old.
I think that it is time for you to learn more about “your roots,” and see if there is relevance in Judaism for you as an adult. How do you do this? Generally, most local synagogues offer some kind of Introduction to Judaism course. If you live in a major metropolitan area, there are likely other adult education opportunities that are available through the Jewish community center or the Jewish Federation. In some cities, the Union for Reform Judaism sponsors a class called “A Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious?” which would be a perfect short course for you and your almost-fiancee to take to learn more about the core concepts of Judaism. As you explore Judaism from an adult perspective, you may decide that you would like for it to be a greater part of your life. Then, you will need to work on how that integration can happen with a partner who comes from a different faith perspective.
The questions you raise in the last part of your query seem to fall into the category of “how do we raise the children?” Yes, it is true that in our Western culture, the rearing of children still tends to be done by the woman. And, the mother does tend to set the tone in terms of the importance of religion in the home. However, are you possibly referring to traditional Jewish law which holds that a child born to a Jewish mother is considered to be a Jew whether raised as such or not? Because in 1983 the Reform movement broke with Orthodox and Conservative Judaism and declared that any child born to one Jewish parent--father or mother--and raised as a Jew is to be considered a Jew. Although initially quite controversial, this ruling has settled into accepted practice in all Reform Jewish congregations and also in the Reconstructionist community. See what has happened in the world of Judaism since your Bar Mitzvah!
As you hone in on marriage, you and your partner could also benefit from being a part of an interfaith couples group where you would have the opportunity to explore all the issues which typically confront an interfaith couple, ranging from choosing a religion for the children to how to manage the holidays. Check out our InterfaithFamily.com home page and click on Connections In Your Area to see if such a group might be active in your city.
What do you think?
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Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest.