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Parents: Have you ever wished to be a fly on the wall at a support group for young people in interfaith relationships? You might hear your child and his sweetheart who is not Jewish discuss their difficulties with their families.
Couples: Have you ever wished you also could be a fly on the wall at a parents' support group? You might hear your parents discuss the effects your interfaith relationship is having on them. What would you hear? What would you learn about your families?
As a social worker facilitating interfaith workshops for young couples twelve to fifteen years ago, I heard myriad reactions and emotions as the young people sought ways of presenting their non-Jewish sweethearts to their families. And, as a recent participant in support groups for parents, I heard similar emotions echoed in the voices of their parents as they struggled with this challenging situation. From each side, I heard confusion, anxiety, anger, bitterness, love, grief, defiance and acceptance.
Let me share with you the range of comments I heard at the young adults in interfaith relationships meeting:
--We don't need religion in our lives.
--I don't have the right to ask my sweetheart to convert to my religion.
--I respect and like his family, but that doesn't mean I have to be Jewish, does it?
--I don't want my sweetheart to convert; I love him just the way he is.
--My father adores my sweetheart, even if he isn't Jewish. He is the son my Dad never had.
--I look forward to being part of a Jewish family. Will my mother-in-law teach me what I need to know about being a Jewish wife and mother?
Now let me share with you the range of comments I heard at the parents' meeting:
--How can Judaism mean so much to me and so little to my son?
--I feel like a failure. I feel betrayed.
--I'm glad my parents are dead. This would have killed them.
--My son-in-law lied to me. He said they would bring up the children Jewish, and now he says he has changed his mind.
--How can I talk to them about religion without offending them?
--She is the girl I would have picked for my son, but she's not Jewish.
What seems to be one cause of so much of the pain and misunderstanding between the generations is a heightened and intense form of family loyalty. This loyalty asks the person in the interfaith relationship to consider putting his or her family's needs for religious continuity before his or her own need to marry the person (of another religion) whom he or she loves.
The typical Jewish family is strong, holding its members close. In fact, this is one of the qualities that is attractive to non-Jews. Relationships exist not only between the parent and child generation, but easily encompass three or more generations of the living and the dead within a family. In the case of the contemporary Jewish family, strong ties of memory and love reach back three or four generations to the shtetls of Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Jewish guilt has considerable force in influencing thought and behavior. This feeling of guilt, combined with loyalty to one's parents and grandparents, exerts strong pulls and can create intense conflict for the family when the young person chooses a mate from another religion.
Who are the people in both generations who are most likely to feel torn by this crossfire of intergenerational loyalty conflicts? Who are the parents whose memories of their bubbas, or grandmothers and zaidas, or grandfathers, pull on their hearts as their children choose non-Jewish mates? Who are the young people most torn between love and loyalty to parents and love and loyalty to a mate who feel pressured to choose only one? Which one will it be, him, her, or us?
In general, the family that experiences the most pain in these interfaith situations is one that has rigid boundaries and rigid defenses protecting it from outside influences. Strong barriers exist between "them" and "us," between the Jew and the "other," with the "other" frequently seen as an enemy. The Jewish people, after all, have experienced religious warfare from the "other" throughout history and particularly during the 20th century. It is commonplace, therefore, for many older Jews to distrust non-Jews. This vulnerable family is also one where relationships are often "enmeshed," that is, boundaries between family members are more porous and ill defined.
Among the parents who have the deepest conflicts about their child's choice are those with intense relationships to their own parents, whether living or dead. This elderly generation of grandparents may be the most rigid of all, since they easily recall people sitting shiva (in mourning) when a child married out of the religion. The middle generation of parents--sandwiched between grandparents' memories of shtetl religious practices, their own living memories of the Holocaust and the painful political birth of the State of Israel versus the multi-cultural potpourri of the 1990s in the U.S.--shuttles back and forth between the two generations, trying to create some elasticity and acceptance. Ironically, they feel betrayed by their child and, simultaneously, like the betrayer of their parents.
The young Jews who have fallen in love with someone of another religion and who belong to more rigid family systems feel sorely challenged as well. They want to please their parents, but not at the cost of their relationships. Oftentimes parents may push for a pre-marital conversion, but the non-Jew feels bewildered because her Jewish sweetheart cannot articulate his own Jewish beliefs, nor does he even attend religious services. Why, then, is conversion so important to him? In these instances, the young Jew has not yet developed his own personal religious belief system. In its absence, however, he still does not want to disappoint his parents, so he pushes his sweetheart toward conversion. At this point in his maturation, the young adult may feel and express his religious feelings only through his bond with his family.
One of the best ways of reconciling this dilemma and loosening this loyalty knot is for the young people to undertake to evaluate religion in their own lives for themselves, to become "individuated," religiously speaking--that is, to develop adult, independent religious views based on information, discussion and evaluations. Both the Reform and Conservative movements offer introductory courses to Judaism and other workshops as well to help interfaith couples unscramble their diverse religious backgrounds and preferences. Other workshops are available through secular institutions. Once the adult child has a stronger sense of his own adult needs as well as the needs of his sweetheart, he will be on a more level playing field for an adult-child to an adult-parent dialogue.
One of life's pivotal choices is the choice of a mate. While parents hope to influence this choice, ultimately and appropriately the choice must be made freely by the young couple. No one should feel coerced to choose--him, her, or us-among the people he or she loves. Such a choice will be resented and regretted forever. Instead, let conflicted families work toward the unraveling of the family loyalty knot. As the tensions are worked out, the newest family member can be embraced with affection and acceptance into a strengthened Jewish family.