Debbie Whitehill, MSW, LICSW , is consultant to the Intermarriage Program at Jewish Family and Children's Service in Boston, Mass.
Issues Interfaith Families Confront, Plus Six Tips for Couples Considering Intermarriage
What are interfaith couples struggling with these days? Is it any different than, say, ten or fifteen years ago? Is there anything we've learned in our work that can help interfaith couples in the new millennium? In the sixteen years I've worked with interfaith families, there are a number of changes I've noticed but, not surprisingly, interfaith couples still grapple with most of the same issues. While attitudes towards them are less hostile, synagogues are more welcoming, and communities are increasingly populated by them, interfaith families are often faced with difficult choices.
Couples still wrestle with loyalty issues towards their family of origin. ("I can't imagine telling my parents I'm not going to be married in a church/temple.") The worry about hurting one's parents is actually quite normal; it suggests a relationship that matters, perhaps even closeness. These concerns are heightened if parents have lost family members in the Holocaust. And loyalty towards one's parents and lineage can be a factor even if those parents are no longer living. When the pull of one's partner and of the past conflict, it can be stressful for everyone involved.
Couples continue to grapple with choosing one religion versus practicing both religions in their home. This inevitably brings up the issue of loss, and each partner feels it. Neither one is marrying someone who shared the same traditions, belief system, food, identity, etc. Now he/she may be the only one practicing certain customs in their home. Compromises are essential, but who gives in and on what issues can be challenging questions. It's not that uncommon to find that decisions made early in the relationship feel less comfortable with the arrival of a child.
Holiday celebrations, affiliation with church or synagogue, and religious school education are among the obvious decisions interfaith couples confront. However, interfaith issues may also affect where people choose to live, which causes they support, and with whom they socialize. As with any differences in background or experience, couples may experience difficulty in these arenas.
Even though most major issues persist, I believe today's interfaith couples have the distinct advantage of sheer numbers. The upsurge in interfaith relationships in the past three decades caused quite a stir and much discussion in the organized Jewish community.
Though the percentage of Jews marrying non-Jews plateaued, the Jewish community has become increasingly responsive to their needs. As a result, interfaith couples and families can find myriad programs to help them explore interfaith family issues at synagogues and Jewish community centers. They can also find support for choosing "both" religions in groups and in the publication "Dovetail."
These changes have a profound effect on the daily lives of interfaith families. Intermarried couples are, for the most part, more accepted by their families and the community. Most families have been touched by intermarriage. Experience has taught us that most Jews who marry out of the faith do not do so to spite their parents or to reject Judaism. As more parents observe that children who intermarry increasingly choose Judaism, they are less likely to antagonize the couple or to push for conversion. Rather, they can view their role as the providers of a welcoming Jewish home replete with customs, food and knowledge.
Today, more temples have specific interfaith programs or outreach committees and send a clear, welcoming message. And more rabbis have become sensitive and sympathetic to interfaith issues. The increased temple membership of interfaith families, particularly in Reform settings, contributes enormously to the comfort of these families in Jewish life.
Six suggestions for couples considering intermarriage:
- Start with introspection. Think about your own religious and ethnic identity, your values, your heritage. Consider the meaning that your own traditions and a sense that belonging to a community gave to your life. What do you want to continue? What do you want to pass on?
- Keep communicating. Talk frequently and honestly about your feelings. Imagine the future and how you picture yourselves as a couple and as a family. Remember, all marriages involve differences, necessitate compromises and require ongoing effort.
- Learn about each other's background. Encourage your partner to share his/her history. Attend a religious event or a family tradition. There's no need to alter your beliefs, just become informed.
- Take a workshop. Interfaith groups provide support and can broaden your perspective. Sometimes just hearing others (besides one's partner) express themselves can be enlightening. People often make connections that lead to ongoing support as well.
- Keep the lines of communication open with your parents. Let them know how much thought you've given the issues and how carefully you've made your decisions. Help them out by telling them what you feel comfortable with.
- Expect changes. People may agree to things in the throes of passion that don't feel comfortable later on. Births and deaths may bring up feelings that weren't predictable. Talking openly and honestly will be important.
The end of the century may be a source of anxiety for some, but I think it's a time of optimism for interfaith couples. Jewish organizations are opening their doors and offering an increasing variety of programs. Though they continue to discourage intermarriage, Jewish families and houses of worship do not want to turn their backs on their children.