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Tips for Responding to Insensitive Comments About Interfaith Families

When she was a kid, Laurel Snyder would have to wait after Hebrew school on Sundays for her mother to pick her up. "She's just always late," was her response to worried teachers and administrators. When kids teased her about her mom's tardiness, and started asking suspicious questions, she would snap back, "It's because she goes somewhere Sunday mornings, OK? It happens every week, so stop asking." Laurel remembers the stress of not knowing what she could and should tell kids and adults about the real reason why her mom was always late. Would they kick her out of school if they knew? Would kids make fun of her? Would she be put on the spot to answer tons of questions? By Bat Mitzvah year, Laurel found herself in a peer group where being different was cool. After years of making excuses, Laurel finally decided to reveal the truth: "She's at church, but I'm Jewish."

Snyder, who recently edited and wrote for the anthology Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, grew to accept and celebrate her interfaith identity. But for many children--and adults--in interfaith families, hearing negative comments or being made to feel different because of their intermarriage or interfaith heritage can be painful and damaging. We talked to several outreach professionals and others involved in interfaith identity issues about how to cope and respond constructively when you hear insensitive or negative things about intermarriage or growing up in an interfaith family.

Tips for Parents Counseling and Consoling Children

1. Be prepared to define your family's identity.
Parents need to be comfortable with their own identity, and their family's cultural/religious identity, if they hope to explain this complex identity to their children, says Helena McMahon, director of Interfaith Connection in San Francisco. Perhaps you choose to identify the family as "half-Jewish," or as "Jews who celebrate Shabbat and go to synagogue but have a Christmas tree." Whatever your identity, be sure to clarify it to your children with pride.

2. Make sure kids know who they are and how to explain their complex identity to people who may question it.
Dawn Kepler, the director of Building Jewish Bridges in Oakland, California, relates the story of a young man who was never told that some Jews wouldn't see him as Jewish because he didn't have a Jewish mother. In college, the accusation caused him great anguish and confusion. "Let them know earlier!" Kepler says. By explaining, "This is who we are, even though sometimes people don't understand or agree," your child will feel proud and confident in his/her identity, McMahon says. Both Kepler and McMahon emphasize the importance of continuing discussions about identity and self-definition at different stages in the child's development.

3. Validate hurt feelings and express compassion.
Being excluded or told you don't belong hurts, and the child's feelings of sadness and fear are real. Kepler reminds parents not to let their own feelings of anger or injustice overshadow their compassion for their child.

4. Assure the child that the comment was not personal--it was about something larger than him/her.
Several outreach workers assert that most negativity about intermarriage is ideological rather than personal. Though the specifics of the debate over intermarriage may be beyond their comprehension, children should know that your family is not the sole target or any verbal abuse. For younger children, Phyllis Adler, of Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me in Denver, finds it essential to explain, "This person isn't talking about our family, but about families like ours." In the same way, if the derogatory comment came from another child, Snyder reminds parents not to take it too seriously. "Kids are seldom developed racists," she says. "They are most likely just repeating something they heard at home."

5. Build pride in your child's complex identity. McMahon explains the benefits of an interfaith family: beyond the double presents in December, kids benefit from learning to appreciate the beauty of each parent's faith and the opportunity to learn intimately about people of different faiths and backgrounds. "Frame this openness to appreciating different backgrounds as an asset," she advises, "and offer your own brand and love of Judaism without stepping on the toes of your kids."

Tips for What to Say to People Who Make Insensitive Comments about Intermarriage and How to Say It--for Kids and Adults

1. Decide whether to respond or not.
The trick is to determine whether the person who made the comment is "open to dialogue," Adler says. Adler's and Snyder's advice boils down to three main considerations:

  • How significant is my relationship with this person? Is it someone on the playground, or a future relative?
  • What am I willing to give? How much time do I have and want to spend on this person? Do I have control over my emotions?
  • Do I have a reasonable chance of changing his/her mind?

2. Build a relationship.
One conversation is seldom enough to change someone's mind about interfaith marriage. Adler says "you must risk honest dialogue" and be prepared "to let yourself be in a process." McMahon asserts that knowing someone personally "bridges gaps that feel unbridgeable."

3. Reframe the issue to make a theoretical argument rather than a personal attack.
When someone tells Laurel Snyder, "You don't look like a Jew," she asks, "What does a Jew look like?" and sometimes even asks, "Why are there black African and white Eastern European and brown Middle Eastern Jews?" before launching into a detailed history of Jewish intermarriage. She thus converts a personal insult into an anthropological inquiry.

4. Try to understand the other person's point of view.
For those less inclined to go into history and anthropology, Kepler says it's still important to understand other perspectives. "Everyone has a different idea of who they are, and defines their world from the center out," she says. Before you can change a person's opinion, you must first understand where that opinion comes from.

5. Describe the advantages of an interfaith family or relationship.
Use personal anecdotes and opinions. Kepler says, "I always think it must be harder for someone who excludes parts of the Jewish community… I rejoice in the opportunity to accept everyone!" Snyder points to talented people from interfaith families, such as J.D. Salinger, Frida Kahlo and Sarah Jessica Parker. She attributes their creative genius to their "un-streamlined, half-Jewish, identities." Or, offer this perspective: the intermarried sensitize more people to Jewish issues and thereby make the world safer for Jews. Best of all, come up with your own additional take on why your interfaith family is special.

When somebody says something negative about intermarriage or having an interfaith heritage, you have three choices: you can insult, ignore or inform. While we never recommend insulting someone back, sometimes the best response is no response. There are many people whose attitudes won't be changed, or just aren't worth the time. But the most challenging--and potentially most fruitful--response is to inform the person who made the comments. Over time, constructive dialogue has the best chance of changing attitudes that are unfortunately rather common in the Jewish community. Jewish tradition puts strong emphasis on tikkun olam (repairing the world). Your conversation with an insensitive, ignorant, or misinformed person could be a first step to repairing the Jewish world.

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." Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. 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." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Sarah Litvin

Sarah Litvin was the 2006 summer editorial intern for InterfaithFamily.com. She is a senior majoring in Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College, and a resident of Newton, Mass.

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