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10 Questions Partners Who Are Not Jewish in Interfaith Couples Ask

Updated June, 2006

You might also find our 10 Questions Jewish Partners in Interfaith Couples Ask helpful.

So you're in love with a Jewish person and you're not Jewish. You have questions about how to make it work. Don't worry; we can help. We've compiled a list of the 10 most common questions that we hear from non-Jewish partners in interfaith couples.

1. What's this site all about?

InterfaithFamily is a non-profit that provides resources and services for interfaith couples with one Jewish partner and one non-Jewish partner and their families. You can receive a biweekly email newsletter featuring new content by signing up. We have information on all areas of interest to interfaith families, and can connect you with more than 600 organizations across North America that are friendly to interfaith families. We also do advocacy in the Jewish community on behalf of interfaith families. We also can help you find a rabbi to officiate at an interfaith marriage. And if you're interested in meeting other people in interfaith relationships, join our Network.

We strongly believe that interfaith couples should choose one religion in which to raise their children, and we encourage couples to make that religion Judaism.

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2. Why do Jewish families look down upon intermarriage?

Unlike many other religions, Judaism is not solely defined by belief and practice. Because the child of Jewish parents is automatically considered Jewish, one can be Jewish without believing in God, keeping kosher or going to temple. Judaism is as much a cultural identity as it is a religious one. So many Jews have an attachment to being Jewish that goes beyond the question of where they go to worship.

Since the beginnings of Judaism thousands of years ago, Jews have been a minority nearly everywhere they've lived, and have often been subject to persecution and discrimination. After six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, many Jews became very concerned that Jewish people might be facing extinction. Today, there are 14 million Jews around the world, compared to 2.1 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims. Especially in the wake of the Holocaust, some Jews see intermarriage as a threat to Jewish survival and an abandonment of a 5,000-year heritage.

But attitudes are changing. In recent years, a growing number of Jews have recognized that intermarriage does not have to be a threat to Jewish survival and that intermarried families can help enrich and strengthen the Jewish community. InterfaithFamily.com is the leading advocate for this view.

For more on the debate on intermarriage in the Jewish community, visit our resources on synagogues and the Jewish community.

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3. How do we decide what religion to raise our children in? Why not raise children with both?

Deciding how to raise one's children is a very personal decision. Experts suggest that couples should decide on their children's religious upbringing well before conception, ideally even before marriage. For ideas on how to decide how to raise your children, read Considering Religion: How Will You Raise the Kids?.

At InterfaithFamily.com, we strongly encourage interfaith families to choose one religion for their children. Often attempting to raise a child in two religions leads to confusion for the children, or the child ends up with no religion at all--or the child decides to adopt whichever religion is more socially acceptable. There are also fundamental philosophical conflicts between all religions that cannot be reconciled. For example, one cannot simultaneously believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and believe that the Messiah has not yet come.

For more on raising children in interfaith families, visit our resources on parenting.

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4. What does it mean to raise the children Jewish?

Good question. It can mean all sorts of things. There are no strict rules. There are, however, some basic ways that will expose your child to the beauty of Judaism and help give them a strong Jewish identity:

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5. I don't know anything about Judaism. How am I supposed to raise my children in it?

Once you've decided to raise your children Jewish, it's important that both you and your partner share in your child's religious upbringing. You don't want to be left out of an essential part of your child's growth as a person.

There are many opportunities to learn about Judaism. A great resource for information about almost any aspect of Judaism is MyJewishLearning.com. Many temples also offer free introduction to Judaism courses called "A Taste of Judaism." These classes welcome people who aren't Jewish, especially those in intermarried couples. To see if there's a class in your area, click here.

There are also many good books available in your local library or bookstore on the basics of Jewish parenting. We recommend How To Be a Jewish Parent, If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What Are The Kids? and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.

For more on raising children in interfaith families, visit our resources on parenting.

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6. I don't believe in Judaism. How am I supposed to raise my children in it?

For people who aren't Jewish who believe strongly in another faith, raising children in Judaism can be complicated. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

Just because you are raising your children Jewish doesn't mean you have to abandon your own religion. You can still pray regularly, attend religious services at a non-Jewish house of worship and celebrate non-Jewish holidays. It's vital you talk with your partner about your religious needs.

If you do participate in another religion actively, it is important to explain to your children that you have a different religion than they do. Presenting a united front with your partner to your children is also very important. Indeed, the fact that you are an active member of another religion and your children are Jewish may lead to discussions that will help clarify and crystallize the value of your respective religions.

For advice on maintaining your own faith while raising your child in Judaism, read So You Want to Be a Jewish Mother, But You're Not Jewish?, Confessions of a Non-Jewish Insider (by a Presbyterian dad raising Jewish kids) and Yours, Mine and Ours: Explaining My Christian Beliefs to My Jewish Husband and Kids.

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7. What am I supposed to do at temple?

It ultimately depends on your comfort level, but there are some general guidelines for attending synagogue:

  • Dress formally. For men, a jacket and tie are appropriate; for women, a dress, skirt or pants suit are acceptable. Many synagogues do not have such a formal dress code, but if you don't know the synagogue's dress code in advance, it's better to be overdressed than underdressed.
  • With the exception of a handful of Reform synagogues and all Secular Humanist congregations, men should wear a yarmulke or kippah, a small head covering. The temple will provide free yarmulkes that you can borrow.
  • Stand and sit when the rest of the congregation does.
  • Do not leave or enter the synagogue when the ark, the large cabinet at the center of the stage at the front of the synagogue (called the bima), is open.
  • Do not talk, write or take photos during the service.

Otherwise, you can participate in as much or as little of a Jewish religious service as you'd like, including responsive readings in English. Depending on what kind of synagogue you are in, there are certain ceremonial honors--such as being called to the bima to say a blessing over the Torah (the Bible)--that you may not be allowed to participate in.

In most Reform temples, many of the prayers in the prayerbook (the Siddur) are in English, so you should be able to follow along. You will probably have a much more difficult time following if you are in an Orthodox temple.

Also, most Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Humanist congregations are very welcoming to interfaith families. Non-Jews can become members, and often take up leadership positions.

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8. I'm a woman and I'm not Jewish. Doesn't that mean my kids won't be Jewish?

Most people believe that you are not considered Jewish unless your mother is Jewish, but that's not true.

While the Orthodox and Conservative movements don't consider the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers Jewish, the Reform movement--America's largest Jewish movement, with 1.5 million members--considers the children of one Jewish parent Jewish. The only requirement is that the child be raised with Jewish beliefs and practices.

If your family joins a Reform temple, your children will be fully accepted as Jewish, along with the many other children of interfaith families at your temple.

Also, the Reconstructionist, Secular Humanist and Jewish Renewal movements recognize the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers as Jewish.

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9. Do I have to convert?

You do not need to convert to raise your children Jewish. Conversion is a deeply personal choice. You should only convert if you truly feel you can believe, practice and feel comfortable in Judaism.

Some non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages do convert and are very happy. But it is by no means essential that you convert to have a Jewish home.

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10. What will my parents think? Won't I feel left out of my family?

Once you've decided that you'll raise your children Jewish, it's important to tell your parents. Breaking the news to them is often not as painful as you expect it will be. Better that they know before you have children and have time to become comfortable with the idea than to break it to them a few days before they may be expecting your child to be baptized. For advice on how to tell your parents about your decision to raise your children Jewish, read A Very Difficult Thing to Do... Telling Your Parents That You Are Raising Your Children in Your Partner's Faith.

Just because you are raising your children in another religion doesn't mean that you are no longer part of your extended family. You can still participate in their holidays, and so can your children. The key is preparing both sides. You should explain to your children that participating in Christmas or Easter at Grandpa's and Grandma's house is like taking part in a birthday party-you 're celebrating someone else's special day. In the same way, you should talk with your parents about what is appropriate and inappropriate. Depending on your needs and desires, accepting Christmas gifts may be OK but attending Christmas Mass may be off-limits.

Over the years, we have often heard of non-Jewish grandparents who are very supportive of their grandchildren being raised in the Jewish religion.

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Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. 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.
Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." 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. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
InterfaithFamily

InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our new InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities.

If you have suggestions, please contact network@interfaithfamily.com.

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