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Bringing up Baby: Raising Interfaith Children in a Not So Interfaith World

July 6, 2009

When we sat down to tell my future in-laws that we were getting married, they asked the seemingly inevitable question: "How are you going to raise your children?" It's funny how you always think you will be prepared to answer that question. We spouted the textbook answer that a million soon-to-be-wed interfaith couples had spouted before: "We are going to teach them about both religions, and when they are old enough, they can make up their own minds." I couldn't really understand at the time the sideways glances of my in-laws as they nodded in half-hearted agreement. It seemed as if we had it all figured out. I understand now.

baby feet imageI grew up in an interfaith family myself, the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. Certainly, I thought, if I could navigate the complex highways of childhood and adolescence unscathed by that combination, my children would too. I never really took into consideration the fact that my mother was, for all intents and purposes, a non-practicing Catholic. Or that my father had been out of the picture by the time I was a toddler and was never there to teach me any facets of the history, culture or traditions of Judaism.

Sure, it was easy for me to grow up as an "interfaith" child. I was able to be Catholic when I wanted to be, which was when the kids around me were calling the kids in our neighborhood "Jews" in a not-so-nice way. Then I could be Jewish in middle school, when it seemed as though all of the girls I wanted to be friends with were Jewish too. I survived my "interfaith" upbringing with no trouble, and I assumed my children would too.

The only problem was that I missed out on all of the things that both religions had to offer. As an adult, I have no religious identity. That's not what we wanted for our children. So it came as no surprise to us that what we had told my husband's parents at a corner table in a tiny restaurant all those years before was not going to work for us after all.

In the view of most traditionalists of either religion, my children are Catholic. My mother was Catholic, therefore I'm Catholic, and so they are as well. But if you ask my children what religion they are, they will tell you that they are Jewish. Although we celebrate Christmas and Easter in the house, and my children will fervently tell you that "Mommy is Catholic," they identify themselves as Jews. I have no problem with this. My husband was born to two Jewish parents and raised in a Jewish home. He identifies with his religion in a way that I do not. My children attended a Jewish preschool, and we are affiliated with a Reform synagogue that welcomes interfaith families. I am proud of my children for establishing a religious foundation for themselves so early on. And if they change their minds later, I will support them.

Still, I'm a mom, and so I worry.

I worry because we live in an area where there are no Jews. I travel with my kids to another town to attend preschool and synagogue. I worry about discrimination, and about what other parents have taught their children about other cultures and religions. I live in fear of ignorance and intolerance. I wonder if kids will question who my children are and what they believe in. I hope they will have the answers to those questions when asked, because I didn't.

I often think about my oldest and most sensitive child, and I wonder if she will feel ostracized at some point because of who she is. I would never want her to be a "fair-weather Jew," the way I was. I want my children to be proud of who they are, always. And so, as mothers often do, I ask myself how I can make it better and easier for them.

For this, I have no answer. Don't all children go through this crisis of fitting in at some point? For other children it may be because of the color of their skin, because they talk differently or because they don't have the right clothes or book bag. As a parent, I can teach my children that people are not all the same. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, speak many different languages and, yes, practice many different religions. I can explain to them that if two people from very different religions can meet, fall in love, marry and create three beautiful children, surely my children can survive elementary school.

Still, I worry.

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."

Michelle Wolfson is the owner and founder of Mommy Confessions.

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