As a kid, I went to church three or four times a week. I was a church camp counselor, an officer of the youth group and a choir member for many years. We attended church even when we were traveling. By the time I reached young adulthood, I was deeply invested in my Presbyterian upbringing. I still am.
Early in my freshman year of college, however, I met a woman who turned my world upside down. She was cultured, smart and sexy. She savored life and never backed down from a debate. She was also Jewish. When it became clear that our relationship was destined to be long-term, some members of our families were supportive; some were openly hostile. All, however, asked, "How will you raise the children?" We usually responded, "with an appreciation for both religions." It was an answer that, at best, only half satisfied anyone. The truth is that we really did not know.
When my eldest son was born, I grudgingly agreed to a bris--the ritual circumcision performed upon infant Jewish boys. If my children would not be baptized, I wanted them to at least be a part of God's community. In agreeing to a bris, I realized that I was implicitly agreeing to raise my son Jewish. I could rationalize that decision. I recognized that the Old Testament of the Christian Bible is the common denominator between our faiths. Emotionally, however, I was conflicted and uncommitted. I was also afraid.
I was afraid that I would be an outsider in my own family. I was afraid that my children would relate to my wife and not to me. I was afraid that my holidays would be overlooked. I was afraid of losing a large part of who I am. Most of these fears stemmed from the fact that I simply had no idea what role I could play in a Jewish household.
Religiously, we did nothing meaningful for several years. Then one day my wife saw an advertisement for a local program for interfaith families. We decided to attend a series of roundtable discussions for interfaith parents and couples. Discussing the issues with other interfaith couples was cathartic. We openly discussed our fears and concerns. The moderator prevented these emotional discussions from devolving into impassioned arguments. My wife and I were able to communicate in a way that would have been very difficult in our own home.
The watershed moment for me came when, during the course of one of these roundtable discussions, I suddenly realized that I did not need to give up my own religious identity in order to raise a Jewish family. Because we worship the same God and share many of the same religious stories, teachings and values, Christians can find great meaning in Jewish holidays and worship services. The key is being open to it.
Realizing that I, even as the Christian parent, could play a meaningful role in my Jewish children's religious lives was absolutely liberating. It enabled me to emotionally commit to the decision I had intellectually made at the time of my son's bris. More quickly than I ever expected, I stopped thinking of Judaism as my wife's religion but accepted it as the religion of our family. Since then I have come to deeply value Jewish holidays, Shabbat dinners and religious services. I view them as opportunities for me, even as a non-Jew, to worship our shared God in the company of my family. I have joked that I am a Presbyterian who worships at a synagogue. It sometimes gets a chuckle, but it is a fairly accurate statement of how I now view my religious self.
Because my children see and know that I am emotionally committed to raising them Jewish, they have a clear sense of who they are religiously. They see me worshiping beside them in the synagogue and hear me saying the prayers with them on Friday nights. Although they know that I am Christian, they also know that it is important to me that they go to religious school, attend services, observe Shabbat and prepare for their bar mitzvahs. They unequivocally view themselves as Jews. The few Christian observances and events that creep into our family life are, therefore, not threatening.
Those of us raising Jewish children who were ourselves raised outside of Judaism and do not wish to convert have a choice. We can either view ourselves as outsiders in our own families or choose to find and embrace that which we can find meaningful in Judaism. I chose the latter course and my family and I have gained immensely. It is my sincerest hope that reading this will encourage other non-Jewish parents, and even grandparents, to try the same.