Many people assume that parents in interfaith marriages send mixed messages about religious identity to their children, thereby creating great confusion. Recently, I moderated a discussion panel on navigating the holidays in an interfaith family where I found just the opposite. While we talked at length about the December dilemma and Easter/Passover issues, the "confusion issue" of religious identity kept surfacing during the seminar. From the responses that our panelists gave, I was pleasantly surprised at how well these families had succeeded in raising children with strong Jewish identities.
The discussion took place at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Mich. Our panel consisted of a young intermarried couple, Jewish parents of an intermarried couple, a Christian parent of an intermarried couple, a parent who was a Jew-by-choice, an adult child of an interfaith family, and Rabbi Bob Levy. The interfaith families on the panel had made the commitment to bring up their children Jewish. All of the panelists answered rather confidently that the children (or grandchildren) knew very well that they were Jewish. The one adult child of an interfaith family on the panel had grown up to become a Jewish educator.
People often incorrectly associate intermarrying with raising children in two religions. Rabbi Levy commented that the whole "confusion argument" really began as a way to dissuade people from intermarrying. Sometimes, it's assumed that intermarried parents will raise their children only half-heartedly in one religion--or worse, with no background at all. Naturally, interfaith families are not immune to this approach, but there are many parents in same-faith marriages that do the same.
As a young interfaith couple, fresh into our engagement, my future wife and I had heard about the studies that indicated that children raised "both" ended up "neither." Given that information, and after a lot of compromise and soul searching, we decided to raise our kids solely in her religion of Judaism. We wanted to ensure that our children would not be confused about their religious identity. Religion is important to both of us, and we knew that we had to be committed.
What I've found from the people I've met over the years, and what the members of this panel reinforced is that commitment and consistency are the keys. During the discussion, we learned that there were many different approaches to raising an interfaith family. We heard about one family where the parents actually wrote out a step-by-step game plan on how they would live their interfaith life. Another family really did not plan at all. What did these two homes have in common? Consistent reinforcement. Whether the family was methodical in its approach or not, they lived Jewishly throughout the year. As a result, the parents were able to bestow Jewish cultural and religious identities upon their children--even when Christian elements entered the home from time to time.
In my family, we believe that, just because we are an interfaith family, it doesn't mean we have to sterilize the house of one of our religions. When my children recognize that I am Christian, and help me celebrate my holidays, it doesn't confuse them. They know perfectly well that they are Jewish, and they look forward to me helping them celebrate their Jewish holidays.
During the seminar, we had an interfaith couple in the audience say that they were raising their children as Jews, but celebrated Christmas, as was the custom in their native Sweden. The mother in that family recently asked her son if he felt that their family should pay more attention to the Christian holidays. His response: "Why would I want to do that? I'm a Jewish boy."
The interfaith families on the panel and in the audience had made the commitment to bring up their children Jewish. These children really seemed to grasp that they were Jewish and not a mixture of something in between. The families were even able to incorporate other-faith observances into their homes, without losing the overall Jewish message that they wanted to convey to their children.
As the panel at the seminar discussed the difficulties that can arise during the holidays, it became clear that there was one common theme: It's how you raise your children as Jews--all year round--that really drives home their identity. Give your children consistent messages about their religion throughout the year, and the issues that arise during the holidays will not be hurdles, but details.