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Don't Do "Nothing": Advice for Intermarried Parents

While logic says that two thoughtful adults can learn to negotiate and share a home in which two religions dwell, the tough work comes when a child is added. Often we as adults attribute to our intelligent, inquisitive children the capacity to understand ambiguity. But, being just kids, they are looking for clear, straightforward messages. Is there a God? Yes or no? Are there fairies? Is heaven real? Who am I?

This is not to say that parents don't try their darndest. But there is a Catch-22 to being a religiously engaged interfaith couple. Ironically, the more the two of you care about religion and the more you each want to give your child a part of you, the harder it is on your child. If both religiously engaged parents care deeply about their child's religious identity, the child is often put through the psychological challenge of being expected to embody two religions as an extension of their parents' identities. And you may never know what your child is going through because the more emotionally charged the topic, the less likely they will tell you.

Then there are those parents who say they don't care, that it's up to their children to decide for themselves. But this is so rarely valid. Most human beings have deep needs to mold their children. Look at the emphasis on extracurricular activities for grade schoolers. Does religious identity take a backseat to piano?

Alternatively, parents may want to be fair to their partners, and so don't want to choose one religion for their children. They are making a statement to the world about equality, balance, inclusiveness. But these sweeping cosmic goals don't meet the needs of little kids.

The young people who call me report that they don't discuss these issues with their parents. They may have at one time but then gave up, or they may know better than to open the subject. Having left behind their parents' home and angst, they want to work out their identity on their own.

So what do they say to me? Often they want to find a Jewish connection, learn about that half of themselves. They want to know how they are perceived by the Jewish community. They may want to take a class or go into a synagogue. Most of all they want to be heard.

Let me share a few comments:

  • I can't talk to my parents about this, especially my dad. I want to be Jewish and he is Jewish. But if I want so much to be Jewish, well what does that mean if he kind of rejected it?
  • My parents left it up to me to figure out my identity--black and Jewish--they raised me in a part of the country where there were no blacks and no Jews. I guess that's why I went into psychology.
  • My mother raised us Christian, but we learned all about Judaism. So why do I not fit in at Jewish singles events? Why can't I find someone like me, Christian with Jewish holidays?
  • When you ask me, what do I think my identity is, I can feel my heart start to pound. That's why I'm calling you--I start feeling really upset when I think about it.
  • Do you think I'm Jewish?
  • Having this conversation makes me feel excited, confused, hopeful. Maybe I can find my way after all.
  • I don't want my child to go through what I did, but I can't say that to my parents.
  • My parents did what worked for them, not for us kids.
  • I've decided to just be Jewish alone, at home. I'm not educated enough to go to a synagogue.
  • My parents told me I could choose my religion but then I chose wrong.
  • My parents told me I could choose when I was 18 but I chose at 13 and they got mad.
  • My parents want me to be "both," like they raised me. But both isn't anything. I can't tell them that.

So what can you do, you, the parent poised to make all the choices?

  • Find allies and supporters. Look for an outreach professional near you. Talk to clergy.
  • Participate in an interfaith couples discussion group. Share with other couples the same questions and concerns.
  • Read The Horse's Mouth: Ask the Adult Children How to Raise Interfaith Kids, by Robin Margolis, about the experience of being the child of an interfaith couple.
  • Don't deny your own pain, longing, fears. Suppressed or denied emotions are harder on you, your partner and your child than just about anything else.
  • Don't blame religion for poor communication skills, alcoholism, drug use, familial abuse. If you have any of those issues, deal with them. They tear families apart no matter what the religious practice.
  • Be ready to change plans that aren't working. If your child needs glasses, you'll buy them glasses. If they need consistency or clarity, you can change what you're doing to help them "see" themselves more clearly.
  • Please remember: Pain paralyzes. If you are feeling grief, start by getting help for yourself. Remember the pre-flight instructions on airplanes? "In the case of a loss of oxygen, put on your own mask before assisting your child." You can't help your child if you are incapacitated by sadness. GET SUPPORT.

That said, my friends, I welcome your call.

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."
Dawn C. Kepler

Dawn C. Kepler is director of Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach to Interfaith Couples, located in the East Bay area of San Francisco, Calif.

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