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It can be tempting for an interfaith couple to avoid making decisions about the religious identity of their family. Some couples put off such discussions, fearing that even a discussion could cause pain or stress to their relationship. It may appear that not making a choice is a path without consequences.
What happens when couples who have not addressed these issues become parents? How can an interfaith couple turn a possible conflict into a process that will help build a strong relationship and an even stronger interfaith family?
As regional outreach director for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, I have met and worked with interfaith couples and interfaith parents as I visit congregations to lead discussion groups. Their stories and the unexpected consequences that they have experienced may be helpful to couples who are considering options and choices.
Opportunities to Learn
A simple matter like picking a wedding date can bring a number of issues to the surface. In Jewish tradition, weddings are not performed on Shabbat (Friday at sunset until Saturday at sunset). Many Christian denominations do not have wedding ceremonies on their Sabbath, which is Sunday.
This difference can provide the couple with an opportunity to learn about each other's religion, and how holidays are sometimes different and other times not. It can become an even more significant opportunity if it is seen as a chance to share with each other feelings about religious practice, experiences related to childhood memories, and the role they each hope religion will play in the family they hope to create.
One temptation for new interfaith parents is to expose children to two religious experiences and let the children make a decision when they are older.
Children raised in this situation often report that they felt as if they were asked to make a choice between their mother and their father, not between their parents' religious traditions. They also report feeling as if they had no identity, that they did not belong to either the religion of their mother or the religion of their father.
Parents taking a path of no choice face another dilemma: religious education. A formal religious education can provide a child with moral grounding, a sense of community, and a sense of spiritual identity. Enrollment in religious education and membership in a church or synagogue implies (and in many cases requires) embracing the belief system of the institution. Adult children whose parents tried to be balanced often report a deep sense of confusion.
Many parents who did not choose a religious identity for their children prior to birth find themselves in a particular bind later. A decision made prior to marriage "to not decide" may later feel like a wedding vow. Also, parents sometimes realize once they have children that they want to give their children their own religious identity. Parents who have agreed to celebrate all holidays may find themselves trying to make their holiday bigger and brighter than their spouse's, thus inadvertently setting up tension and competition within the family. In these cases, the parents may not know how to approach their spouse and deal constructively with this issue.
It is important for the Jewish parent to be aware that raising a child with a Jewish identity takes some effort. Children who are not raised with parents who give them a sense of Jewish identity will make the assumption that they belong to the "general society" of modern America. Almost inevitably, the children will identify with the calendar of Christian holidays and stories, and come to identify themselves as nominal Christians.
Young children tend to see the world in absolute terms. They would like their parents to give them concrete answers to questions when the world confuses them. Children who are taught two sets of beliefs about God and God's role in the world will often ask questions like, "Which one is right?"
A Family's Religious Identity
Many couples needlessly fear the consequences of choosing a single religion for their family. Choosing a single religious identity does not mean that holidays will not be celebrated with extended family. Nor does it mean that grandchildren will not have special relationships with all of their grandparents. Childhood memories and grandparents' recipes can easily be shared with children, regardless of the religious identity of the child.
Rather than seeing the choice of a religious identity as one where one side of the family wins and the other loses, the choice can be viewed as one of the family decisions that parents must make. Parents can then present the decision to the child, and help the child relate to and understand the diversity in their larger family. "We can all help Grandma celebrate her holidays, just as we celebrate her birthdays," is one way of approaching and honoring the interfaith extended family. Interfaith families can raise children with a strong religious identity and a strong love for and bonding with all family members.