When the editor of InterfaithFamily.com asked me to write an article about giving my children "permission" to be a different religion than myself, it occurred to me that I had never conceptualized the issue of our interfaith family in that way. More accurately, I think that I gave my husband "permission" to raise our children in a religion different than mine. This was done long before we considered having our children. Although at the time, I had some qualms that I would feel different from the rest of my family, that feeling never materialized. Recently, however, I learned that the difference in our religious identities was a factor for my daughter.
When I agreed, many years ago, to raise our future children Jewish, I did not passively hand over to my husband the responsibility to convey Judaism to our children. Prior to our marriage, I took classes to educate myself about this religion he cared so deeply about. And after our marriage, but prior to the birth of our first child, I learned to read Hebrew through an adult education class at the first synagogue to which we belonged. We joined several temples before we settled on a Reform congregation where I felt comfortable and had a sense of belonging. This was important to me because I experience myself as a non-Jew who leads a very Jewish life. I regularly attend and actively participate in Shabbat (Sabbath) services. I am active in my temple and am the co-chairperson of the Social Action committee, having served three previous years. I celebrate Jewish holidays in the same fashion as my Jewish husband. As a family, we routinely have Shabbat dinner together. I do not actively practice another religion. In fact, I might go as far as to say that Judaism is my religion. But because I do not experience the ethnicity of being a Jew, it is not my identity and therefore, I have not chosen to convert to Judaism.
Additionally, we chose to live in a town with a significantly large Jewish population. My children, Emily, who is twenty-one and Adam, who is sixteen, count many Jews among their friends. We chose our temple in part because it is in our neighborhood. For many years, Emily and Adam and numerous friends crossed the street from their elementary school to go to Hebrew school. Both children have been b'nai mitzvahed (had bar and bat mitzvahs), as well as confirmed. We have traveled to Israel as a family, and my son very recently returned from a New England National Federation of Temple Youth trip to Israel under the Passport to Israel program. My daughter has been actively involved in leading Reform Shabbat services at her college's Hillel.
I would summarize our approach as commitment to a Jewish lifestyle. I believe that in general actions rather than words are more powerful in conveying values to children. I believe that my non-verbal message has been that Judaism is a religion worth practicing; that it's enriching to one's life, and that I have chosen to enrich my life as well as my family's life with it, despite the fact that I am a non-Jew. I did not think about being a different religion from my children and therefore, I did not think about talking explicitly to them about it.
Given the above facts and philosophy, I was surprised to read Emily's responses last year to questions regarding her religious identity. My husband was writing a paper on the development of identity, and he interviewed her via e-mail. Her responses were interestingly inconsistent. On the one hand, she was adamant about her Jewishness. She says, somewhat defiantly, that "my religion really comes from within me and it really doesn't matter what others think." She goes on to say that she "is insulted when people look down on her or do not recognize her as a legitimate Jew." On the other hand, Emily writes to her father, "I don't think my identity as a Jew is as enormous a part of my personal identity as it is for some people. I feel more connected to (mom) when I don't see myself as a Jew first and foremost. Maybe it's that I need to compromise in a way because I am not the product of two Jews, so I can't see myself entirely as a Jew in some respects. Although I don't know if I really feel that way, because I do think of myself as fully being a Jew, I just think this is not the basis of my identity."
I believe, as do some important researchers on the subject, that children identify with their same gender parent. This religious difference creates a dilemma for both Emily and me in terms of the integrity of our identity. Although we both practice Judaism, I am a non-Jew and she is a Jew. This is a reality which is not easily bridged.
Moreover, I am concerned that Emily's confusion regarding her religious identity gets played out in dating situations. While it certainly would be hypocritical to suggest that she or her brother date only Jews, my husband and I have consistently taken the position with our children that if it is important to them to have a Jewish life and family, then marrying another Jew would maximize that possibility. Of the young men Emily has dated seriously, only one (the first) was Jewish.
As I write this article, it occurs to me that perhaps my husband and I make intermarriage look simple. My children are unaware of the early years of our marriage and the adaptations, compromises, uncertainty and awkwardness that we went through. I certainly want to give my children permission to give important consideration to their relationship with their Judaism in connection with their prospective partner's religious identity.
As I close these "musings," I grapple with the reality that my children, at least my daughter, does not feel she has complete "permission" to be Jewish. Given all my efforts, short of conversion I do not know if this is an unavoidable by-product of intermarriage.