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I am a forty-eight year-old married mother of two children, ages twenty and sixteen. My husband is the president of our temple. Both of our children were b'nai mitzvahed. We regularly have a Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner and attend Shabbat evening services. I was the co-chair of our temple's social action committee for three years and continue to be actively involved, which includes organizing several projects on an on-going basis.
Many people would say that I lead a very "Jewish life." However, when the random form inquiring about my religious affiliation presents itself, I am stumped. I am a non-Jew who lives a Jewish life; a major part of that life includes parenting Jewish children. When I chose this life, my sole concern about this situation was that I would feel different from my children in a very fundamental way, as my father had during my own childhood.
As a family therapist, I believe that the past provides clues for understanding the present. I was raised in a less- pronounced variation on an interfaith family. My mother was Episcopalian, my father Congregationalist--two different branches of Protestantism. My mother, sister and I attended the Episcopal church. I recall being a regular churchgoer, especially as a child, singing in the choir, going to Sunday school and church events. I remember at least one year that I went to church every Tuesday morning during Lent before going on to school. Church was a very comforting place for me. I loved the structure and predictability of the service in the prayers and hymns that were familiar to me. I also distinctly remember how palpably uncomfortable my father was when he occasionally, for special events, came to church with us. As a sensitive child, I felt uncomfortable for him.
As I passed into my adolescence and young adulthood, I became less actively connected to the church. I started dating my husband in my late adolescence. Our relationship was characterized by some of the typical dilemmas of interfaith dating. We were acutely aware that my husband's parents would not approve. Indeed, when we announced our intention to marry after six years of dating, they were not particularly happy about the development. As eager-to-please second children, we tried hard to accommodate to everyone's sensitivities in the wedding ceremony. A judge officiated and the ceremony took place in a lovely, non-religious room in my husband's college with the reception in an adjoining courtyard. The setting was neutral but had a special meaning for my husband and myself. Both sets of parents seemed comfortable with this arrangement.
I was always completely aware of how important my husband's Judaism was to him. From the beginning, it was clear that we would raise our children as Jews. Actually, this was not a serious problem. For me, it was just important that my children have a faith. Despite the heartaches of our interfaith relationship, which primarily entailed finding ways to include all the special rituals and traditions of our two religions without over-compromising or offending the other, we were a good match: I brought the spiritual component of religion and my husband brought the peoplehood of Judaism.
In my own parenting, I wanted to spare my children the experience of a parent uncomfortable with the other parent's religion and the designated religion for the family. Therefore, over the twenty-five years since my husband and I announced our intention to marry, I have had an on-going commitment to learn about Judaism and consequently become more comfortable with it. Before marrying, I took conversion classes, although with the explicit goal of education, not conversion. Shortly thereafter, I took a class to learn how to read Hebrew.
We initially joined a Conservative temple, as my husband had grown up in one. However, the worship service was almost excruciatingly foreign to me and I felt very self-conscious and out of place. For several years, we worshipped in a local university, but I missed the sense of community and rootedness of a more established congregation. After some searching, we joined a Reform temple located in our neighborhood, across the street from our children's elementary school. In this temple, I began to experience the peacefulness I recalled from my childhood experience of worship. Each year I became more familiar with the prayers and songs and noticed my ability to read and sing along expand. I now feel a comfort reminiscent of my childhood from the structure and predictability of the service. I have even found a home for my spirituality. In fact, I have begun to realize that my children were not the only beneficiaries of my on-going efforts.
Why have I chosen to emphasize my own spiritual journey in these musings about parenting in an interfaith family? I believe that our sense of ourselves as people strongly infuses our parenting. Our thoughts and feelings precede our action (as well as at times inaction). Interfaith parenting , which encompasses issues of identity, is complex and fraught with confusing thoughts and emotions, some originating from our earlier experiences of religion. I believe that it is important to honestly wrestle with these issues. We owe this to ourselves as well as to our children. Sometimes this involves taking different paths and maintaining the flexibility to change direction until the fit feels right.
After twenty-five years of searching, I do not feel that I have reached all my destinations. However, I know that I have provided not only my children but also myself with the foundation for an evolving role that religion can play throughout the inevitable vicissitudes of our lives.