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Early in our interfaith marriage, before the advent of children, we were asked by friends, "What are your kids going to be?" My response was immediate--a knee-jerk reaction--"They'll be Jewish, naturally." My husband was surprised by my "snap" decision, but I had been pondering this issue for months.
Why would I decide to raise our not-yet-conceived children as Jews? The answer to this question is suitably complex and necessarily personal.
I am not Jewish. I was raised in a Protestant home. Our family church was a sect of Methodism known as Free Methodist. I am not a theologian, but my interpretation of the message of the New Testament--in very simple terms--is that each of us has a spark of divinity and that by working together in positive ways we can "see" the face of god. I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus--or rather, I should say that I believe in the possibility that divinity dwells in each of us. This belief is part of my own personal spiritual evolution.
My husband was raised in a nominally Conservative Jewish home and describes his Hebrew school education in disparaging terms. His post-Bar Mitzvah, pre-marriage visits to a synagogue can be counted on one hand.
Soon after we were married we heard of a very special Reform congregation near our home in Brooklyn which was holding High Holiday services. I was curious to attend, and what we discovered was an egalitarian, socially active spiritual home that encouraged lively debate on the weekly Torah portion. I had heard Reform Judaism dismissed as "Judaism Lite," but soon came to understand that this characterization was unfair and erroneous.
The Statement of Principals for Reform Judaism adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention reflect, in part, the reality of the Eternal, the sanctity of human life, the importance of mitzvot (sacred obligations) and the concept that, "although God created us as finite beings, the spirit within us is eternal." I found that this dovetailed nicely with the lessons of my own religious heritage and provided a certain "comfort level" when I made the decision to raise our children as Jews.
My great respect for Judaism as a faith and as a culture also played a part in the decision to give our children a Jewish identity. I feel that I would be giving them a great gift by allowing them access to a religious education based in Torah. In our home we celebrate the holidays, we light candles on Shabbat and set the day aside as a break from more worldly activities. We practice tikkun olam, or the commandment to repair the world, when we find the opportunity and pass on the importance of acts of loving kindness to our children. In this way I have been able to create a Jewish home that honors my own religious heritage of faith and works; faith in an Eternal spirit that guides the good (God) in all of us to work for justice, peace and a healing of the world. The Methodist tradition has been, from the start, one of social responsibility and egalitarian worship combined with a heavy dose of service to the community.
I feel that conversion is a blessing, a gift, and should not be accepted before the time is right. Thus far the time has not been right for me, but my growing love of Judaism encourages me to give my children the benefits of a Jewish upbringing. I don't want to put our children's Jewish education on hold while I work out my own path to Judaism.
In our family the role of spiritual educator is divided between my husband and myself, but many of the duties fall to me. There is a school of thought that only a Jewish "mama" can raise a Jewish child--obviously, I disagree. Not all great voice teachers are, themselves, great singers. One of the best ways to teach a subject is to learn along with your student; as I study Hebrew and Yiddish, learn Jewish songs and blessings, and round out my own Jewish education with Torah study, I pass all this on to my children with passion and excitement.
I am very aware of my inadequacy as a teacher of Jewish culture, so I seek out resources to help educate my children in a Jewish way: I utilize the Hebrew school of our temple, the Internet, books and magazines. One of my favorite resources has been the music of Tanja Solnik--her two CD's of Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino music rotate as our "goodnight" music during the bedtime hour, and I often overhear my son and daughter singing little snatches of their favorite Yiddish songs.
We work on learning the alef bet, Hebrew alphabet, and as my children grow we'll learn and perfect our Hebrew together. My children will always have the option of undergoing a Jewish conversion ceremony in the future if they choose--perhaps they'll want to incorporate it as part of another life cycle event--but for the time being they are Jewish in my eyes, my husband's eyes, and in the eyes of our congregation.
I do not believe that the only path for an interfaith family is to adopt one religion. I have seen examples of families that merge two religions and impart to their children a sense of respect for both family faiths. For our family I feel a Jewish path is best. Sadly, I have seen families commit to a single religion--only to fall away from it through disinterest or because one parent eventually begins to regret the loss of his own traditions.
I have strong, positive memories of my own childhood Christmas celebrations, and I work each year to find a way to re-live these memories while maintaining a Jewish home. One route we've explored is to use the Christmas season as a time to teach our children about people who have used peaceful means to achieve their goals. We contrast this with Hanukkah, a holiday that stresses the importance of fighting to retain religious rights.
Our Jewish home is not a "typical" Jewish home, but I suspect that our practices reflect a growing movement in the Jewish community. The controversial "Who is a Jew?" question poses the query, "What is a Jewish home?" To find my own answer to this I must trust my intelligence and my education and I constantly reevaluate my own place in Judaism.
To many, an interfaith family such as ours spells the end of Judaism; I disagree. Throughout history there has been a strong vein of diversity and disagreement within the Jewish community surrounding the different ways of fulfilling the commandments of the Torah. What many see as the challenge of intermarriage I see as an opportunity. I feel that, handled appropriately, interfaith families can enrich and enliven the Jewish community as a whole.
Our children will grow up knowing what goes on in our home is part of OUR normal Jewish life.
Helpful resources I've used
Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Their Heritages by Lee F. Gruzen, et al. (March 1990).
The Intermarriage Handbook : A Guide for Jews & Christians by Judy Petsonk, et al. (January 1991).
Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1991).
Tanja Solnik, From Generation to Generation: A Legacy of Lullabies: Traditional Jewish Lullabies sung in Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew, DreamSong Recordings, 615-383-8141, click here.
Tanja Solnik, Lullabies and Love Songs: Jewish Lullabies and Love Songs sung in Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew , DreamSong Recordings, 615-383-8141, click here.
Other Useful Websites
UAHC Homepage: www.uahc.org
Jewish Music.com: www.jewishmusic.com
Interfaith Working Group Online: www.iwgonline.org
Dovetail Publishing: www.mich.com/~dovetail