Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Technically, we are an interfaith family. My husband was raised Catholic, and I grew up in a Jewish family, although my parents were non-practicing. Neither my husband nor I was practicing any religion at the time we got together, but we both felt we lived our lives according to what we called "Judeo-Christian ethics." While our children were little, we paid lip service to our respective traditions by having a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts with my husband's children from his prior marriage, and celebrating a Passover seder with other interfaith couples. We had a vague idea that we would "let the children decide" what religion they wanted to pursue. Amazingly, the children did just that.
When our sons were about ten and thirteen, they began asking questions that made us realize they had virtually no biblical knowledge. We had already begun to worry about their lack of grounding in any religious tradition. We saw my husband's children drifting, seeking some kind of spiritual expression. We saw children of acquaintances being swept up by evangelical groups from Mormons to Hari Krishna because they had no religious identity to serve as a basis of comparison. We sought a program in which our sons could learn about religion and the Bible at that stage in their lives, without feeling different from the other children in the program.
We found just such an environment in "Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me." Housed at Congregation Emanuel in Denver, Colorado, Stepping Stones is for interfaith families in which one parent is Jewish. In this program, children learn about Judaism and their Jewish heritage without "putting down" their non-Jewish parent's religion. Parallel to the children's program is the "parent track" program, which enables parents to keep up with the knowledge of Judaism their children are acquiring. My husband was adamant that we be involved in our children's religious journey, so we attended the parent-rack sessions. I learned more about Judaism in that year than I had picked up growing up in a Jewish family.
At the end of the year, our sons made the decision that they wanted to affiliate and continue their Jewish education. My younger son undertook studies for his Bar Mitzvah. Applying himself to these studies was a real turning point in his life--prior to that he had never had the patience to stick to any project, and I doubted that he would persevere in his religious studies. He not only did, but he encouraged me to learn with him. I joined the adult B'nai Mitzvah class, and by an accident of scheduling we celebrated our B'nai Mitzvah on the same Shabbat. Studying Torah together created a bond between us that has lasted through his teen years. Although he is not actively involved with Judaism in college, he identifies himself as Jewish. I feel confident that he has a strong foundation to which he can return any time.
My older son, Daniel, took his religious studies seriously. He was confirmed, and subsequently studied Hebrew in adult classes. He attended services regularly and spent much time thinking about what Judaism meant to him. Since the onset of adolescence Daniel has suffered from a number of health problems, and he did not have an easy time socializing in high school. Once, when we were driving to religious school for services, he thanked me for helping him find a place where he felt he belonged. In college, he found his "home away from home" at Hillel. He blossomed socially and emotionally in college; I attribute much of that to the positive experiences he had through his involvement with Hillel. In his sophomore and junior years, he served as resident advisor for the "Jewish studies" theme residence house and as an officer in Hillel as well. Recently, at a Hillel dinner honoring graduating seniors and past officers, he was cited for having been instrumental in building up the Hillel organization in a year when it had been dwindling on campus. He was also chosen as a speaker to represent the Jewish students on campus at the interfaith Baccalaureate Service during graduation weekend.
I, myself, have become quite active in our congregation and the Jewish community. I lead services, chant Torah, attend weekly Shabbat services and Torah study, and once a month I bring Shabbat music to the Alzheimer patients at a Jewish senior home. Shabbat worship has become a very important part of my life, and Torah study has helped me to understand and deal with my aging parents--but my journey is another story . . .
Although he never chose to convert to Judaism, my husband no longer refers to us as an interfaith family: he calls us a "Jewish family in which one parent is not Jewish."