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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
It may sound like a hackneyed truism to say that marriage is a journey for both partners that begins just about as soon as the first date in concluded. But it is true nonetheless. In many families, there is a significant religious dimension to that journey. Often this is highlighted as couples begin to make decisions about the nature of the wedding ceremony. Questions that were previously irrelevant suddenly become relevant.
For most interfaith families, the religious journey is a major one, regardless of the extent of the observance and participation of either partner in a particular faith community. Ritual observance is not a measuring stick for the religiosity of a family. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual for a life-changing religious journey to be jumpstarted by the interfaith relationship itself. Often, faith issues bubble up to the surface in an interfaith relationship when they might have been overlooked entirely in a so-called in-faith relationship. Often as couples explore various religious issues together, searching for ways to minimize their differences and reduce any conflicts, they are forced to face challenging decisions for themselves and the family they are starting. Thus, they confront profoundly serious issues that can send them on a lifelong journey of exploration and discovery. For me, this is mainly about exploring a relationship with God; such exploration may be what some people refer to as spirituality.
For many adults, religion is something left behind in adolescence. So it demands a new approach in adulthood. Since many of us are caught without any tools, the exploration and subsequent journey requires a great deal of attention. Suddenly, we have to find a place for religion alongside the sophisticated learning we may have done in other fields of endeavor. Major events, especially traumatic ones--either in the life of our family or community--may impact on the direction of this religious journey, as well.
When the religious journeys of two partners are the same or are on parallel planes, it usually strengthens a relationship. However, when one is on a journey that leaves the other behind (and this is often about religion itself rather than a specific religion), it places additional stress on a relationship. And when decisions about the religious education or development of children enter the mix, the stress intensifies even further and catalyzes the journey of the individual.
Once an individual begins a religious journey, and journeys are usually ongoing processes that continue over the course of a lifetime, you can never tell where the journey will take him or her. Perhaps that is the point. It may not be about getting anywhere; the joy is in the journey. By their nature, journeys are unpredictable. And for the believer, these journeys may be understood as part of a religious "calling," beyond the control of the individual.
But the individual does not have to go it alone. Here is where a spiritual guide comes in. While these spiritual guides may be rabbis, they need not be so, but they do need to be familiar with the challenges implicit in an evolving interfaith relationship. These guides are experienced individuals who want to both affirm you and the decisions that you have made and help guide you on your religious journey. While the Hebrew term mashgiach ruchani,spiritual guide, may not be familiar to most people, they can be found in some religious communities.
The notion of spiritual guidance may be a more familiar concept to the Christian partner in an interfaith relationship rather than the Jewish one, but it is a decidedly neutral idea, one welcome in the midst of the challenges of an interfaith relationship. And besides helping a couple navigate their personal journeys, such a guide can help make sure that their journeys parallel one another and do not cause an unhealthy distance between partners in a relationship--something that individuals may be oblivious of as they move forward on their own.
Whether through a spiritual guide or other means, keeping your spouse involved in your spiritual growth can reduce potential friction in the future, and might even open doors into your relationship that you had previously never thought possible. Life is an exploration, but that exploration is best when it's shared with those we love!