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'In the Mix': Under One Roof, Negotiating Two Faiths

Reprinted by permission from The (New York) Jewish Week.

February 13, 2008

When my friend Rebecca tells me she and her husband want to expose their two small children to both Judaism and Christianity, I smile politely.

But inwardly I'm thinking, "They're crazy."

If there's anything I've internalized from my years of working in Jewish journalism, it's that one must never, ever try to raise a child in two religions. It's naïve. It's confusing to children. It's practically criminal.

Jewish Survival, painting by Ofir NaveI've heard this creed repeated time and time again and never questioned it--especially since it dovetailed with anecdotes I'd heard from acquaintances over the years, including a girl whose bickering parents forced her to attend both Hebrew school and Christian Sunday school. And frankly, I never needed to question the two-is-worse-than-one idea, because early in our relationship, my Catholic husband, no fan of the Church, happily agreed to raise our children exclusively as Jews. Nonetheless, on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I trekked out to Port Washington, Long Island, to visit a religious school that commits the ultimate taboo: teaching about both Judaism and Christianity.

Expecting either Jews for Jesus or an all-religion-is-the-same, kumbaya-type gathering, I boarded the Long Island Rail Road with a mixture of pity and disdain for all involved. However, I came away impressed by the group's intelligence and seriousness.

The Interfaith Community, which has chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange County and Denver, offers Jewish-Christian couples and their children a place to come together for holiday celebrations, discussions, religious school and a sense of community.

Team-taught by Jewish and Christian educators, the religious school classes cover the highlights of both faiths, but do not try to merge the two or gloss over differences.

"The idea is that the children will have information so they can make good, informed choices," explains Clay Dockery, a Union Theological Seminary student who is IFC's program coordinator and one of the teachers in Port Washington.

Isn't all this way too confusing for kids? "Children are smart," Dockery says. "They can understand differences better than people give them credit for."

When I arrive at the Port Washington school the mood is festive, with parents, teachers and kids mingling around a table of bagels and coffee. Ilana Limony, a veteran Hebrew school teacher who is originally from Israel, tells me this is her favorite teaching gig.

"These are the nicest people," she says of those at the school. "These parents are committed. In afternoon school, the kids are tired and it's like they're doing you a favor. Here the kids are special ... they are really interested."

Chatting with people here--where intermarriage is not simply tolerated but is actually celebrated--is a bit disorienting. Parents speak approvingly of their children's respect for, and comfort with, multiple cultures and traditions. Several people tell me they believe interfaith couples actually have stronger marriages than same-faith couples, because they love each other enough to negotiate their differences.

"It takes a certain person to be in an interfaith couple--there has to be a certain openness to begin with," one woman says.

Founded in 1987 by a small group of families whose children all attended Manhattan's Trinity School (which despite its name has long been nondenominational and has many Jewish students), the Interfaith Community has grown considerably over the years under the leadership of its founder Sheila Gordon, a Jew married to a practicing Episcopalian.

A member of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, Gordon, 65, has put together an advisory board with numerous prominent Jewish and Christian leaders, including BJ's Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, rabbis affiliated with the Jewish think tank CLAL--and even faculty members from the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary.

Carol Ingall, a professor of Jewish education at JTS, tells me she thought "long and hard" about whether to lend her name and support to the effort, but ultimately decided that it's an important option for families who have not decided on one faith for their children.

"To turn to these people and say, 'Unless you are going to do it our way, then we're not going to help you at all,' made me feel uncomfortable," she explains. "I felt there was a chance that with a decent introduction to Judaism these children would choose to be Jews. I wanted to gamble on that." Gordon, who has one adult daughter who identifies as Jewish and another who leans more toward Christianity, tells me that pressuring families to start out by choosing one religion is the wrong approach and can lead to one parent feeling marginalized.

"Kids will recognize if one parent is not happy or the grandparents are not being respected," she says. "We think that's not a good way to raise children."

As I talk with Gordon and others with the Interfaith Community, I realize that Jewish leaders often wrongly assume that there are only two options for interfaith couples: choosing one religion (ideally Judaism) or exposing children to two religions. But in reality, many interfaith couples avoid conflict by raising their children with no religion at all.

Like many other American Jews, I am so squeamish about Christianity, and perhaps so ambivalent about religion of all kinds, that I have always felt more comfortable with those completely secular intermarried families than with the ones trying to do two faiths.

Sure, those who expose their children to Judaism and Christianity are easy to criticize, and their approach is definitely not for me personally. But I suspect their children will grow up to be more spiritually grounded and certainly more knowledgeable than the numerous children--whether from intra-faith or interfaith homes--who are given no religious upbringing at all.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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