What the Term “Interfaith Family” Means


Interfaith familiesToday on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, “at least not right now.” She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an “interfaith couple,” a term which “does not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.”

I posted a response that I’d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesn’t mean a couple that is raising children “both” or in two faiths. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.

We think that the term “interfaith” has become what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term “interfaith” the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.

Allison writes that there are “plenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,” but doesn’t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition – and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than “interfaith.”

Allison writes in her article that her and her husband’s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are “many shades of gray.” But as we use the term, “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.

Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organization’s goal – which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations – is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

3 thoughts on “What the Term “Interfaith Family” Means”

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Robin. Language is a tricky thing, and we agree that people should refer to themselves in the way that is most comfortable and authentic. InterfaithFamily does not typically use the term “half-Jew” to describe those who grew up in interfaith families. It may remain in the tags we have used for those searching for that term, and if someone self-identifies using that term, we don¹t pass any judgment on it.

    We do use the term “interfaith” as an umbrella for all types of Jews and people who are not Jewish who are from or in families with multiple religious traditions, are intermarried, are the children of intermarried parents, are Jews by choice, etc. No one word works for everyone, but we think “interfaith” is the best available term to use.

  • Half Jewish?

    I am Jewish, and had reached the point in the Cub Scout handbook where we discuss faith and offer the kids the ability to earn their religious award of their faith. I was their Cub Scout Den Leader, and I once had a confused Cub Scout ask me if he was Jewish or Christian since dad was Jewish and mom was Christian. I quickly asked his dad to join the conversation, since I thought it was absolutely NOT my place to answer him. The father shrugged and asked me to answer. At first I asked him not to put me in this position, but he pressed me. I thought for a moment and then asked the youth, “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?” He answered in the affirmative. I said, “Ok, you’re Christian.” and I handed him the PDF from praypub to get the Christian award for Scouting if he would like.

    Half-Jewish might be possible with the other parent atheist, or maybe even Buddhist, but half-Jewish and half-Christian simply defies the ability to actually BELIEVE anything. You can CELEBRATE both holidays, but you have to actually CHOOSE to believe one or the other, or you end up with kids who believe nothing and just go through the motions of celebrating holidays. At a young age, there’s no issue, but watch what happens when they become adults and raise children.

    There’s an old saying in Judaism – ‘You are as Jewish as your grandchildren’. The same could go for any other religion…

  • Dear Alicia Chandler:

    Before condemning the use of the term “half-Jewish,” you might want to take a look at the Half-Jewish Network website.

    We’re a support and advice group for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage. We chose the name “Half-Jewish Network” because an analysis of the internet when we started showed that “half-Jewish” was one of the most frequently used search terms employed by adult descendants of intermarriage.

    An organization must reach out to a constituency where they “are” and use terms they are comfortable with, or it will never reach them at all.

    You will note that interfaithfamily.com website uses “half-Jew” on its list of “Tags” to the right of these comments.

    With regard to the use of terms such as “born Jew” and “converted Jew” — what would you suggest in their place? For many half-Jewish people, we’re acutely aware of the differences between “born Jewish” people with two Jewish parents, and people who have converted to Judaism, whose backgrounds are more varied.

    I’ve always liked “Jew by Choice” as a descriptive term for people who’ve converted to Judaism. I don’t know of a similar term for Jews born of two ethnically Jewish parents, but I welcome suggestions.

    Robin Margolis
    Coordinator, Half-Jewish Network

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