Parents of Interfaith Couples: Your Actions Are Disingenuous

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Young couple with in-laws

In this space, we typically address parents who are part of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. But this month, I want to address the parents of children who are in interfaith marriages or relationships. Their actions and behaviors often affect the choices that couples navigating interfaith marriage make.

As an engagement professional at my synagogue in Dallas, I’m charged with helping to connect interfaith couples and families, and 20s and 30s to Jewish life. One of the things I frequently hear from young married and engaged couples is how uber Jewish the Jewish partners’ family has become. Suddenly, the frequency of attendance at Friday evening services has jumped and there is an intense focus on all things Jewish. Holidays that were once fairly laid back gatherings are now more significant affairs.

This story of parents acting more Jewish and dragging their married kids to more Jewish services and events is usually followed by the comment, “My family has never been this involved in Jewish life. They’ve suddenly become Super Jews because I married someone who isn’t Jewish.” Sometimes, it’s the partner from another background who says; “My husband/wife says that his/her parents rarely went to services before we got engaged. Now, anything related to Judaism is important.”

My reaction to these stories is always the same. I smile and nod. I tell the couple that their parents or in-laws’ behavior is common. Many Jewish parents, in response to a child marrying or dating someone from another faith, think that if they up their level of Jewish engagement, that they can influence the decisions of interfaith couples. They believe their newfound connection to Jewish life will communicate how important Judaism and its continuation is to them.

I explain to the couples that their parents or in-laws’ behavior is a result of various emotions–nervousness, uncertainty, fear, and guilt to name a few. Parents worry that their children won’t make Jewish choices or honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. They fear their grandchildren won’t identify as Jews, that Christmas will overshadow Jewish rituals and traditions. They feel guilty for not having been more engaged in Judaism when their son or daughter was growing up and wonder if they had done more would their child have chosen a Jewish partner.

Parents use intensified engagement as a surrogate for talking with their child and his or her partner about their feelings and why Judaism is important to them. The problem with this approach is that their kids see through it. They know their parents’ or in-laws’ actions are disingenuous.

So how can parents influence the religious choices of their children who are in interfaith marriages in a way that is genuine?

  1. Be honest, be true to yourself. Practice Judaism in the same way that you’ve always practiced. Rather than “pump up the volume” to connote importance, explain to your child and his or her spouse why Judaism and its continuation is important to you. Share why certain rituals are meaningful and why other traditions are not. Communicate your hopes that the couple will engage, in some way, in Jewish life.
  2. Be welcoming and appreciative. Warmly welcome your daughter- or son-in-law. Tell them that you appreciate him or her being part of your family. Include them as much as possible in the preparations and celebration of holidays. Ask them to help in the kitchen or to read a blessing in English. Explain holiday rituals, symbols, and foods. Tell them why certain traditions are important to you and how you find meaning in their observance. Share family stories and memories. Ask them about their family celebrations, religious and secular.
  3. Be positive. Work to make Jewish experiences positive ones for the couple. That may mean setting boundaries with family and friends. Educate the partner who isn’t Jewish about Jewish life. Show the couple an inclusive religious community. Demonstrate that your daughter- or son-in-law from another background is an important part of your Jewish family.
  4. Be open to new experiences and traditions. Incorporate dishes or rituals from your child’s partner in your family celebrations. Understand that your child and his or her partner will create their own traditions as they build their home. Participate, be respectful, don’t judge, be supportive. Remember, you did things differently from your parents and in-laws too!

Disingenuous hyper involvement in Jewish life won’t guarantee that interfaith couples will create Jewish homes or raise Jewish children. But it will turn them off or push them away. Instead, remember that your family’s Jewish journey is still unfolding. Your child and their partner may not strongly embrace Judaism quickly. But by being honest and welcoming, and supporting the choices the couple makes, you can have a positive influence on the future.



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