Interfaith Families and the High Holidays: Tips on Preventing Marital Tension

By Roberta Calderone


For many Jews, the High Holidays are a time for synagogue attendance and warm family gatherings. For interfaith families, however, they are potentially a time for concern, disagreement or even arguments. The Jewish partner may want to attend synagogue even if he or she does not do so regularly. The non-Jewish partner may not be sure of his or her role.

Sam (who is Jewish) and Jessica (who is not Jewish) are typical of many of the intermarried couples I have worked with in my role as as facilitator of interfaith groups. Although they were married at a Reform temple, Sam still feels a connection to his family’s Orthodox synagogue and isn’t sure which one to attend for High Holy Day services. Jessica is feeling very left out. She believes that she is not welcome at the Orthodox synagogue where she will have to sit apart from Sam with the other women. This thought is strange for her and frightening. She is not sure how she feels about participating in Sam’s practice of Judaism. She would prefer to stay home (rather than attend synagogue) and feels very anxious now about her promise to raise their Jewish children.

holding hands

This scenario is common in many interfaith marriages. One way to prevent it is to discuss each partner’s expectation of what will actually happen during the holidays, as well as his/her own fears, hesitations, and regrets. It is helpful to discuss and work through the role that each partner will play in his/her own and in his/her partner’s religion. If this discussion has not yet taken place, now is the time to do it.

Sam and Jessica have previously agreed that their children will be raised Jewish. They need to address Sam’s connection to Orthodox Judaism and Jessica’s feelings about it. While Jessica is not prepared to convert, they agree that both parents should be involved in the children’s religious upbringing. In order for this to work, it may be helpful for Sam to make a commitment to attend a synagogue where they each can feel welcomed.

By attending synagogue together, they can grow in their understanding of the Judaism that they will share with their extended family, their future children, and the outside world. Since Jessica has made a commitment to raise Jewish children, she needs the support of her husband and his family. Sam and Jessica’ s parents need to know just how the couple and their future children are going to celebrate their Judaism. It is up to Sam and Jessica to show what kind of support will be positive for them–whether or not they wish to be included in larger family gatherings, and on which occasions; how observant they will be and to what degree they will participate in Jessica’s family’s celebrations.

Jessica will have to accommodate herself to some foreign feelings, while the family will have to make efforts to make her feel comfortable. This effort is crucial if they want her to be able to raise her children as Jews. Of course, things change, and what feels foreign to Jessica at first will gradually grow more comfortable and familiar over time. Jessica’s parents also need support and to understand that while Jessica’s children may be a different religion from their grandparents, they can still have a loving and close relationship.

I find it sad when I see the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage coming to synagogue alone or just with the children. This is especially true during the holidays. When I approach them at this time, I usually get a response such as, “My husband/wife couldn’t make the service today.” I can sense the aloneness and disappointment in his/her voice. On the other hand, I often see intermarried husbands and wives attending services together, supporting one another. My experience in working with these couples is that those who choose one religion to observe as a family seem to have more successful marriages.

Some tips for interfaith families:

1. Attend synagogue together before the High Holidays. Make an effort to attend the Oneg Shabbat (post-service get together and snack) and find other interfaith couples to share a few moments of conversation. When the High Holy Days come, you will then be more comfortable in the synagogue.

2. Celebrate the holidays in your home. Invite some extended family and/or friends (not necessarily Jewish) to celebrate together. Also, invite non-Jewish family or friends for a lunch or dinner after services and share with them what you did that day. This could be a way to begin traditions in your own home and give the holiday a special meaning.

A tradition that we began many years ago was to have the Yom Kippur break fast in our home. My husband (the non-Jew) has attended religious services with our children and me for the thirty years of our marriage. He loves to be the host at our break fast celebration. It gives him a connection to the holiday and a sense of belonging. I like to invite couples who don’t have family in town or who are also in an interfaith marriage–it makes them and us feel less alone.


About Roberta Calderone

Roberta Calderone has been intermarried for the past thirty-one years and has two children. She has facilitated the "Times and Seasons Program" for Temple-Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal for more than a decade. The program allows interfaith couples contemplating marriage to identify and discuss issues they are facing.