A Journey of Faith: Step by Step, Beginning with the Birth of Our First Child

By Sallie W. Gotoff


Last year I attended a workshop led by Rabbi Moti Rieber, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois, on Jewish parenting. A discussion started on the topic of how important it was for some parents that their children marry Jews. Since I am the non-Jewish spouse in an interfaith family, the topic piqued my interest.

Rabbi Reiber responded to the discussion by saying, “I cannot control whether my children will marry a Jew. However I can control that on this Friday we will light the Shabbat candles.”

When I now reflect on my interfaith family’s journey, I realize that his statement has become my mantra.

My parents are Catholic and my siblings and I were the first generation in their family to attend public, as opposed to parochial, school. We belonged to a local parish, attended weekly Mass and went to Sunday school. After eighth grade Confirmation, I was only required to attend weekly Mass with my parents, and became less involved each year. I chose a Catholic college but did not pursue a religious life while I was there. During college I started to recognize that, although I am a spiritual person and believe in God, I do have differences of opinion with the doctrines and policies of my church.

In contrast, my husband’s family is Jewish. His mother was raised secular but in a Jewish neighborhood out East. His father was raised in a traditional Jewish home in New York’s Bronx. Together, my in-laws raised their children as secular Jews.

Fast forward twenty years: David and I met, fell in love and wanted to get married. Like many interfaith couples, we struggled with how and where we should be married. In the end, we chose to have a non-denominational ceremony that we created and had officiated by a layperson. Although we were challenged to find “our way,” the result was “right” for us.

Fortunately, our decision to intermarry did not seem to upset either set of parents. However, the process of searching for how and where to get married did leave an indelible mark on me. Since I had a more religious background, we started our search to get married with the Catholic Church. In the late 1980s, there was only one Catholic priest in Chicago who would consider officiating at a Catholic-Jewish marriage ceremony, and we decided not to approach a rabbi.

Until we had children, neither of us pursued our religions outside of attending various life-cycle events with family and friends. During that time, I actually was employed by a Jewish social service agency and part of my job was to conduct volunteer outreach in synagogues and Jewish community centers. I worked with people from all of the Jewish religious movements and always felt welcomed by them.

When we decided to have children, the question of which religion to raise them in had to be faced. We agreed that it was important to find a way to respect both of our religious backgrounds and our individual beliefs.

So we decided very unscientifically to raise our children in one of our faiths without pressure for the other spouse to convert. Since I had more experience with a religious upbringing, I felt secure in the decision to anchor our family in my husband’s religion, Judaism.

We were surprised by the initial reaction from family and friends. Some Christian friends and family did not say much. Some Jewish friends and family said we would confuse our children or that people would likely not accept us. My parents seemed to have more difficulty with the idea of me choosing a secular lifestyle over choosing a different religion.

When our children arrived they were not baptized, nor were they officially named in the Jewish faith. We did, however, honor the Jewish tradition of naming the children (or using the first letter) for ancestors that are no longer living.

Our next step was to find a synagogue. We were lucky to find a Reconstructionist synagogue. On our first formal visit, members talked openly about the fact that half of their congregation is interfaith and that Reconstructionists recognize patrilineal descent. I had never heard of the Reconstructionist movement until then. We began attending services for about a year prior to joining. The traditional observances were impressive. The fact that the services offered transliteration in English from the Hebrew and that the rabbi and cantor thoroughly explain the traditions made the services accessible.

We joined the congregation’s interfaith havurah (social/learning group). The group of ten interfaith families gets together monthly to do purely social activities, ranging from bowling to skating to participating in the “Walk for Israel” to celebrating Hanukkah together. We have become a tight-knit group and learn first-hand from the unique experiences of other interfaith families. The children have forged close ties with the other kids. Joining this synagogue and the havurah has enhanced the quality of our lives.

Through this involvement, I continue to become comfortable with my relationship with God within Judaism. I have come to view my home as a Jewish home. My children will still attend Mass with my mother occasionally. We continue to share in our extended families’ religious celebrations in both faiths. This year, we did an interfaith Passover seder with my Catholic family over the Easter weekend.

Another thing that happened this year is that I began an Introduction to Judaism class. The class is deepening my understanding of Jewish principles of faith as well as how to incorporate them into my daily life. I continue to keep the door open to conversion.

When I sat down with my family to talk about starting the class, I framed the conversation to say that I am seriously considering conversion. My goal was not to use words that sounded “final.” My family was not surprised. In fact they were very supportive and interested in the process. I gave my mother a copy of Anita Diamant’s book Choosing a Jewish Life.

I also sat down to explain to my eldest child (then six) that I was beginning the formal process for conversion. She was very surprised to learn that I had not already completed the process. She said, “What are you waiting for? You are already doing it.”

Throughout our interfaith journey, our eldest child has really embraced Judaism, and has become the driver in our family to our faith. She teaches us and even corrects us on the pronunciation of a Hebrew word or the order in a prayer.

Our journey is proving to be sweet and very satisfying. I am not sure down the road if my children will grow up and marry Jewish spouses. I do know, however, that tonight we will light the Shabbat candles together.


About Sallie W. Gotoff

Sallie W. Gotoff is a freelance publicist and promotional writer living in Batavia, Illinois, with her husband and two children.