Interfaith Marriage Has Our Blessing

By Myrna Baron


January 12, 2009

Humanistic Judaism sees interfaith marriage differently from most Jewish organizations. We celebrate differences, and welcome partners who are not Jewish as full members of our community.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews, the organization that represents rabbis and certified leaders in the Humanistic Jewish movement, released its position statement on interfaith marriage stating unequivocally “We…strongly affirm the right of individuals, including all Jews, to choose their own marriage partners… the obligation of Secular Humanistic Jewish leaders to serve the needs of couples with different culture and religious backgrounds and the right of such leaders to officiate at their wedding ceremonies.. [and] the responsibility of all Jews to welcome the partners [who are not Jewish] of Jews into the Jewish family circle and to offer them acceptance and respect.”

At The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, a non-theistic alternative for Jewish education and celebration in New York City, this means promoting a humanistic, pluralistic environment where all members of an intermarried family feel welcome.

We have no requirements or recommendations for how intercultural families should celebrate with us or rear their children. We believe that the reason so many interfaith families leave Jewish community life is that they don’t feel welcome—sadly they often feel alienated. But when they are welcomed without reservation, their family can have a wonderful Jewish community.

At The City Congregation, the partners who are not Jewish are welcome to be fully involved in the community, or not participate at all, as they choose. We believe involvement in a Jewish community is a personal decision to be made within the family—and we understand and support the decision they make.

Our congregation has become a home for many intercultural families who have searched for a comfortable place to educate their children. As the facilitator of The City Congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah program and classroom teacher for 11 to 13 year olds, I have spoken with many families in their search for a Jewish community that is consistent with their beliefs and [that is] embracing of their spouse who is not Jewish. Our program makes certain that the parent who is not Jewish and in-laws are comfortable and included in the adolescent’s rite of passage.

Our bar/bat mitzvah program focuses on heritage, culture, values, social responsibility, heroes and role models. As part of the program, our students complete an extensive independent study project in addition to the twice-monthly classes they attend. Our students work closely with an adult mentor, and take responsibility for choosing and researching a major topic of inquiry, which they present at their ceremony. The independent study portion becomes a family project in order for our adolescents to gain a greater understanding of their heritage and how they fit into the Jewish world and the larger world community.

The students from intercultural families are encouraged to equally investigate their heritage that is not Jewish, and include it in their bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. The ceremony consists of a series of essays in addition to humanistic liturgy—and the resulting rite of passage becomes very personal.

One of my students titled her research project, “The Streets Were Paved with Cement.” She investigated Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side, as well as the immigration of her father’s forebears who were not Jewish to early California, and compared and contrasted the two. The information she learned was extraordinary. Her mother commented, “Her larger study of Jewish history became infused with immense personal meaning… Molly’s response was electric; she saw she was committing to a lot of work and a lot of responsibility, but she loved the fact she’d be making choices.”

Another student, the child of a Jewish mother and African-American father, researched how Jews and African Americans worked together in the civil rights movement to make the world a better place. She interviewed her mother’s family and her father’s family to find out how each participated in the civil rights movement, how they were affected by it, and what it means in terms of their values. She researched the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi. For my student, this was history. For many of us in the room, it was current events. Her family and the congregation were moved—some to tears—by her presentation. She gained a strong connection to and respect for her heritage in both cultures. This teenager is firmly rooted in her Jewish identity—she now teaches younger children in our KidSchool—and equally respects her African American heritage. This family, like so many others, has found a way to embrace its various heritages in our Jewish home.


About Myrna Baron

Myrna Baron is executive director of The Center for Cultural Judaism in Manhattan.