When Your Child Intermarries

By Phoebe Kerness


“Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” However, in our case at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, it is, “Here is the temple and here is the steeple,” for as the only gothic synagogue in the country we do have a steeple.

And the people come. “Shabbat Shalom,” “Yom Tov,” “Chag Sameach,” we greet them as they arrive for Shabbat (Sabbath) services and the High Holidays and festivals throughout the year. Sitting in our pews are people who were born Jewish, Jews-by-choice, Christians, as well as others with no religious affiliation.

As we all know, a large proportion of temple members throughout the nation are in interfaith relationships. Many are raising their children as Jews in Jewish homes.

Then there are the parents, grandparents and families of these intermarried couples. In today’s open and assimilated society, where approximately 50 percent of Jews marry outside their religion, it is highly likely that all of us have close relatives who aren’t Jewish.

While we may be philosophical about our children’s relationships, we parents deal with a myriad of mixed emotions because of our children’s marriages out of our faith. Feelings range from disappointment, a sense of personal loss, rejection, fear over the possible loss of a child, fear that our grandchildren will not be Jewish, and outright grief. Such feelings need to be acknowledged and processed by parents, singly and together, without involving the intermarried couple in their turmoil, and with recognition that both partners may not feel the same way about the issue.

The challenge for us as parents is how to encourage our children to establish a Jewish home without interfering with their lives. Ultimately, it is the young couple’s decision how their children will be raised and what their home life will be like.

It is important for parents to be accepting of our non-Jewish in-law children as individuals with spiritual lives of their own and to show an interest in the rituals and observances that are important to them–to ask about what their religion means to them, and how holidays are celebrated in their families. It is important to learn about the different holiday and lifecycle traditions of your in-law children.

As much as parents might love to see our non-Jewish in-law children convert to Judaism, it is not our place as in-laws to ask them to do so. One has to grow into Judaism. For your child, much less yourself, to insist that the mate convert is akin to telling him or her, “I love you so very much for who you are and what you are, but now I want you to change.” The fact is that many of them, for multiple reasons, do eventually convert, as witnessed by the increased number of conversions taking place around the country. But that needs to be a decision that they come to on their own.

Our child’s intermarriage provides an opportunity for us to examine the meaning of Judaism in our own lives. It can lead us to question why we care so much that our child has married someone from another faith, what being Jewish means to us and what we value most about Judaism. Once we clarify for ourselves where our commitments to the Jewish religion and the Jewish people lie, we are then better able to communicate with our children on this important and sensitive subject.

As you read the following list, think to yourself which of these commitments to Jewish observance means the most to you:

 – Yom Kippur observance: fasting and attending synagogue as symbolic of a commitment to observe the High Holidays and the festivals;

– Lighting Shabbat candles: symbolizing a commitment to begin to observe Shabbat at home and in the synagogue;

– Having a mezuzah on the doorpost of your home: symbolizing a commitment to having a Jewish home;

– Dietary laws: accepting some aspect that reflects understanding of their importance for Jewish life and the validity of the discipline. Such acceptance may begin with the commitment to eat matzah on Passover;

– Love of Israel: believing in the Jewish people and the Land of Israel as the historic Jewish homeland and the Jewish State, support for organizations that act on behalf of Israel and Jews in America and around the world;

– Affiliation: a commitment to join a synagogue and become an active member of the Jewish community;

– Tzedakah: a commitment to giving of self, time or money, according to your ability;

– Worship: a commitment to regular worship experience;

– Raising children as Jews: a commitment to “teach them faithfully to your children”–to raise children in the Jewish tradition;

– Education: a commitment to life-long Jewish education for yourself.

You can check with your local branch of the Union for Reform Judaism to see if they offer a course for families of intermarried children–“Our Children, Their Loves, Our Faith”–that helps family members explore and prioritize these commitments and further delve into why they are Jews.

Once you have clarified what is most important to you about Judaism, you can have a conversation with your child and see if he/she shares that sense of importance and wants to transmit it to his/her children. Whether or not your child agrees with you, as Jewish parents and grandparents we should reflect the joy and pride we feel in being Jewish and model our love of Judaism. Have your home reflect the elements of Judaism that are important to you.

Invite your kids to share in your holiday observances and celebrations and to go to temple with you when you go. Invite them to help you prepare for such occasions, thus providing an opportunity to teach about the holidays, their rituals and symbolic foods. Be genuine in your practices. To suddenly light Shabbat candles, when you have never done so, to impress your non-Jewish daughter- or son-in-law will not achieve your goal and might alienate your child, simply because your child, remembering how he or she was raised, will see through such duplicity. However, if you are becoming more observant, and have added new rituals to your life, be certain that your child knows about them before the couple visits your home.

When families live in the same city, sharing your Judaism is a much easier task. With long-distance children, it becomes much more of a challenge. When you see your children infrequently, you don’t want to spend your visits overwhelming them with your religious practices. Hopefully, families will continue to travel and get together for the major holidays. Passover is the most likely time for this to happen.

Other opportunities to share and model your Judaism will present themselves over the years, including lifecycle events in the extended family and, unfortunately, the death of close relatives.

Ultimately, our children’s choices are their own. As loving parents, deeply interested in the happiness of our children and in the future of Judaism, we must strive to love our children for themselves, honor and respect their choices and let our homes “glow with the beauty of our heritage.”


About Phoebe Kerness

Phoebe Kerness currently serves on the URJ-CCAR Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community and chairs the Outreach Committee for the Southeast Region of the Union For Reform Judaism.