Choosing Judaism After an Interfaith Upbringing That Did “Both”

By Ilene Springer


“The hardest part of growing up [without a religious identity] is not being able to share religion with one parent without feeling like I’m rejecting the other parent,” says Katie Light, twenty-two, a sociology student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “But,” says Light who has a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, “I’m lucky. I’ve developed an amazing perspective on religion, and because of the opposition from both sides, I have thought about all of my religious decisions very carefully.”

Light chose Judaism as her religion when she was a young girl, even though she was influenced by her parents to follow the Christian faith. Judaism gave her a sense of community, something she found lacking in her mother’s church.

Light has been through more than her share of identity crises. She has walked a narrow path between two legitimate but conflicting idealogies, and the tension she experienced has influenced her long-term relationship with her parents, friends, and future husband. In her experiences as a child brought up without a single religious identity, Light is not alone. But she has often felt alone in her thoughts and decisions.

Childhood:  Enriching but Not Carefree
When a well-meaning intermarried couple couple exposes their children “equally” to both religions, they figure their children will decide what religious path to follow on their own. But equal is not easy. Says Rabbi Scott Aaron of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (a program of the Brandeis-Bardin Institue, a Jewish retreat and educational center in Brandeis, California) which each of the people interviewed for this article attended, “Being raised fifty-fifty in religion is not realisitic. You can’t believe in Jesus on Sunday–and then not believe in Jesus on Saturday. It’s better to be raised in one faith or another; then you have a basis upon which to make a decision.”

At times, however, doing both has its advantages. Says Katie Light, “I always knew I was different because when I was younger and we would make holiday decorations in school, I would be twice as busy making paper Chanukiot (menorahs) and Christmas trees. But it was natural for me because I didn’t know anything else. I knew I was different, but I was pretty proud of it.”

Some children brought up with parents “doing both” experience tension with their extended families. “My father is Roman Catholic and my mother is Jewish. They’re divorced now,” says Julia Schofield, twenty-two, an English major at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Both sets of grandparents were against the marriage because of the religious differences. Now my parents say they should have listened.”

Schofield grew up closer to her mother’s side of the family, which was Jewish and strongly opposed to Christian beliefs and practices. But her father and his family would preach to her about Christianity when they could and tried to interest her in attending mass. Eventually, she joined a Hebrew School and no longer participated in Christian religious activities.

Light also experienced problems with her parents’ relatives, problems that have extended throughout her young adulthood. “I don’t have a good relationship with my maternal grandparents (who are Christian). They definitely favor my brother who isn’t any more Christian than I am, but who stuck with it longer than I did. My paternal family doesn’t necessarily accept me as being Jewish, but they appreciate that I have chosen their side.”

Light now has very little contact with her mom’s extended family because she feels they reject her Jewish faith. “But some of my cousins on my father’s side are my best friends.”

If It’s Saturday, It Must Be Synagogue
Many children brought up “both” remember their childhood going along smoothly except for religious celebrations. Jeffrey L. Nelson, twenty-three, is majoring in Judaic Studies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. His mother is Jewish, and his father grew up in a Baptist family but remains unaffiliated at this time. After his parents divorced, Nelson lived with his father until the fifth grade, and then starting switching between their two homes.

“Holidays were very peculiar,” says Nelson. “Because of having grown up with my dad, we always had Christmas and Easter. However, that stopped by the time I started my Jewish education in the third grade.” Nelson’s father had enrolled him in a Baptist Sunday School, but it didn’t feel natural to him, so he continued solely with his Jewish studies. “Doing Christmas, which only consisted of dinner, breakfast and presents–no religion at all–continued with my dad until this past Christmas, 2002. I had specifically requested that that he not include me in Christmas, and to not be upset if I didn’t come over to open presents on Christmas day.” At this point, Nelson identified with being Jewish and no longer wanted to engage in Christian rituals.

Passover and Hanukkah were the only Jewish holidays Nelson says he celebrated. “I feel as though I may have missed out on having a more traditional Jewish observance of the holidays, but after talking with other Jews my age, some don’t know about or do anything more for the holidays than I do. One thing that always bothered me is that my dad would never allow me to miss school for the High Holy Days, even though it was approved by the school district. This has caused me to have some negative reservations about him.”

Julia Schofield was closer to her Jewish mother’s family–which was against celebrating Christmas. “So here was the deal: there were no Christmas lights outside. We could have a tree in the basement. I felt cheated; my friends could openly celebrate Christmas, but I couldn’t.”

The Choice of Judaism
Eventually, children whose parents haven’t chosen a religion for them often decide on one religion. The individuals interviewed here selected Judaism, in part due to the spiritual guidance provided by the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, which helped them forge a path to Judaism. The scenarios vary. Some young adults decide quickly; others take a long time. The decisions of some are accepted by their parents; others experience rejection.

Jeff Nelson knew from an early age that he wanted to be Jewish. “By second grade, I knew I was Jewish–or at least, not a Christian. In the third grade I was enrolled in Sunday School with Beth Torah, and the following year I started Hebrew School. I remember enjoying it immediately–and just knowing that this is where I was supposed to be and who I was.”

Because she was closer to her mother’s side of the family, Schofield was steered toward Judaism. She went to Hebrew School and never attended Christian Sunday School. Then, at the age of thirteen to fourteen, she rejected Judaism for a while, saying she was an atheist. “I refused to step into a synogague; it was mostly out of rebelliousness, I think.” When she got into college, Schofield started embracing Judaism. “In my sophomore year, I went on a university-sponsored trip to Israel. That propelled me into Judaism. I got really interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and started doing a lot of research. I got my hands on anything I could.”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) is now Schofield’s favorite holiday. Although being Jewish is now her identity, she believes more in letting her individual spirituality guide her than in following any organized religion.

On the other hand, Kate Light’s life revolves around being an observant Jew–which is very difficult for her because he


About Ilene Springer

Ilene Springer is a freelance writer based in Dover, New Hampshire.