Dual Legacies: Growing up Jewish in an Interfaith Family

By Samantha Facciolo


While I was growing up in an interfaith family, I practiced only Judaism with my mother while my younger brother and my father practiced only Catholicism. That division was my parents’ decision. When I was born, they agreed to raise me in the Jewish tradition, and when my brother was born, they agreed to raise him in the Catholic tradition. As I grew a bit older, I began to appreciate the religious plurality and respect that grew out of my upbringing. Around age nine, I remember declaring to my father my intention to only marry someone who was non-Jewish so my children could experience the same religious acceptance that pervaded my childhood. Since then, my perspectives and ideas have changed, but my intentions of cultivating a home full of religious understanding have not.

Growing up, I faced daily choices concerning my religious perspectives as well as the constant challenge of practicing my faith while maintaining respect for the faiths of others. I had to decide how to grow in my Jewish faith while appreciating my brother’s parallel growth in Catholicism, and how to explore my father’s Catholicism from an intellectual standpoint while maintaining Jewish practices and beliefs. I realized that sitting with my father at Easter morning Mass would not diminish my Judaism and later that I could maintain Jewish beliefs while attending a Catholic high school that, despite the difficulties its religious atmosphere would present, offered me the academic challenge and college preparation I sought. I learned how to celebrate Catholic holidays with my father’s family in a way that was comfortable for me but that did not detract from the religious significance those holidays held for them. However, one choice I never felt compelled to make was whether I wanted to be Catholic or not. For me, Judaism has always been a sanctuary. It has always been an arena where I have felt comfortable pursuing faith and spiritual growth. As a little girl, I respected the religious fulfillment my father and his mother found when they entered a church, but I sought my faith in a Jewish setting.

When I came home from Hebrew school and my brother came home from CRE (Catholic Religious Education) classes, we would compare textbooks, and our comparisons would inevitably lead to a discussion of the values contained within the texts and our confusion over the different views on specific issues. I remember being puzzled that someone growing up with me could learn such contrasting views on certain topics. Whereas by his bedside table my little brother would line up miniature statues of St. Anthony and St. Joseph, I disagreed with the concept that saints could act as intermediaries between God and people’s prayers. He learned that saints and priests served to intercept and deliver prayers to God, while I learned that prayer was a direct connection to God. We had grandmothers who taught us both how to make charoset (a Passover dish usually made with apples, nuts and wine) and to say blessings over candles on the one side, and how to say the Our Father prayer and to use holy water from France on the other side, but we each had a parent instilling in us the beliefs of our own religion.

Even as a little girl, I recognized the difference in attitudes that existed between most of my friends and me. They grew up in households strictly of one religion and felt free to enthusiastically embrace their religions without having a brother learning catechism and practicing for his First Communion alongside them. While I had the freedom to embrace Judaism, my interfaith family always reminded me that other people delve into their religions with just as much conviction and eagerness. Therefore, my earliest experiences in Judaism were also my first experiences in an interfaith setting, and respect for other religions grew parallel to my knowledge of Hebrew letters and synagogue prayers.

I spent this past fall in Santiago, Chile, and during that time I lived with an Orthodox Jewish family. While I experienced differences in our living styles, I felt privileged to have the opportunity to witness this family’s interactions and the effects their Jewish practices had on their lives. In this family, we ate Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner together every Friday night and shared Shabbat and other holiday meals with the small Orthodox community of Santiago. Religious articles filled their home, and my host parents took pride in sharing rituals. They supported each other in their religious practices and built a warm family environment of Jewish practice and belief.

As I moved through college and into the wider Jewish community of synagogue, Jewish organizations on campus and Jewish academic, volunteer and social groups, I realized that many of the characteristics present during my home stay in Chile are elements I would like to incorporate into my future home. Linking my family to the wider Jewish community and having the freedom to celebrate Jewish events within the supportive context of relationships with a spouse and children are ideas I did not consider as a child. I have begun to weigh these ideals alongside the concept of an interfaith family that I held so strongly earlier in life.

As an adult, I realize that I could cultivate acceptance of other religions in a Jewish household just as I could build Jewish values in an interfaith home. At this point in my life, I would be happy to marry someone who is Jewish and to raise my children with open-minded Jewish values and practices. My mother raised me to treasure Jewish traditions and precepts as my own, while respecting my father’s Catholic beliefs and rituals. At the same time, she gave me an understanding of why I should hold such respect for other people’s faiths. I am confident that I could instill the same values and ideas in my own children without necessarily needing to live in an interfaith home.

In the past, my interfaith family guided me to cultivate an open mind towards others’ religions and an understanding of their faiths, and in the future I hope these experiences will lead me towards shaping a Jewish home with the same ideals.


About Samantha Facciolo

Samantha Facciolo is from Wilmington, Delaware, and studied international relations with concentrations in Peace and Conflict Resolution and Latin America at American University in Washington DC.