Interfaith Dating by Children of Interfaith Marriages

By Charles McMillan


My Jewish wife married a non-Jew twenty-eight years ago. I was the first non-Jew she had ever dated. We’ve had a good marriage and are most fortunate to have three sons, all healthy, handsome and intelligent, all B’nai Mitzvah, ages seventeen, twenty and twenty-three.

Many of our interfaith friends at Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., also have children who are in their late teens or early twenties.

We have been active in our interfaith group and have spent many years bemoaning the fact that most Reform rabbis refuse to marry interfaith couples. Now many of us are beginning to wonder whether our interfaith experiment in raising our children Jewish will amount to nothing–if our children will marry non-Jews and our grandchildren will loose any attachment to Judaism–or whether our interfaith marriages will contribute to a continuation of Judaism, through marriage to another Jew.

This is not a research article. I have no data on past behavior or future predictions. This article is anecdotal; I only hope it will raise common concerns.

Though I have not converted to Judaism, I am committed to Jewish values. I am not a very religious person, nor is my wife, but I think our children have adopted and understand their identity as Jews. Unfortunately, none of them makes any distinctions in dating patterns between Jews and non-Jews. My wife and I have said to them: “We hope you marry Jews,” but they are unresponsive. Only the oldest is even remotely interested in the subject of marriage.

My oldest boy had a three-year relationship with an Orthodox Jewish girl. She was charming and intelligent. If they had become engaged, we would have been thrilled. But she broke it off last year, saying to my son, “You’re not Jewish enough.” It has taken him a while to recover from his heartache. Now he says he’s not looking particularly for a Jewish girl to date or marry, he is looking for someone who is not “married” to her religion. An “Orthodox” Catholic or an “Orthodox” Protestant would be as difficult a person to love as an Orthodox Jew.

But the funny part of his story is this: he doesn’t make any distinctions by religion. It’s a non-issue for him. If I told him he’s more likely to be happy with a Jewish girl because her thinking patterns and ways of relating would be closer to his own, he would think I was nuts. He would think I was categorizing and stereotyping and simplifying in a foolish way. My wife might say the same thing. And this is precisely where I am confused about this issue: What exactly does one say to one’s twenty-three-year-old Jewish offspring, especially if one is not Jewish himself, to make that person understand that it is important that he/she marry a Jew?

Maybe the answer is, “Nothing.” Maybe if you have to ask the question, you have already failed in your obligation to inculcate a particular set of values. That may explain why so many Jewish parents are uneasy in today’s world.

My answer, as a non-Jew, is startlingly naïve and simplistic. Jews as a people, despite adversity, have an extraordinary history of intelligence, compassion, achievement, and leadership in the world. If you’re in the club, stay there and make sure your children stay there.

But talk like this makes my wife, and probably most Jews, nervous. I know exactly why. I know that any sentence that begins “Jews are…” can only lead to trouble. I know that intelligence, compassion, achievement and leadership have to be transferred from generation to generation, carefully and painstakingly, in a thousand-thousand interactions between parent and child, in the study of Torah, in the ways that adult Jews live their lives.

I asked my second son, who is a junior in college and who went out all last year with an Asian girl, whether he was aware of any differences between Jewish girls and non-Jewish girls. He looked at me quizzically: “What are you talking about?” he asked. I said, “Let’s broaden the question: Do you think that Jews are different from non-Jews?” He said he didn’t know.

Then later I asked my wife that same question. She hesitated, looked around, thought about what to say for a second, and then said, “yes.” And then she made a joke. And I smiled at her, because her answer was so totally Jewish. She wouldn’t ever think of saying anything out loud about how good or different Jews are. We gentiles have to thank Max Dimont, who wrote Jews, God, and History, if we want to hear a Jew tell us how great the Jews are.

Yet there has to be an answer to the questions that our children inevitably ask us: “Why should it make any difference if I marry a Jew or a non-Jew if I love that person?” “Who are you trying to please when you ask me to marry a Jew?” “Did God say only marry Jews? Didn’t Moses marry a non-Jew? What is the big deal?”

These are tough question coming from our wise children. Besides, with interfaith couples, our children have the final rejoinder: “You married out of your faith, how can you say it’s wrong for me?”

But my wife and I would still like to see our boys marry Jewish girls.


About Charles McMillan

Charles McMillan lives in Newton, Mass., with his wife, Ronni, and three sons, two of whom have already left the nest. He has worked in education, human services and real estate over the years. He and his family have been members of Temple Shalom for fifteen years.