Choosing No Choice as a Choice

By Shelly Edwards Schweizer


When my husband John and I got engaged, we were confident that our mutual experience growing up in interfaith families would help us to make the right choice for our children. My father converted to Judaism shortly before my birth. John attended the Episcopal church as a child, following his Lutheran father’s marriage to his Catholic mother.

We agreed that temples and churches left us feeling cold and empty. We decided to make no choice. Our children wouldn’t be raised in any formal religion.

However, I felt strongly that if this arrangement was too difficult for our children, I wanted to raise them Jewish. John, having no interest in providing his children with a formal Christian upbringing, agreed.

After our non-religious wedding ceremony, it was easy celebrating our respective holidays with our families. Even after we had children, there were no conflicts–until our son Eric started school.

Eric had seemed satisfied telling kids he was both Jewish and Christian. But one day, he came home from school crying. His classmates told him that he couldn’t be both. He had to be one or the other. Thus began his struggle over his dual religious heritage.

I quickly saw that we were doing our children a disservice by not choosing their religion. I worried that they would become secular Christians by default, living in a country that had institutionalized Christian holidays and values. While we avoided confrontation with our extended families by not making a choice, we were shirking our responsibility as parents. We knew that we owed it to our children to raise them as something.

Our daughter Hayley was attending a preschool at a Unitarian Universalist Church. After reading their newsletters and learning a little about the religion, I became intrigued. I showed John the church newsletters and told him that I was willing to explore Unitarian Universalism as an option for our family. It seemed like a decent fit for our interfaith family.

We enrolled in an introductory course in Unitarian Universalism. John and I were attracted to the diverse congregation and their liberal social views. Here, people explored their own spiritual paths while supporting each other as a congregation. To belong, there was no dogma or creed to profess.

In theory, it sounded great. In practice, it wasn’t what I had expected.

Our next step was to attend a service. Entering the 300-year-old chapel, I felt a strange mix of fear, elation, and sadness. It was the first time John and I had worshipped together, as a couple. As positive as that was, nothing else felt right. As the organ began, I welled up with tears. I was merely a tourist who had taken a wrong turn.

I thought that Christian semantics were at the heart of my discomfort. I barraged the minister with dozens of questions. Why was it called a church, if everyone wasn’t Christian? Why was the committee who comforted ill or bereaved parishioners called caritas, a Latin word that means Christian caring?

The minister smiled as she answered my questions. She told me I had to be patient. It would take time to feel comfortable. In a diverse organization, people needed to compromise. The question wasn’t really about how much the church was going to change for me, but how much was I willing to change for the church.

She never suggested that I had to give up being Jewish. But I realized that to make it work, I would have to be both. I was back where I had started. Observant or not, I was Jewish and nothing would ever change that.

I had stopped practicing Judaism when I was fourteen, and now, I realized that my adolescent perceptions and lack of knowledge about Judaism had limited my ability to participate as an adult. To gain perspective, I read Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. For the first time, I enjoyed learning about my heritage. I knew that I not only wanted my children to understand what it meant to be Jewish, I wanted them to identify as being Jewish, not both.

After much discussion, John promised to actively support my desire to raise our kids as Jews. That fall, Eric enrolled in the second grade at Jewish Family Workshop IV, an independent, cooperatively run Hebrew school for children in grades K-7. Since many members are interfaith families, JFW has been a great fit for our family. We have been members of JFW IV for five years.

This November, our son Eric will be called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. It’s sure to be a day filled with much joy but also with a little sadness. It is tough making choices that aren’t comfortable or inclusive for the extended family. However, we made a choice for our family. It just never felt right being both.


About Shelly Edwards Schweizer

Shelly Edwards Schweizer is a freelance writer from Mass. She is president of Jewish Family Workshop IV, an independent, cooperatively run Jewish Sunday school and family-oriented cultural group, based in the MetroWest area of Boston.