Dear Wendy: Why Do I Have to Be Jewish?

By Wendy Weltman Palmer


InterfaithFamily is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering difficult interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer’s experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.

Dear Wendy,

How do you explain to children that they are Jewish when one parent is not? How do you answer the question, “Why do I have to go to temple/Hebrew school and skip school or games on High Holidays?” My husband will be supportive and does go to temple with me, but he is agnostic (raised Catholic). We are struggling with how to explain to the kids that they are Jewish without putting down Dad’s/Grandma’s beliefs.


Dear Struggling,

Your question points to a dilemma occasionally experienced by interfaith families. You have mastered the hurdle of choosing a single faith for your family. You are managing the day-to-day realities of that decision. Yet, there seems to be this nagging feeling that in practicing one religion and not another, you have assigned one religion a superior designation and the other an inferior designation. If this were true, it would be a sort of “put-down” to the parent (and the family of the parent) whose religion was not chosen to be practiced or passed down. But, that is rarely the case.

Interfaith couples arrive at the decision for a single family faith out of the practical as well as the spiritual. It may have been borne out of a driving passion by one spouse, or an angry rejection by another. Most often, though, this decision comes about by way of a compromise, a recognition of the religious “system” that will best allow for the comfort and growth of the children and the parents.

So, let’s try to understand what is reflected by your children’s questions. Often, when children ask these sorts of questions they are merely seeking information and trying to understand the boundaries of their religious life. In much the same way that a child would ask (complain), “Why do I have to go to bed at eight when I could just as easily go to bed at nine,” your child is asking (complaining?) “Why do I have to go to Hebrew School?”

In asking this type of question, your child may just need to hear, “If you are going to have a Bar Mitzvah, then you need to get started with Hebrew school now rather than in two years.” A simple, educational, neutral response. Or, is your child asking, in effect, how important is it to you that I go to Hebrew School–in other words, trying to ferret out your beliefs and values. In this case, your answer would be far different.

In the latter case, your child seems to be asking, “Why did you and Dad decide to raise us as Jews?” Before you and your husband can respond to this, you need to have discussed it yourselves. How did you arrive at this decision? Your honest answer is the one that your children deserve to hear. “To tell the truth, sweetie, we just flipped a coin.” Or, “We felt it was important to have just one religion in the family. And, since I had a stronger connection to my Judaism than Dad had to his Catholicism, we decided that Judaism made the most sense for our family.”

Of course, sometimes a simple direct answer leads to more questions, so be prepared. My sense is that children can handle even a complex theological response as long as it is thoughtful and truthful. “Being an agnostic means Dad is not sure whether God exists or not. Curiously, Judaism is one religion that tolerates the questioning of God.” Or, “The teachings of the Catholic Church inspire Grandma to lead a good life, but I personally could never accept certain of the tenets I was taught. The way Jews emphasize healing the world makes more sense to me and is something that I am comfortable having you children exposed to.” And so on.

By openly discussing differences between your family’s beliefs and Grandma’s beliefs, your children gain a respect for the role of religion in one’s life. It’s as though they are living a comparative religion course, all of which involves healthy dialogue and debate. There are theological constructs, some of which inspire and others that don’t. There are cultural traditions and tribal concerns. There are the burdens and responsibilities of being associated with a minority religion. And, there is the wonderment of a world religion which helped to shape Western civilization. But, there are no put-downs.

Welcome to your new role as discussion facilitator!



About Wendy Weltman Palmer

Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.