Interfaith Families

By Elizabeth Clarke


This article is reprinted with permission of the Palm Beach Post. Visit

Wednesday, September 15, 2004
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – When Rosh Hashana begins this evening at sundown, Nan Rooney and her daughter and her parents will pile into the family car and head to their synagogue, Temple Beth Torah in Wellington. Nan will take Jill, 3, to the children’s service, and she and her parents will find seats in the main sanctuary for the adult service.

Nan’s husband will be at home with 20-month-old Paul–not only because Paul’s too young for services, but mostly because John Rooney, unlike his wife and children, is Catholic and doesn’t celebrate the Jewish New Year.

“For us, it’s been real easy,” John says, referring to life as an interfaith family with all of its decisions about kids and holidays and baptisms and Christmas trees.

Here’s how the Rooneys have worked it out: The kids are Jewish, and Nan, a product analyst for a database management company, shoulders the job of religious education, but John’s very involved. (As a work-at-home dad, he shuttles Jill to the temple for preschool and other events.) At home, they celebrate only Jewish and non-religious holidays like Halloween, and they often spend Christmas with John’s family. They don’t put up a Christmas tree.

But there are as many ways to make these decisions as there are interfaith families, experts say, especially as the number of interfaith families continues to grow.

Of Jews who are married, 31 percent are married to someone outside their faith, according to the 2001-02 National Jewish Population Survey. The current rate of intermarriage is 47 percent–up from 28 percent in 1979.

About a third of interfaith families with one Jewish parent are raising their children as Jews, says Ed Case, publisher of the 3-year-old Web site, which was founded to provide community for interfaith families and, as its motto states, encourage Jewish choices.

That can be harder than it sounds, Case says. Jewish leaders sometimes focus on the number of interfaith families not raising their kids Jewish (67 percent) and, as a result, write off the whole interfaith community. That’s a mistake, Case says.

“We think one of the reasons that more interfaith families don’t make Jewish choices is because they aren’t welcomed,” he says. His site offers tips for negotiating the holidays and other events, provides discussion forums and offers local connections.

Jane Kaplan, who is Jewish but not intermarried, recently wrote a book about the issue, also in hopes of providing a community for interfaith families. Instead of tips and forums, she tells the stories of 51 Jewish-Christian families.

No real names are used in “Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage,” so the stories are candid and revealing. Stories of loneliness at the holidays while attending services without a spouse. Stories of rejection from temples, when the Christian partner can’t participate in certain rituals. Even a story of a Catholic father who wanted his children baptized but his Jewish wife wouldn’t agree. He understood but felt he had to do something: He baptized them himself when his wife wasn’t around.

“He had a visceral feeling,” Kaplan says. “He had to baptize his child. He couldn’t not do it.”

John Rooney can relate a little bit, although not for himself: “I think my mom secretly wishes that I’d do something like that.”

His mom and the rest of his family are faithful Catholics. John attended Catholic schools through college. His great-uncle was a Jesuit priest and his aunt was a Franciscan nun. They often had Mass at home.

John, a freelance copywriter, no longer attends services regularly but still considers himself Catholic. “God and I have an understanding,” he says, laughing. He married a Catholic once, but that didn’t work out. Nan’s on her second marriage too.

When they decided to marry, kids weren’t necessarily in their plan, although he says they agreed to raise any children Jewish. He didn’t mind a bit.

“Nan’s the best person I’ve ever met, and her upbringing certainly was good for her,” John says. “I’m very comfortable that the kids are being raised Jewish. We both wanted God to be a big part of their lives, and we all worship the same God.”

For newlyweds Nancy and Tony Diaz, interfaith family life is different. They and Nancy’s two children from her first marriage attend Temple Beth Torah when the kids are with her. When the kids are with their father, Nancy and Tony attend the Church of Religious Science in Boca Raton.

After four months of marriage, they look forward to their first holiday season together as an official family. They’ll celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur together, and for Christmas, for the first time, they will put up a tree in the house for Tony.

“It won’t be anything Jesus,” says Nancy, a nurse. “But the lesson I’m teaching my children is to be respectful of other people’s beliefs. My husband is wonderful. He comes to temple with us and celebrates our holidays. We should do the same for him.”

Nancy’s first husband also wasn’t Jewish, but he converted before they married and they lived a Jewish life. With the new marriage, little has changed for their children, Jonathan, 14, and Rachel, 12. Nancy’s mom struggled with both marriages, however.

“Even though the first one converted and this one is very involved, she hasn’t been happy with either,” Nancy says. “‘Why can’t I fall in love with a Jewish guy?’ she asks me.”

Tony, an attorney who was raised Catholic, finds value in their differing faiths. He says it gives them another place to find common ground and learn to respect each other. Nancy also appreciates their differences. After all, she could have married a Jew who didn’t care about his faith.

“Being married to someone who’s not Jewish, it becomes more of an issue and a discussion,” she says. “It’s not taken for granted. It makes you look at your own beliefs and what are they, not just what you grew up believing.

Copyright 2004 Palm Beach Post

About Elizabeth Clarke

Elizabeth Clarke writes for the Palm Beach Post.