Jewish Parent + Christian Parent = Jewish Kids


Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

January 19, 2007

In December, Patty Lombard and her husband, Bill Simon, took their two daughters to Florida to celebrate Christmas with her family, as they do every year. The children received presents, strung popcorn and decorated the tree–a Yuletide tradition they would never allow in their Los Angeles home.

That’s because the girls are Jewish, just like their father. When Lombard, a Catholic, and Simon married 18 years ago, they decided to raise their children in one faith: Judaism.

Such arrangements reflect a growing trend among interfaith families that feature a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner who isn’t planning to convert. And despite the Jewish community’s decades-long panic that shrinking population figures are a direct result of intermarriage, recent studies and anecdotal evidence are finding that interfaith families could be more of an asset than an enemy.

Many interfaith couples are raising their children to be Jews, even without conversion of the non-Jewish parent.

One reason for this radical shift in understanding: the release late last year of a new, groundbreaking study.

In Boston, the majority of children among interfaith households–almost 60 percent, far above the national average–are being raised as Jews, according to the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community. The study was carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Many observers say that the results of this study are due in large part to the Boston federation’s intense outreach efforts to interfaith families–more so than to independent decisions within the families themselves. Some suggest that communities that replicate the Boston federation’s efforts can bring about similar results.

Another study about the “December Dilemma” by online magazine showed that 75 percent of interfaith couples with children say they are raising them Jewish, as compared to 33 percent reported in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. The survey covered a small, self-selecting sampling. The Web site reports that 759 people responded to the survey in 2006, nearly twice as many as had the previous year. The survey also explores how interfaith families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, as well as what exactly those celebrations mean.

For example, while 44 percent of respondents who are raising their children Jewish said they planned to decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, only about 5 percent planned to tell their children the Christmas story. By contrast, among those same families, 99 percent of those said they were also lighting menorahs, and 63 percent of those were going to tell the Chanukah story. In other words, most of these families considered their Christmas celebrations to be secular (79 percent, according to the survey), while only 23 percent said that their Chanukah celebrations are secular).

These studies do not offer not hard evidence with any single conclusion, but the results do indicate that intermarriage will not destroy the Jewish community, as once was thought. What emerges from speaking to interfaith families is how committed many non-Jewish parents are to raising their child or children Jewish, even when they themselves have no intentions of converting.

Lombard was raised Catholic. She went to parochial schools through high school and attended Mass regularly.

“I’m not a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I still identify myself as a Catholic.”

But Lombard and her husband did not want to make religion a deal-breaker.

“I didn’t want to say I can’t marry you because you’re not the same religion as me, because that seemed crazy,” she said.

So they agreed to raise the children Jewish–although she admitted that at the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into: “Initially you think, ‘I really love this person, and I want to make it work,’ and then you think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?'”

Lombard began taking classes at Temple Israel of Hollywood to learn about Judaism, but in general she said she lets her husband lead the family in matters of Jewish identity. On Christmas, Simon doesn’t want a Christmas tree in their house.

“I don’t care at all, it’s one less thing to put away,” Lombard said.

For her, Christmas is about spending time with her parents.

“As long as my parents are around, that’s all that matters. I feel in some ways that Christmas has very little meaning,” she said.

Lombard believes celebrating Christmas and attending church with their grandparents doesn’t make her daughters any less Jewish.

“They feel like they’re very much part of that holiday,” she said. “Just like my sister’s family would participate in Passover–it’s a kind of acceptance of where everyone is at.”

Neither does having a non-Jewish mother change the reality. When her older daughter, Emily, was younger, she said, “Oh Mommy aren’t you sorry you aren’t one of us?”

But now, at 13, having just celebrated her bat mitzvah with all sides of her family, Emily understands more.

Lombard said she never felt the need to convert: “I felt like I was doing enough; the agreement to raise them Jewish was enough.”

She said it helps that about one-third of the families in her congregation are interfaith and that Rabbi John Rosove, the senior rabbi, is very accepting. “He’s always done his best to make me feel like I was a part of this place … he never made me feel like I had to convert.”

The Lombard-Simon family is evidence that a positive atmosphere toward interfaith couples can help bring the children into the fold, as the Boston study indicates. This year, Boston’s Jewish community invested $321,000–1.5 percent of its annual budge– into outreach for interfaith families and individuals, for programs run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.

“If you make the effort to be welcoming then it pays off,” said Ed Case, publisher of “Why is that happening in Boston? What could Los Angeles do to emulate Boston’s success?”

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, found the Boston study “compelling” and “provocative.”

“I think they’re legitimately addressing the issue that all Jewish communities have to recognize: The community has changed,” he said.

Los Angeles’ Jewish community has not done a demographic study since 1997, but Fishel said The Federation is considering beginning one again in 2008.

“We have to do another demographic study and do some research to determine the reality of the situation,” he said. “We know empirically that there are a lot of intermarried couples in the community.”

The Federation recently helped with one modest study, “The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley, 2006,” conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute with the help of the Valley Alliance. It surveyed 15 institutions–11 synagogues and four organizations–in their outreach toward the unaffiliated and unengaged, including teenagers, young families, multiracial families and interfaith families.

“It is safe to assume that the number of intermarried households has increased to one-third of all married households,” the study found. “It is also safe to assume that among households with young children–a key target demographic for the organized Jewish community–intermarried households represent half or more of all married households containing Jews in Simi-Conejo.”

While these figures were guesstimates based on the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, other results were more definite. For example, only two of the 15 institutions had programs specifically targeted at interfaith families. Only 10 of those could estimate their congregations’ interfaith participation, with six reporting less than 10 percent, and two at 50 percent.

“Having high interfaith membership does not necessarily translate into targeting interfaith couples or families with programs or events,” the study found.

Fishel said the Outreach Scan was only the first step in targeting the unaffiliated. Next, he said, “we should ask the question, ‘What’s the priority of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and how do we begin to marshal the resources to begin to address some of those changing community issues?'”

Whatever priority interfaith outreach is in various communities, what many religious leaders–and interfaith couples–are coming to realize is that syncretism–the blending of religions–doesn’t work.

For example, 75 percent of families who participated in the “December Dilemma” survey said they think the dual holiday of “Chrismukka” is a bad idea.

“A child needs to be brought up with a religious background, and it has to be one religion,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism for the last 20 years.

“I know a girl who was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, who raised her with both religions, and now she’s a Sikh,” he said. “She didn’t want to hurt either parent. You can’t raise children to believe Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus isn’t the Messiah. They need one religion.”

Judi Brooks Johnson of Burbank agrees. Although she was raised Jewish, in a mostly secular household, when she married her Christian, church-going husband 10 years ago, she found she wanted to raise her daughter Jewish.

“I know I can’t teach her how to be a Christian, because I’m not one. I don’t know how much I could allow [my husband] to profess Christ is God, when I don’t believe it,” she said.

For many interfaith couples, choosing one religion for the children is less a matter of religious philosophy than creating a consistent message. When Christine and Gary Goldhammer of Tustin married 16 years ago, they decided to raise their child with one religion.

“I think you get a stronger identity and stronger moral background when you pick one. You cannot be a part of something when you’re a part of two,” Christine Goldhammer said. Although Gary was raised a secular Jew and Christine was raised Lutheran, Christine agreed on Judaism, because she didn’t feel fully aligned with her childhood faith. What she really wanted for her daughter was community and faith. “I don’t care if she’s Christian or Jewish or Hindu–I just care she has a strong moral upbringing.”

What all this means to editor Case is that “the leaders in the Jewish community, who think that intermarriage is a bad thing, are going to shoot themselves in the foot if they have a rigid line. Half the Jews are going to be intermarried.”

When “intermarriage” and “assimilation” are linked in the same breath, he said, “it drives me crazy. Not all intermarriage leads to assimilation. To me, assimilation is a terrible thing. That’s someone who leaves Jewish life. To me, everything we do is a counter to that.”

He said one should encourage in-marriage but welcome interfaith families: “I think it’s a terrible mistake to talk about intermarriage as a bad thing. No matter what’s said, half those people are likely to intermarry, and if they think the Jewish community thinks it’s bad, they won’t come back.”