Praying in Our Interfaith Family

By Jim Keen

Praying in Our Interfaith Family

Growing up a Protestant, prayer was always an important part of my life. It still is today — even as I am married to a Jewish woman and raising two Jewish daughters. Bonnie and our kids also pray, but in a different way than I do. I never really thought much about how or where we say our prayers. I just assumed that my Christian praying was unrelated, even somewhat disconnected, from the Jewish praying that the rest of my family does. One evening with my daughter’s youth choir changed my thinking.

There are two places where we pray: in the home and in our houses of worship. At church, I learned the Lord’s Prayer at an early age. We said it at every service. Sure, it was rote memorization, but I tried hard to put meaning to the words ever since my mom pointed out to me that I rattled the prayer off as fast as I could, trying to be the first one finished. I took to heart her suggestion that I try to understand what it was I was saying. It was a little difficult deciphering the King’s English, with all the “thous” and “arts,” but I had my parents help me.

The line, “[F]orgive us our trespasses,” was a particularly tricky concept for an eight year old. I had always figured that it referred to me stepping on other people’s lawns. By the time I realized its true meaning, we had moved to a church where this part was read, “[F]orgive us our debts.” Something new to learn. Many Jews do not know that there is more than one version of this prayer. Hey, I didn’t know it either. I found out the hard way — in a room full of people who I was sure were smirking at me as I recited the wrong words aloud. This part of the prayer still trips me up today, whether I say it at church or at home.

As an adult, I now attend the First Congregational Church, where my wife and daughters often go with me to keep me company. My parents and siblings also belong to this church, but it’s nice to have my daughters see what their dad’s religion is like. They are Jewish, and they know it. At ages 9 and 5, they’re old enough and have had enough reinforcement at their temple not to be confused by occasionally attending services at their dad’s church. I can’t say that they understand the dynamics of an interfaith family 100 percent (I still don’t). But, if you ask them, they’ll tell you that they are Jewish.

Many of the prayers we say in church are to Jesus. Because Bonnie and the girls are Jewish, I don’t expect them to recite them with me. Although we believe in the same God, it’s contrary to their Judaism. It would make my wife uncomfortable, and only confuse my daughters. They enjoy the service, but it’s not theirs. So, they mostly just sit there and look around — much like I did when I first started accompanying Bonnie to temple some 19 years ago.

In those days, the hardest part for me to get used to in our former Conservative synagogue was that the prayers were all in Hebrew. Different religion? Try different language. I couldn’t even understand what was being said; that was tough. However, over time and with repetition, I eventually learned many of the prayers and their English translations. Nevertheless, I was still not thinking of my type of praying and the Jewish type of praying in the same vein. They were still separate.

Today, we are members of the local Reform congregation. Because it is a family membership, I am there whenever my family is there. I take the girls to Hebrew school, and I go to services — much like how Bonnie and the girls accompany me to my church. The biggest difference is that I actually do recite the prayers right along with them. Although I am not Jewish, I feel a part of the congregation. And, I know that I am praying to the same God. There doesn’t seem to be any language that contradicts my own beliefs.

One evening, after my oldest daughter’s choir concert at the temple, the similarities of our prayers struck me. There is a Jewish prayer called the Sh’ma. It is a prayer proclaiming that there is just one God. It is supposed to be recited each evening at bedtime. It is also particularly beautiful when sung in Hebrew by her choir. As this group of third, fourth, and fifth graders sang the words, I found myself singing along. I wasn’t the only one in the congregation singing; the director had encouraged us to join in. But later that evening, at home, I was still singing this melodic prayer.

When I couldn’t get the tune out of my head, it dawned on me that saying Jewish prayers and Christian prayers had certain similarities. I don’t mean the same as far as content. I’m talking about the sameness in how we feel when we say them. It feels good. A perfect example of this is when my family says the blessings together each Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). We often sing them. It is a time to be together. It is a time to give thanks for God’s gifts to us. It is a special time.

As Bonnie and I tucked our daughters in bed that evening, we sang the Sh’ma one last time that day. A feeling came over me that I get every once in a while in our interfaith family. It was a sense of security that comes after years of experience. It was realizing that, despite our religious differences, our family would be just fine. Giving goodnight kisses, I understood that whether we are thanking God in my church, in our family’s synagogue, or right here in the kids’ bedroom, we mean what we are saying.


About Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.