Raising a Jewish Child in an Interfaith Marriage

 

Rena Morano, Rabbinic Associate, Congregation Ner Tamid

“How was the wedding?” I asked.

“It was a truly joyous event,” my friend replied. “The music was great, and the dancing never stopped! Who could have guessed that even with the women dancing in one part of the reception hall, and the men in the other part, the dancing would be so much fun!”

“And what about his father?”

“Well, he said he hadn’t had so much fun in a long time. You should have seen him dancing the hora with the bride’s father!”

Over a long lunch, I was catching up with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for years. She was filling me in on the recent marriage of her son to her lovely daughter-in-law. She was still bemused by her son’s choice to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle, along with his Orthodox bride. He had gone to Hebrew School (of course) and had been Bar Mitzvahed (naturally), but his decision a few years ago to become “more Jewish” had taken the family by surprise. What intrigued me more, however, was the fact that his is an interfaith family, where his non-Jewish father not only accepted his son’s choices, but also enthusiastically danced at his Orthodox wedding!

“And now,” my friend continued, “my son and my daughter-in-law often spend Shabbat with us. It’s a little hard for me,” she confessed, “to adapt to their religious ways.”

“It must be even more difficult for your husband,” I observed.

“Not really. He respects their choices and he’s happy that they are getting even closer to the family.”

“How did you do it?” I wondered. “An interfaith marriage, a Jewishly committed child, and two parents who are happy with the way it all turned out… Many parents ask me how this can be done. What advice do you have for other interfaith couples?”

She said that even though she and her husband came from very different religious and cultural backgrounds, they shared the same values; the challenge they faced was how to integrate the way each parent’s religion chose to express those values. Their commitment was to express their values in ways that united the family instead of dividing them. Those values include dedication to family, society, and the environment.

Family time was sacrosanct. They dedicated a Shabbat/Sabbath day every weekend for family activities, being sure to give equal time to extended families on both sides. During Hebrew School, discussions about Shabbat, therefore, related well to the family’s practices.

When holidays were celebrated, emphasis was placed on the ones mentioned in the Torah, as those were shared by both parents. Passover, therefore, was a family favorite, and seders often included the entire extended family. As the Passover story was retold every year, the themes that united the families were emphasized. Similarly, the High Holidays were celebrated in a way that reflected shared values.

Family vacations were organized to reflect mutual histories, with visits to significant sites in Europe, and culminating in a summer spent in Israel, a land special to both parents.

When the temple organized mitzvah days and projects, the entire family participated, teaching the children that tikkun olam meant reaching out to the entire community, regardless of religious faith. Together they collected food for food banks, participated in park cleanups, animal rescues, and other tzeddakah activities, as well as in repainting the temple buildings and taking care of the grounds.

There were the inevitable conversations about non-Jewish holidays. My friend insisted that her children participate in these, emphasizing again the importance of family and of acknowledging the shared backgrounds of those holidays as well.

Above all, she stressed, it was important to both parents that the children saw that it was possible to coexist peacefully and respectfully, with neither side diminishing the other, but rather celebrating what was shared.

“Before we left for this vacation, where I could reconnect with you, my dear friend,” she concluded, “I had one more conversation with my son. ‘I am happy that you have found your spiritual and religious home in Judaism. But never forget,’ I reminded him, ‘that half of you will always be your father’s culture. When the time comes for you to raise your own children, our grandchildren, make sure that you remember!’”