Interfaith Conversations – and Why They Matter

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: According to most definitions, I’m not in an interfaith marriage. Not anymore.

by Melissa Cohen

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According to most definitions, I’m not in an interfaith marriage.  Not anymore.  I converted to Judaism in 2008, after five years of marriage.  It’s the only religion practiced in our home.  We are a religious family, as well as a spiritual one.  We come from different backgrounds, my husband and I, and in terms of history, we’re total opposites.  His parents have been married for 50 years, I grew up in a single parent family with an absentee dad.  He grew up as an enthusiastic, practicing Jew.  I grew up as a nominal Catholic, and have always felt much more drawn to wiccan traditions than anything else.

He has a visceral aversion to the celebration of Christmas, and I am completely committed to it.  For me, putting up a tree is almost a line in the sand – and being able to share that with my kids makes it easier to raise them in a tradition so different from that of my own childhood.  I have so many memories and traditions, on a completely secular level, built up over years of holiday celebrations.  I have a whole history, more than 30 years of not being Jewish, and I can’t leave that behind.  I am Jewish – but Judaism is the culmination of a journey for me, the next step on my path.  It has become a part of me, as much as singing Deck the Halls and decorating Easter Eggs have always been.

My point is that while we’re not interfaith – we are more inter-culture.  Our backgrounds are very different, and our children are the product of our union. My history is as much a part of their story as that of my husband, and our choice to raise them within the Jewish tradition doesn’t change that.  When I met my husband I knew almost nothing about Judaism, and from the start of our relationship, I worried about how a child, born of two such different parents, would be able to feel at home in both cultures.

So I studied.  I researched, and I thought and I debated and discussed.  With my husband, with our friends, with my family.  I believed that our children were Jewish, because their dad was.  I also believed that they were not Jewish, because I wasn’t.  The more I read, the more I learned, the more I discussed and debated, the more I wanted to change that.  I didn’t want them, and me, to be half and half.  Half Jewish, half not.  We were raising them in a Jewish household, reading PJ Library books before bed, and I made challah with them every Friday afternoon.  They were Jewish, and in the end, so was I.

Judaism made so much sense to me, and there was no internal, spiritual conflict about following the Jewish laws and making it official.  I could see that without a formal conversion, they wouldn’t be considered Jewish by the Orthodox or Conservative traditions.  I was raising children who were self-identifying as Jewish, but our synagogue disagreed.

I’m not ashamed of my past.  I don’t want to hide it.   I believe, profoundly, in the Jewish traditions and history and culture, and want to pass that along to my children. But I don’t think that they shouldn’t also feel a part of my history and traditions, as well.

This makes me a minority.  A minority, within a Jewish minority that, at times, resents the Christian majority.  It’s an odd position to be in. I want my kids to feel proud of their parents’ marriage, and not to hear that it’s wrong.  The concerns and fears around interfaith marriage are hard and it is scary.  The prospect of having your children grow up and walk away from their history is terribly, terribly hard to contemplate.  I know, because I did it to my mother.

I think that we’re in a unique position, those of us who converted into Judaism because we fell in love.  We are trying to feel a part of this tradition, but it’s difficult when we are consistently told that we’re different and our marriages are cause for alarm.   Those of us who can’t help feeling protective and defensive about our relationships worry about the message we’re sending to new interfaith families.

I wish I could be brutally honest with the members of my synagogue who struggle with the prospect of their own children in interfaith relationships.  We know how hard it is; we’ve had those conversations with our own parents.  We know how much it hurts, we know how much you wish that your own child had married someone who knew what gefilte fish was, and had her own recipe for challah.  We know how much our parents wished for similar things.  We also know that our children are Jewish, and are growing up with a greater awareness of the culture at large.  Will they feel less Jewish as adults?  We doubt it, because they know that Judaism is a choice.

Even if you are a product of completely Jewish heritage, where everyone on your family tree was born Jewish and married someone who was born Jewish – you are still making a choice.  You can choose to celebrate your Judaism or to walk away.  I think my children will probably grow up to be active, practicing Jews.  Both their dad and I are drawn to religion and spirituality, and they’ve grown up hearing the discussions and debates.  They’ve lived a childhood marked by the Jewish calendar, putting up a  sukkah, shopping for Passover, and dancing at Simchat Torah.  Do I care if they grow up to marry someone who’s Jewish?  I care that they love someone who honors and celebrates who they are – and their identity is Jewish.  I care that they aren’t asked to be something they aren’t – the way my husband has always respected and valued my traditions.  I care that they find someone they love and respect, and that they are loved and respected in return.

The discussion on how to talk about interfaith families within the Conservative Jewish community, how to welcome and embrace families that have non-Jews, and Jews-by-choice is a vital one.  And it’s hard and scary and feelings are going to be hurt.  But it matters – because there are an awful lot of Jewish kids with at least one non-Jewish parent growing up in our synagogues today.  The way their parents are treated, their non-Jewish parents, their Jew-by-choice parents, and their non-Jewish grandparents, that’s what’s going to impact their desire to be Jewish, their ability to see themselves as Jewish.

When we show our children that they are valued, not as products of generations of Jews, but just as they are, with a family heritage that includes any number of traditions, we make Judaism a viable and sustainable source of identity for our kids.  Perhaps more importantly, when we  welcome their non-Jewish grandparents on the bimah when they make their bar/bat mitzvahs and allow their entire family, not just the Jewish side, to be a part of the celebration, we send an important message, not just to the parents, but also the children.  The message is that Jewish families, of all shapes and orgin, are welcomed and cherished within the Conservative Jewish community.  If we truly care about Judaism continuing into the next generation, the way we respond, as a community, to interfaith and Jew-by-choice families will be the determiner.

Melissa and her husband Marc live in central Massachusetts. They have three children together, in addition to Marc’s two daughters from his first marriage. In addition to writing, Melissa is a the President of the Sisterhood at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester and works as a stay at home mom to their toddler. Melissa’s writing has been published on such popular websites as blogher.com and kveller.com, and she’s a contributor to the parenting website for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, MassMoms.com. She’s also a contributor to InterfaithFamily.com, the premier resource for supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life. Melissa is working on her first book Becoming Jewish, on her conversion to Judaism and the challenges faced by interfaith couples.