Making an Interfaith Marriage Work and Surviving the Challenges That Come Later On
Back when I was young and dating, I went on a third date with a very nice Jewish boy. And he asked me (as someone who was raised in the Christian faith) if I would ever be willing to convert to Judaism.
Although I don’t consider myself particularly religious, I couldn’t imagine converting to another religion so I said no. And then he had a follow up. Would I ever be willing to raise my children in the Jewish faith?
I said I was open to the possibility.
Well, that nice Jewish boy became my husband and so began the journey of an interfaith marriage.
And at first, I thought we had it all worked out. We attended an interfaith class and hammered out the details. The kids would be raised Jewish but we would celebrate Christmas and Easter in our home. And yes, we would have a Christmas tree.
Issues like religious school, bat mitzvahs and Jewish camps seemed a million years away. But suddenly they weren’t.
Some of my kids are now in Hebrew school. And my oldest has a bat mitzvah scheduled for this spring and is planning to attend a Jewish camp this summer.
And I began to feel a bit distant from my children. That they are all immersed in this community that I don’t always feel quite fully connected with – as much as I try.
Rabbi Malka Packer-Monroe, Director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta says this feeling of isolation is not unusual in interfaith families. So how do you work through the issues that can come up down the road? In exploring this issue, I consulted some experts who work with interfaith families and they suggest a few things.
Find or develop your own Interfaith Community
Packer-Monroe regularly works with families to find the right balance for them. She says, “What helps the most with isolation is finding others having similar experiences and talking about it. I have been leading Love and Religion workshops in Atlanta for interfaith couples. Each cohort has 4-6 couples and we meet four times for dinner and discussions about being in interfaith relationships.”
She says there are now over 30 couples who have gotten to know each other and are creating a community.
Clay Dockery, the Program and Education Coordinator of Interfaith Community in New York City (and also an ordained Presbyterian deacon) says these kinds of connections will help with the isolation and also provide a tremendous resource when trying to figure out the best decisions for your own family.
“You’re not alone. But I know it feels that way sometimes. Other people have been through that. Here are some of the choices they made,” says Dockery.
Although my husband and I have many interfaith friends, we don’t live near them right now. And we haven’t really made the effort to seek out interfaith couples in our Florida community. I am beginning to realize that might need to change.
Find a Welcoming Religious Community
Packer-Monroe says it’s very important to find a religious space that is welcoming to interfaith families so you don’t constantly feel like an outsider.
Packer-Monroe says, “It’s important that the leader of the religious community understands your family and your needs so they can help you navigate. For example, when looking for a synagogue, does their website have welcoming and affirming language? Does their Hebrew school director talk about how they welcome kids of interfaith families into their school? Do they have programming for interfaith families?”
This will go a long way to helping the parent who is raising their kids in a different faith feel more connected and have a sense of belonging.
As for me, I definitely feel welcome and even appreciated at my temple as someone who is raising my kids in another faith but I think the missing element for me is a sense of belonging. There is no specific programming for interfaith families and that’s probably something I would benefit from.
Express Your Feelings About Being in an Interfaith Relationship
Sheila Gordon, Founder and President of the Interfaith Community, in New York City runs workshops for couples to help them find the right balance for their family. Because there is no one size fits all when it comes to combining religions in one family unit.
She says, couples have to be honest about what they are feeling. “Don’t push things under the rug. Things will pop up later on that you may be surprised by.”
And it’s important to have honest, compassionate conversations. Rabbi Malka Packer-Monroe, Director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta says, “I think that it is important for the parent of another faith and the Jewish parent to discuss what traditions are important to them. What do they want to hold on to? And what are they willing to let go of? Once you are clear about your values and your partner’s values, the two of you can have conversations about how to meet your own needs and your partner’s needs. Like any conversation, there needs to be a lot of care and compassion for yourself and your partner. Sometimes there are traditions that are surprisingly important on a deeper, more visceral level.”
Lately, my husband and I are having a lot of honest conversations about planning our eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. It can be a tricky thing in an interfaith family but we are working on creating an event that feels good to both of us.
It’s Okay to Change How You Feel
So you and your future spouse may agree on one thing when it comes to creating an interfaith family and once you have kids, you might feel completely different.
Dockery of Interfaith Community says that’s normal. We aren’t robots after all. We grow and change over the years. Dockery says, “All of the decisions are not forever decisions. People change over time. If I decide something today, there is no way to know how I will feel in 10 years.”
That means being honest with your partner and figuring out a new balance that works for both of you.
The Interfaith Community suggests, “Reflect and re-assess together. However thoughtfully you have planned, challenges will arise. Regularly monitor, reflect upon and re-visit your plans with your partner – and take pride in your growth, your learning, and your accomplishments in your shared journey.”
I still truly support my children being raised in the Jewish faith. I just want to feel more connected with it. And I think the answer for me is to seek out other interfaith couples and families so I can share some of the challenges of this journey.
Photo source: Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash
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