While the debate rages around intermarriage and Jewish continuity, it’s important to remember that: dual faith families make up some 25 percent of all the intermarried, according to Pew; they are interested in religion; without attention, they are likely to drift entirely away from any religion; and with attention, they offer real promise to sustain connections to Judaism and open avenues to greater engagement.
The choice to raise one’s children “Jewish and something else” should not be feared or dismissed. I speak from experience as the Jewish partner in a longstanding Jewish/Christian marriage. My commitment to Jewish continuity led me to found an organization that provides dual faith families with authentic education about both traditions.
The thousands of families we have reached not only have much potential for deep Jewish engagement, but they will keep the roots of Judaism nourished. And these are families from whom the Jewish community has much to learn about what keeps many contemporary families connected to Judaism.
The families are not some odd syncretistic, Messianic, or indifferent assemblage. They are an ordinary mix of people – your friends, your relatives, perhaps your children — whose inclinations and choices are frankly being ignored or dismissed by the Jewish community.
Like most 21st century couples, they are working to incorporate social, cultural, geographic – and religious – differences into the new families they are forming. They appreciate differences and learn from them; they are motivated by an ethos of fairness and the injunction to “to do unto others….”
And, unlike many couples today, they care about religion.
From those I have worked with over the years in workshops, most want to sustain the religious identity of the Jewish spouse and to ensure a proud and grounded Jewish identity for their children, just not necessarily an exclusive Jewish identity – at least not initially. These are not the “nones” who declare no interest in religion; these are families whose very seriousness about religion makes them prospects for Jewish continuity.
These couples value religion but recoil at making a choice about religion “under the gun” of an impending wedding ceremony; they want their choice to be based on education, understanding and a maturing marital relationship. They resist pressures for premature decisions that would marginalize the Christian spouse.
Processing differences and arriving at a shared balance takes time – and varies by couple. Whatever their journey, they want to learn more about their two religions and to have their children develop a knowledge of both traditions – if only so they can respect the rituals and ceremonies of both sides of the extended family.
Without institutional support for their choices, some are satisfied with a superficial menu of holiday celebrations. Others attempt to educate on their own at home. Still others attempt complicated combinations of church and synagogue attendance and even separate religious education in both.
All find that it is difficult – and isolating – to provide positive exposure to both traditions. As a result many look to be with other interfaith couples in settings that feel safe and neutral. They are happy to find one of the handful of formal “interfaith communities” that provide support and education — Interfaith Community’s six chapters in the greater New York area and Boston, IFFP/Interfaith Family Project in the Washington, DC area, and, in the Chicago area, the Family School/ Jewish-Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and the Interfaith Union.
Emerging over three decades from the genuine grassroots needs of such families, these interfaith communities are intentional in providing authentic education about both Judaism and Christianity. In particular, the Interfaith Community’s curriculum was meticulously conceived and developed by educators trained at The Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary.
For many couples that join interfaith communities, maintaining a balance between both religions becomes a satisfying arrangement in their marriage. For others, the opportunity to engage comfortably with both allows them to choose a primary religious affiliation. And that choice is almost always in favor of Judaism.
Often, it is the 11-year-old child who asks to have a bar or bat mitzvah. Interfaith communities help facilitate such journeys and connections to Jewish professionals. We see adult children in their 20s or 30s – even without the motivation of a marriage partner – build on the dual faith foundation and become seriously engaged in Judaism. And, regardless of their family’s journey, Jewish partners consistently tell us that being in an interfaith marriage – while enhancing their understanding and respect for Christianity — has increased their appreciation and involvement with their own Jewish heritage.
Moreover, religious educators say that teaching our interfaith curriculum deepens their own theological clarity.
If Judaism is to continue to thrive tomorrow, recognizing dual faith families must be one strategic element today. Advocating for these families, we strive to: expand our reach so that more families have authentic religion in their lives; extend our programs to reach high school and college level; expand our work with seminaries to educate religious professionals about dual faith families and prepare educators to serve them; and establish vibrant partnerships with Jewish institutions to welcome our thoughtfully dual-faith families.
To continue this strategy, dual faith families need acknowledgment and support from existing institutions. In turn, the perspectives of these families offer crucial insights into issues of continuity. Investing in them is an investment in the future.
Sheila Gordon is founding president of Interfaith Communities, Inc.