Intermarried Couples Can Still Build Jewishly Engaged Families
My husband is Episcopalian, but together we have created a committed Jewish family and stayed part of the Jewish community
Now being Jewish means involvement in our synagogue. I sit on the Board of Trustees and serve as the chair of the outreach committee, which oversees conversion and interfaith engagement; my husband is the former leader of the congregation’s Interfaith Dads group.
It means an emphasis on formal and informal Jewish education: Our son attends day school and Jewish summer camp, and my husband and I both engage in adult Jewish learning. We talk Torah during our weekly Friday night Shabbat ritual and enjoy how the discussions lead us down unexpected paths that connect ancient stories to modern history and topics of relevance today .
Being Jewish, for us, means engagement in ritual practice. Shabbat dinners begin with the blessings before the meal and end with a table-pounding, foot-stomping rendition of the Birkat Hamazon. On holidays, our home is filled with our Jewish friends—in-married and intermarried—with whom we create positive Jewish memories. My son and his buddies eagerly anticipate the annual Bubble Wrap Run during Passover (the kids run across bubble wrap that is taped to our floors to simulate the plague of hail) and backyard Gaga during our Rosh Hashanah open house.
It means using Judaism to reinforce our family’s values and build Jewish community and social networks through synagogue attendance and participation in social justice projects. Because of all we do, over the years, my own Jewish relatives have often felt that we are too Jewish. A friend thinks this is because we live a more intensely Jewish life than many families with two Jewish parents, including hers—and including the one I grew up in.
Yet, no matter the intensity of my family’s Jewish involvement, we are obviously not Jewish enough for some, such as the librarian at the JCC who appreciates our efforts but doesn’t accept that our commitment to Jewish life and continuity is genuine. Or my friend’s mother, who says that I would have been better off marrying an unengaged Jew than an involved goy because at least my family would be “real” Jews. From their perspective, all that matters is genetics.
I was reminded of this view a few summers ago while watching my son’s baseball game. After learning that my husband was not Jewish, a mother at my son’s school said that my son was not Jewish, either. We debated the point for a few minutes. She grudgingly conceded that my son was a Jew since I was the Jewish parent but said that his membership in the tribe was marginal because it was questionable whether a child raised in an interfaith home would remain Jewish. After all, he is in proximity to a non-Jew on a daily basis. He might catch his father’s non-Jewishness or be lured to the dark side by a young shiksa dangling Christmas bling. “Your son is Jewish now, but when he becomes an adult what religion will he be?” she asked. “He might choose to have no religious identity or affiliate with a non-Jewish faith. Plus, he is going to think that marrying someone who is not Jewish is OK.”
Yes, he is. In fact, he already does. But our son also believes that you can be both intermarried and Jewish. “I’m always going to be Jewish, no matter whom I marry,” he says. “You married Daddy. He isn’t Jewish, and you’re still Jewish, and I’m Jewish.”
My son doesn’t see intermarriage and Judaism as mutually exclusive, nor does he see that only Jews can live a Jewish life and nurture Jewish heritage. This is due to my husband’s active engagement in Judaism. My son doesn’t hear why we live Jewishly only from me; he hears it from both of us. We have made it clear through our words and actions that we hope he will pass Judaism on to the next generation. But we have never said that he has to have a Jewish spouse. We know pressuring him to in-marry will not make Judaism important to him or guarantee a Jewish future; it will only ensure continuity of Jewish DNA. From our perspective, if future Jewish identification and practice are the goals, then what are important are the vibrancy and saliency of our son’s Jewish identity, not the faith of the person he marries.
After 12 years of actively engaging in Judaism, and watching other interfaith parents nurture their children’s Jewish identity, I see that, contrary to what the data suggests, intermarriage doesn’t have to equal abandonment of faith—and it can even be a catalyst for greater Jewish engagement. I know, because it was for me.
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