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
When I was growing up in New Jersey, my family wasn’t particularly engaged in Jewish life. We weren’t ritually observant, and no one in our house read the Jewish press. But there was one thing I knew for sure: that intermarriage threatened the Jewish community. I don’t recall exactly how I knew this. Maybe I heard the disappointment in the voices of the adults in my family when they spoke about my uncle and cousins who had married outside the faith, or maybe it was the topic of a High Holiday sermon at our Reform synagogue. Whatever the source, the message was clear.
Nonetheless, during my teen years I mostly dated non-Jewish guys. It’s not that I made a conscious decision to defy my parents or my community; I just didn’t have many choices—I lived in a mostly non-Jewish town. When I went away to Syracuse University, which had a student body at the time that was 15 to 20 percent Jewish, my mother assumed I’d find a large pool of Jews to date. I didn’t.
Still, while most of my boyfriends were not Jewish, I never envisioned myself actually marrying a non-Jew. I knew in-marriage was important to my family, observant or not, and I assumed I eventually would marry another Jew. By the time I reached my mid-20s, though, I still had been seriously involved with just a few Jewish guys. So, when one of them proposed, I accepted. Given my dating history, I wasn’t certain I would get another opportunity to achieve what I perceived as the ultimate milestone: a Jewish marriage.
Choosing a partner because of his religion proved to be a poor basis for a sustainable relationship. After two years, our marriage fell apart, thankfully before there were any children. My husband was the right religion, but I wasn’t in love with him.
While my divorce was pending, I found love—this time, with a non-Jew. Falling in love with him forced me to think about my Jewishness and evaluate my feelings about the faith. Only when I was confronted with the possibility of intermarrying and all I thought that entailed—giving up my Jewish identity, and my future children not having a connection to the Jewish people—did I realize just how important Judaism was to me.
The man I’d met wasn’t a churchgoer; although he’d grown up in an Episcopalian home where faith and spirituality were important, he believed that faith was essentially a political tool created to maintain order and public health in ancient society. As our relationship became more serious, religion—specifically religion in the home—became a hot topic of discussion. His view of faith as simply good politics might have made religion a nonissue for us, but Judaism to me was about more than faith. Even if I could disregard its spiritual component, I couldn’t ignore the history and culture that I shared with other Jews. I had an emotional and cultural connection to Judaism that he didn’t understand.
I tried to explain why I felt strongly about having a Jewish home. “Six million Jews died in the Holocaust,” I said. “We’re losing more because people are marrying outside the faith and choosing not to raise their children as Jews. How can I do the same? If I don’t help to carry on the religion, who will?” I cared too deeply about my connection to the Jewish people and my Jewish family to make the future of the faith someone else’s problem. It was my responsibility to preserve Jewish continuity. How could I do that with a non-Jewish husband?
He thought we could marry and observe both our religions’ traditions in our home and raise any children to enjoy ham on Easter and latkes on Hanukkah. But I accepted as true what Jewish leaders said about intermarrieds—they lose belief, and their children are less likely to associate themselves with any religion—because I didn’t see any Jewishly engaged interfaith families that countered this perception.
I knew that if my boyfriend converted to Judaism it would solve the problem of religious identity, but he didn’t bring it up and I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to convert. I believed then, as I do now, that conversion is a personal choice made by an individual after much consideration and exploration. I didn’t feel it was something that should be done because of pressure or for someone else.
The only other option that might have satisfied me was to keep our respective religious identities, but agree to raise any children as Jews. He was not ready to commit to that, not because he had an attachment to Christianity but because he thought it might exclude his family in some way. The only thing we could agree on was that we wanted to settle the issue of religion in the home before we became engaged. If we couldn’t make a decision we both could abide, we would break up.
To try and find a path forward, we took a class on interfaith relationships taught by a priest and a rabbi. It compared and contrasted Judaism and Christianity. The first two sessions covered history, theology, and practice, but the third discussed religious choices in an interfaith relationship. Both clergy strongly recommended that a couple choose one faith identity for their home and offered suggestions for how to communicate with and incorporate the extended family whose religion was not going to be practiced. These messages, delivered by people my boyfriend viewed as third-party experts, resonated with him.
After class, he agreed to make a Jewish home together—and raise our children as Jews—with one stipulation: that it would not be Jewish in name only. He said, “There is more to being Jewish than religion. For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish. We are responsible for ensuring that they learn about Judaism.”
While he agreed to help raise Jewish children, he still didn’t offer to convert. He wasn’t a practicing Christian, but he felt his Episcopal upbringing was part of who he was. I didn’t push conversion either. He had committed to a Jewish home and Jewish kids. Why would I ask for more and risk him changing his mind?
What did a “Jewish home” mean to us at that point? That we would hang a mezuzah on our front door, join a synagogue, engage in Jewish lifecycle rituals, enroll our children in religious school, and celebrate the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover. To be honest, we didn’t put much thought beyond that into how we would implement our decision to nurture Jewish identity.
Shortly after the class ended and we’d reached our agreement, we got engaged and later tied the knot in 2002. Since then, we have lived in Connecticut, Ohio, and Texas, and have joined inclusive, Reform congregations in each location. We have a son, age 9, who was welcomed by our rabbi into the covenant at a bris that included the participation of both my Jewish and my husband’s non-Jewish family.
More than a decade after making our religious choice, we are a family whose connection to Judaism goes beyond the mezuzah on our door. Our interfaith Jewish journey has been supported by welcoming congregations and inspired and influenced by programs that have made it easy for us to fulfill our commitment to teach our child what it means to be Jewish. When we moved to Texas, the JCC’s Mommy and Me program and our synagogue’s preschool and Interfaith Moms group connected us to other Jewish and interfaith parents. We developed friendships and learned how to live more Jewishly than I did as a child. Through community and experience, we found a way for Judaism to co-exist with intermarriage.
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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