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Mixed Messages

An increasing number of intermarried couples are choosing to raise their children with two religions. Three videos, part of a Columbia Journalism School project, allow interfaith kids to speak for themselves.

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Sam Oliver, Zoe Wolfe, and Daniel Froot, interviewed for Being Interfaith. (Elettra Fiumi and Lea Khayata)

When Samuel Oliver turned 12, he asked his parents why he wouldn’t have either a bar mitzvah or a confirmation. His Jewish mother, whose family includes Holocaust survivors, and his father, who grew up in a religious Christian home, at first brushed off his question. Then they decided it required further investigation.

We met Samuel, along with other teenagers in similar situations, while conducting research for Being Interfaith, a multimedia project on Jewish-Christian families that we created earlier this year while students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. We began the project in part because we were struck by a statistic: Over one in four American adults are married or living with a partner of a different religion. A small but increasing number of these couples are choosing to raise their children in both religions. These families often face opposition from extended family and struggle to be accepted by established congregations and religious organizations, many of which advocate educating children in only one religion.

Then we found an alternative: the Interfaith Community. Founded in 1987 in New York City, with branches now in Denver and Boston, the organization provides support for religiously mixed families, hosting services and celebrations for Jewish and Christian holidays and offering counseling for couples and classes for children and adults. These classes are taught by two instructors, one Jewish and the other Christian, with each sharing his or her own faith’s history, traditions, and practices, to give the teenagers the tools to make informed decisions regardless of the religious path they choose.

We interviewed 10 teenagers we met through the Interfaith Community. These young adults are at the front line of this new generation—often referred to as “half and half”—and we believe it is essential for their own voices to be heard.

Samuel Oliver’s family began attending holiday celebrations at the Interfaith Community
when he turned 12:

Zoe Wolfe took classes at the Interfaith Community from the age of 8 through 12.
Today she considers herself interfaith:

Daniel Froot is one of the few kids at the organization who has chosen one religion over
the other. After four years of attending classes, Daniel decided, when he turned 12,
to have a bar mitzvah:

Elettra Fiumi and Lea Khayata are 2011 graduates of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Pesele says:

There are a number of unstated assumptions in the research (as briefly described here) that should be made clear and then interrogated.
First, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is not equal. Christianity is built upon Judaism, using (and reinterpreting) Jewish texts, symbols, and rituals as part of its foundation. Judaism does not use Christianity in any way; in fact, Jewish theology rejects the fundamental tenets of Christianity. So teaching “half and half” theology presents some difficult contradictions. If Judaism and Christianity are viewed as ethnic cultures, this becomes easier, but ultimately there are sticking points.
Second, the approach used is extremely individualistic–Daniel’s discussion of “his choice” is an example. However, the primacy of individual choice as a value is very American, while the primary Jewish value is that of being one of a people–being both chosen and commanded. Neither of these is better or worse than the other–but it is important to be explicit about which perspective is being taken.
Third, Christian values and practices shape American culture. Both in what is taken-for-granted (e.g. choice as a primary value) and how society is structured, all minority groups–and, at less than 2% of the American population, Jews are a very small percentage–must find ways of maintaining their beliefs and practices in the face of dominant culture. This makes it much, much easier to understand and feel comfortable with dominant culture than with minority culture.

Is it just my computer or are all these videos barely audible? I tried different browsers and my main volume is at max.

Bill Pearlman says:

Typical generation x,y,z whatever, crap. It used to be you made a decision, you picked a side.. And stuck to it. Not anymore I guess.

This is so much nonsense that it’s almost funny.

I grew up as a jew with a jewish mother and catholic father. In hebrew school I was labeled 1/2 jewish which stung. When I hung out with my Christian friends at their bible meetings they were fascinated by my jewishness. But growing up with faith but basics of practice I didn’t have any answers for them. I knew rosh hashanah and yom kippur and the seders of passover were important to my mom and christmas and easter were important to my dad- but I didn’t understand why. When I was in college as I was learning everything about the world I decided to learn more about religion – so I took an independent studies course with a christian professor to learn about judiasm. The more I learned about my own very ethical and legalistic religion the more comfortable I felt. I had never felt comfortable with going to church the few times I had gone there. It took years and years to become fully observant in my faith and I must have read thousands upon thousands of pages of books to learn about my own faith. I am now a mother of a large family and I am glad to give them what I had never had- a secure identity. They started off at the place that it took me years to get to. They are alot more confident than I was. For me it meant distancing myself from family and friends and to be more specific certain family members distancing themselves from me. My children have two jewish parents and start from that clear identity marker to then go on to deal with life’s challenges.

Ann Tse says:

It’s so sad to hear that the child of a Jewish mother would be called a half Jewish by people who know so little about their own religion. At least these young people are thinking and questioning religious beliefs and practices and I respect that. I am sure they will be much less bigoted than people who profess to only one religion.

And pesele, Jews have indeed adopted Christian practices—monogamy for one. Though some Israeli rabbis are promoting the revival of polygamy. And the temples I have been allow women to sit with men. Where do you suppose we got that from?

I was not able to listen to the videos — not Tablet’s fault — the sound card on my computer has to be replaced.

But as the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have listened to the “raise in one” and the “raise in both” arguments on many, many occasions.

For half-Jewish people interested in learning and connecting with other adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, you may wish to visit the Half-Jewish Network website.

Cordially,
Robin Margolis
http://www.half-jewish.net

pesele says:

@Ann Tse: sorry if I was unclear. I did not mean that Jews (or any minority group) do not borrow from Christians (or any dominant group), simply that the relationships are not equal. In the US, simply because the norm is Protestantism (despite growing secularism, yada-yada), those values and practices are the ones that “feel” comfortable. And yeah, egalitarian Judaism–not just men sitting with women, but women and men taking equal religious leadership roles–is a great example of this. I simply want both those who looked at Being Interfaith and the organization itself to take the underlying power of the dominant culture into account. The asymmetrical nature of the two cultures means that, for better or worse, it’s not–and cannot be–a case of half & half.

lana says:

where is Islam in all of this ,gooyy goody, body body “christian/jewish” intermariages documentary..or did we jews nowadays only befriend with our 2000 year’s old tyrans…After all it is Islam that have way way more in commun with judaism then christianity, theologically speaking, laws ect..

Jason M says:

lana: They probably exist, maybe more in Israel than in the US, where Muslims and Jews interact more with Christians than with each other.

Volume too low too hear.

The Jewish community must get its act together and learn how to do outreach to the children of intermarried couples.
We know Day School, trips to Israel such as Birthright and Jewish camping promote Jewish identity in Jewish youth.
But what programs need to be created and developed to help bring in to our community the children of the intermarried?
This is a question everyone sincerely concerned about Jewish continuity should be asking- and answering.
(As an observant Jew i favor more outreach to the cases where the mother is Jewish- but any kind of program aimed at such outreach would have to be open to all children of interfaith families.)
In any event we must get our act together and learn how to do outreach to this important and large group of American Jewry which numbers in the hundreds of thousands- our future would be much stronger if we do.
I don’t think we can afford not creating new outreach programs aimed at “Children of inter-faith” households. By the way if we don’t try to bring them into the Jewish fold you can be sure our Christian friends will certainly try to bring them into the Christian fold or to bring them to a Messianic Church. We need to wake up and get moving!
DN

As a systems guy, I am having difficulty getting past the mutual exclusivity of the Jewish and Christian “game rules.” I wish those who profess a half-identity well, in the way I would voyagers to the Moon or Mars — valiant explorers of a land which may be sterile or full of monsters, but which they hope contains something worth seeing. Nesiah tovah and bon voyage, brave travelers. I don’t know how you do it.

Susan says:

I identify with these kids and wish I had access to an interfaith center. My father was raised Jewish and my mother was raised Catholic, although by the time they married, neither was religious. Still, I was raised in the USA in a Unitarian church which celebrated Christian and Jewish holidays. As an adult I converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. I was trying to solve an identity crisis. I got so sick of hearing people tell me, “Your mother isn’t Jewish so you aren’t Jewish.” I praise the Reform movement for accepting patrilineal descent. However, over the years I have come to realize what Daniel seems to realize: even if I wanted to, I could not cease to be what I am, no matter how others may define me. I am both, or half and half, and don’t have any desire to reject either part of my heritage.

serel maness says:

greetings to all you human souls,there is one law to settle all these confusion,a child born to a mixed-marriage is 100% what the mother is,all those who wish to be a part of kal yisrael,just connect to chabad which is world wide,you will find truth to the core,you’ll know and feel it,your soul will know it,there are many people of the nations of the world who wish to be a part of kal yisrael,the real way is through orthodox yidden,it’s the truth,and for all who do wish to be close to g-d almighty,there are 7 laws of noach which g-d gave to the nations of the world,you are welcome to learn more in this website www,7for70.com much blessings

From many shared stories most children from interfaith marriages between Jews and Christian are very comfortable with what they are. There is even growing evidence that they have a slightly higher propensity to marry other descendants of interfaith families. Many of these interfaith children will tell tell you laughingly of encounters with Chabad missionaries who ask :”Are you Jewish? And when they sardonically answer :”Half-Jewish” the next question is: “Is your mother Jewish?”

To the response that their father is Jewish they cease to exist for the missionaries, if they choose to respond that their mother is Jewish they will get the response “Do we have a deal for you!”

Some of the off-spring will choose one religion and seriously pursue it, most Christianity, and will fade into general Society, some will become Buddhist and some will choose Judaism and very often become loud missionaries themselves, from true conviction or to justify their choice.

There are many ways and most children of these marriages are perfectly able and happy to navigate the highways and alleys themselves.

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Mixed Messages

An increasing number of intermarried couples are choosing to raise their children with two religions. Three videos, part of a Columbia Journalism School project, allow interfaith kids to speak for themselves.

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