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The High Holiday Dilemma

How interfaith couples navigate the Jewish holidays

Paula Jacobs
September 17, 2019
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
This article is part of Interfaith Relationships.
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Marti Rosen-Atherton still vividly recalls the day 29 years ago when her non-Jewish fiancé, John Atherton, said he would not attend High Holiday services: “I assumed that once we were married, he would be coming to High Holiday services with me. What a jolt it was for me!”

This difficult conversation turned out to be one of their most important relationship talks during their 28 years of marriage. “I was on my path to my agenda, and he was saying, ‘No, I am not going to do that.’ I wanted concrete reasons and he couldn’t give me concrete reasons,” Rosen-Atherton said. “It had to do with his own experiences. To finally get to a point of acceptance on my part was huge.”

For the Omaha couple, “acceptance” meant that Marti would go to High Holiday services solo. But they have created their own way of celebrating the holidays together outside services: Hosting Rosh Hashanah dinner—now a three-decade tradition—is especially meaningful. Its significance became apparent early in their marriage when they skipped hosting the year of Marti’s cancer treatment, and John urged resuming it the following year. “It’s our tradition,” said John, a self-proclaimed spiritual agnostic who now attends Kabbalat Shabbat services and classes in Judaism.

Often, when Jews talk about the difficulties that interfaith couples face during holidays, they’re talking about the difficulties that the Jewish partner has with non-Jewish holidays, like Christmas. But how these couples handle Jewish holidays is just as important and just as challenging—for the Jewish partner as well as the non-Jewish partner. And the High Holidays, with so many specific traditions to observe, can be the most challenging of all.

In some ways, navigating the High Holidays can be even tougher than Christmas for interfaith couples: Because Christmas is pervasive in American culture and society, most American Jews—even if they’ve never personally celebrated Christmas before—are already familiar with customs such as decorating Christmas trees or singing “Jingle Bells,” and they already know about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They probably already know the Christmas story. Yet non-Jews are typically less knowledgeable about High Holiday rituals, practices, and liturgy—which sometimes even their Jewish partners don’t understand.

Often, when Jews talk about the difficulties that interfaith couples face during holidays, they’re talking about the difficulties that the Jewish partner has with non-Jewish holidays, like Christmas. But how these couples handle Jewish holidays is just as challenging.

On the other hand, while Jews may already have a visceral reaction against such Christmas rituals as putting up a tree or singing more religious carols like “Silent Night,” Jewish High Holiday traditions, such as Rosh Hashanah dinner or the tashlich ritual of symbolically casting sins into the water, may be less fraught with emotional baggage for non-Jewish spouses, who haven’t spent a lifetime thinking about them.

Different couples have found different ways to observe the holidays—both as a couple and separately. Sarit and Kenny Kunz, an interfaith couple in Philadelphia, have figured out a plan that works for them. Kenny, who is Catholic, works on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while Sarit and their Jewish children attend services. They spend the second day of Rosh Hashanah with Sarit’s family in New York, and Kenny, a professional chef, brings his homemade challah and other culinary specialties.

Sometimes, the non-Jewish partner starts observing parts of the holidays; other times, the Jewish partner adjusts his or her own observance. Becky Sowemimo had always fasted on Yom Kippur until two years ago when her boyfriend Femi, who was raised in the Church of God, asked why; her only explanation was that “I have always done it.” After many in-depth discussions with Femi, whom she married a year ago, she stopped fasting. “It was a point of tension,” she told me, “because I wasn’t sure how I have done something for so long and not question it. It’s hard to look inward at a religious tradition and explain it to someone who isn’t familiar.”

Helping interfaith couples navigate the High Holidays is critical—especially given the rise in intermarriage and increased diversity of the Jewish community today. A 2013 Pew Research study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” reports that intermarriage rates seem to have risen substantially over the last five decades: Only 17% of Jews married before 1970 have a non-Jewish spouse compared to six-in-ten of those married since 2000. More than one-third (37%) of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they are not raising those children Jewish at all, according to these findings.

“One of the most important things is to learn about your partner’s religion. An important aspect is gaining knowledge about the holidays, trying to become both educated and also part of the experience,” said Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship Program at InterfaithFamily—which supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life with such resources as a High Holiday guide, email series, and extensive reference material including how-to-information tips on preparing for the High Holidays. “The biggest challenge is often the Hebrew and the fact that synagogue services are not accessible.”

Anne and Sam Goodman belong to a Reform synagogue on the New Jersey shore. To understand her husband’s strong Jewish faith, Anne, a practicing Catholic, has studied Hebrew and taken classes in Judaism. “Be curious about the other partner’s faith tradition and have conversations with each other,” said Anne, who attends High Holiday services, fasts on Yom Kippur, and finds spiritual meaning in the prayers, music, and Torah readings.

Emphasizing the universal values expressed in Jewish prayers, such as renewal and forgiveness, can make the High Holiday liturgy more accessible, suggested Ed Case, founder of InterfaithFamily, author of the book Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and a long-time advocate for the engagement of interfaith families in Jewish life. “Thinking about the fragility of life and asking for forgiveness are all things that are appealing to partners from different faith backgrounds.”

On the High Holidays, musical services for families with young children, tashlich on the beach, visual images projected during prayers, and using the Reform movement’s Mishkan HaNefesh High Holiday mahzor (with transliterated liturgy) help make interfaith families feel welcome at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Calif., a progressive Reform congregation consisting of LBGTQ individuals and allies, with approximately 200 member units including interfaith couples and Jews by choice. “Themes such as renewal, re-creation, and making our lives as good as they can be offer a universal palate when they enter welcoming Jewish spaces. I believe that the holidays lend themselves really well to teaching those core values both to children, Jewish adults, and those from other faith traditions,” said Rabbi Max Chaiken, the congregation’s assistant rabbi, who also facilitates workshops and programs with local interfaith couples.

“I am Catholic but I love the High Holidays. I love the idea of a whole day of repentance and not eating,” said Robin Bacon. She regularly fasts and attends High Holiday services with her spouse, Rachael Martin, at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park, a small, egalitarian synagogue in Los Angeles. The couple joined in 2008 when Bacon, raised in a devout Catholic family, wanted to learn more about Judaism. Since then, Bacon has taken classes in Jewish prayer, learning to read prayer-book Hebrew in order to participate in services. Meanwhile, Martin, the product of a secular Jewish home, has become more observant. They are raising their 3-year-old son in the Jewish faith.

Before the High Holidays, Rabbi Steven Abraham, spiritual leader of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, a 500 member family Conservative egalitarian congregation, teaches about the holidays both to the community and his congregation, which includes many interfaith families and Jews by choice. He expects this fall’s study session, “Who By Fire, Who By Water. How Do We Read and Understand Unetaneh Tokef in 2019,” will attract Jews and non-Jews alike.

Omaha is home to 8,800 Jews; 40% of married Jews there are intermarried, reports the 2017 Jewish Federation of Omaha Jewish Community Population Study. “If you went into the Hebrew school and asked how many of your parents were born Jewish, the number would be relatively low relative to those who came [to Judaism] here through the mikveh,” said Abraham. “This changes the flow of who we are and makes us think about things.”

Beth El congregants Eileen and Ed Clignett, an interfaith family with two children, attend erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of Eileen’s parents. Ed only attends holiday services when dates do not conflict with work, although he always comes to Neila, the closing service of Yom Kippur. This Rosh Hashanah, when the couple’s 14-year-old daughter leads part of the service, Ed will attend both days, following along in the Conservative movement’s Mahzor Lev Shalem, which includes English translations and commentaries. “Eileen’s father is a Holocaust survivor, and I understand how important it is for the next generation to carry on the traditions of Judaism,” he said. “For me to do that for my children and for my wife and her family is important.”

Rabbi Cookie Olshein, spiritual leader of Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, a 260-member family Reform congregation, leads a 45-minute Yom Kippur afternoon interfaith-oriented service called Hineini: I Am Here. “It’s a time to talk about relationships with family and friends, acknowledging failures and moving forward,” she said. Hineini incorporates English-language readings, poetry, reflections, and music with High Holiday liturgy such as “Avinu Malkeinu,” and includes contemporary secular songs such as “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen), “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel), and “What a Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong). It is modeled after a similar service at Congregation Emanu El in Houston.

Children’s services often provide interfaith couples with comfortable access to High Holiday services. At Reconstructionist congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal, interfaith couples learn and engage in holiday-themed projects along with their children. “As an egalitarian community, we understand that we are living in an interfaith world where Jews are among many,” said Rabbi Boris Dolin, the congregation’s spiritual leader, who also teaches and provides resources for interfaith couples in Canada. “Some give up on Judaism because there is no place to go.”

The faith talk, though, should begin long before the High Holidays. It’s something that Bari Fishler and Matt Dooley have discussed over their six-year relationship, during which they have spent many Rosh Hashanah dinners with Fishler’s family. This October, the D.C.-area couple will marry in a Jewish ceremony with interfaith guidelines.

Interfaith couples should prepare for the High Holidays and discuss religious issues just like they decide financial and other marital matters, said Marion Usher, a clinical social worker and professor at George Washington University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and author of the book One Couple Two Faiths: Stories of Love and Religion. “Family life education is teaching people how to negotiate their marriage,” said Usher, whose workshop “Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners” helps Jewish interfaith couples facilitate important conversations about Jewish identity. “If the couple wants to celebrate the Jewish New Year, they need to find an appropriate venue that will meet their needs. People with children need to find an inclusive congregation where they feel that they matter.”

Despite the challenges, interfaith couples can find the High Holidays accessible. Since every couple is different, each must find the key that opens the door right for them.

“Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the Jewish community. We find that creating a culture that affirms diversity is also a culture that finds the uniqueness of diversity. Synagogues can be places that understand this diversity,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which offers a variety of Jewish holiday learning resources for Jews and those exploring Judaism. “We need to make it clear that we wholeheartedly welcome interfaith families to make a spiritual home here. If we can truly bring more people into Jewish life, that bodes well for the vitality and vibrancy of Jewish life. “

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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