Does “Interfaith” Still Matter?
with Jodi Bromberg
published on the Jewish Education and Engagement blog of the Jewish Federations of North America; reprinted with permission
We are swimming in an ocean of intermarriage. So, why does “interfaith” still matter?
Interfaith is a big term that to us doesn’t connote anything about religious practice. It doesn’t mean a couple practicing two faiths, or joining two faiths together, or raising children “both,” or practicing one faith and no faith, one and the other. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background and one comes from another. In the broadest sense, it simply means a family that includes one or more people who have a Jewish background and one or more from different faith backgrounds.
But there is, of course, more specificity, a spectrum of interfaith couples.
On one end there are couples with a Jewish partner and a partner from a different faith background who “might as well be Jewish” – i.e. not converted but Jewishly-engaged, not practicing another faith other than perhaps participating in a non-religious Christmas or Easter celebration. Some of those couples say they consider themselves a “Jewish family” or a “Jewish family with a partner who’s not” and not an “interfaith family.” But the fact that they still have extended relatives and families from different faith backgrounds creates issues that for many beg to be addressed.
On the other end of the spectrum there are couples who are practicing two faiths and raising children as “both”; these couples raise different issues about how Jewish communities will welcome and include them.
And, there are couples where neither of the partners are Jewish in the most traditional sense, where their own backgrounds include Judaism as well as other faiths and traditions.
Interfaith is a big term but it works, here, as an umbrella term. No term is better to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish backgrounds and other faith traditions. We use it as what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself.
Most people understand the term “interfaith” with this richness and complexity. Our 2015 User Survey asked respondents what descriptive term they preferred. Of intermarried respondents, 64% preferred “interfaith couple/family” while only 21% preferred “Jewish”; there was almost no difference among younger respondents. This is how some of the 871 respondents explained their answers:
“Interfaith to me describes that there is the presence of someone with a background other than Judaism in the family. Even though my family identifies as Jewish, and my husband is a non-practicing Christian, we are still an interfaith family.”
“I prefer the term ‘interfaith couple or family’ because it does not prioritize one family over the other. No matter what preference my partner and I choose for our home (we plan to raise our children in a Jewish home), I still think equal respect for both cultures and families is important, and I think that term is the best suited for that.”
“I feel this [interfaith couple or family] is an appropriate label to describe many families. For me, that’s what we are. I’m Jewish but not really religious, my husband was raised Catholic and is not at all religious. We’re raising our son Jewish, but not involving much religion so it’s more of the traditions and culture. For us, that label fits.”
“I and my children are Jewish, my partner is not. Using interfaith acknowledges her experience and identity.”
“My family practices Judaism inside our home but my husband’s extended family is Christian. I’m not sure if interfaith fits right but it’s closer than anything else I’ve heard.”
These snapshots also demonstrate the variance in “interfaith” – it’s the right term, but it needs lots of nuance.
The Unique Needs of Interfaith Families
Like many people in relationships, many interfaith partners are exquisitely sensitive and protective of each other; they don’t want to put each other in a position where they will feel awkward, ignorant, embarrassed or uncomfortable. If we want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, we need to be sensitive to how Jewish life is presented and whether adjustments or modifications need to be made.
So what does that mean?
It means that Jewish wisdom and ideas need to be presented in ways that emphasize content and lower boundaries. The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, for example, talks about “Jewish sensibilities,” emphasizing how Jewish wisdom and traditions can be applied to make people’s lives better, using Jewish language to talk about life, not just Jewish life. The conversation applies not only to Jews but also to their partners from different faith backgrounds. It’s true that many of the Jews whom we hope will apply Jewish wisdom may not know much about their Jewish heritage, but the situation is qualitatively different for the partners from different backgrounds on whom Jewish wisdom has no inherent claim. How will the material be presented so it is accessible to them?
It means that we need to think through what Jewish language and concepts – peoplehood and connection to Israel, for example – mean for partners from different faith backgrounds and for those who are Jewish and something else. This is particularly relevant when we know that many young people want to express their spirituality but are not comfortable with existing religious worship as a vehicle to do so. How do we connect both Jews and their partners from different backgrounds to spirituality in Jewish settings? What new liturgies, formats and rituals do we need to weave into Jewish tradition? How do we become truly welcoming in spirit and practice?
It means that we need to listen more to those in interfaith partnerships and help them engage with each other. In our experience many interfaith couples want to discuss with others like themselves the particularly interfaith issue of how to talk about and make decisions about having religious traditions in their lives together. Some of the most impactful programs InterfaithFamily offers in local communities are workshops and meet-up groups for that purpose. We routinely get comments like this one from a Chicago participant, “I finally feel such a sense of community now getting to know other couples in the same family situation as ours.”
It means making highly transparent the opportunity to find Jewish clergy to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings and other life-cycle events – another particularly interfaith issue, since some rabbis are not permitted to officiate, and others who are permitted choose not to do so. We routinely get comments like these from officiation referral requesters: “I am very thankful for your assistance in making our wedding possible, as the rabbis whom I know would not officiate and I was feeling discouraged…” and “I think you provide an invaluable service that includes rather than excludes and I really want to express my thanks for that!”
It means we still have to be careful with our language. In InterfaithFamily surveys, the top-rated factor that attracted interfaith families to join Jewish organizations, at 79%, was explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome. It’s hard to accept but we continue to hear about off-putting comments that people in interfaith relationships hear in Jewish settings. We see a lot of room for professionals and organizations to be more aware of the messages conveyed by their language, communications and policies. Even the term “non-Jew” is off-putting to people from different faith backgrounds. Can we express a preference for in-marriage without making interfaith couples feel their relationship is less than ideal, second-best, “sub-optimal?” How can we talk about conversion in ways that make that wonderful personal choice accessible without indicating that partners from different faith traditions are embraced just as they are? Are we willing to include in Jewish community programs and organizations interfaith families who say they are “doing both”?
All of these are very interfaith family specific needs and issues that continue to merit attention. When we don’t pay attention, we shut doors.
So have we arrived at the point where “interfaith” doesn’t matter? Not yet.