This article first appeared in Aufbau, the German-Jewish newspaper, and was reprinted with permission.
“Mixed-marriage households can raise their children as Jews, and the Jewish community should be more open towards them,” says Edmund Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, an online magazine on interfaith issues. Case deals with intermarriage on a daily basis, not only in his job, but also personally: His is an interfaith family, but a Jewish household. Before he started in this job in 1999, Case had worked as a senior partner in a large Boston law firm. In 1997, he left to attend Brandeis University where he got his masters degree in Jewish communal service.
Together with Ronnie Friedland, Case co-edited The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An Interfaithfamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001). The articles, written by members of interfaith families, as well as by educators or clergy, discuss issues like dating, weddings, relationships with in-laws and extended family members, raising children, and how to handle holidays and life-cycle events. Aufbau spoke with Edmund Case about the mission of InterfaithFamily.com, Jewish choices and his personal experiences.
Aufbau: Intermarriage is a social reality. According to the newest survey by Egon Mayer et. al., 33 percent of Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews. On the other hand, intermarriage is severely criticized by American Jews, especially the official voices of the community. They feel that the only way to preserve Jewish religion and culture is marriage within the faith, or at least conversion. Do you agree with that?
Edmund Case: No, I disagree completely. The mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to promote Jewish life and identity among interfaith families and their children. I think that it is very possible, and that many–although not enough–interfaith families do choose Judaism as the religion of their family and the religion of their children. I think that the North American Jewish community ought to do everything it can to encourage interfaith families to make Jewish choices.
I think that conversion is a wonderful thing, but it is a very personal choice. We don’t feel that conversion is required in order for children to be raised as Jews or for a family to have Judaism as their family’s religious identity. It is a difficult message to convey: We encourage conversion, but, at the same time, we want interfaith families to know that they are welcomed just as they are. I don’t think that we ought to have guards at the gates saying: If you have not converted you cannot come in.
Also, we are all for marriage within the faith. I have two marriage-age children, myself, and I would very much like it, if they married people who are Jewish. But my reason for that is because I hope that they will want to have a Jewish life for themselves, and the chances of having a Jewish life and a Jewish family life are much increased if two Jews marry. What really motivates me and my work is that the percentage of intermarried families who are raising their children as Jews is only about 28 to 30 percent. It is a substantial number, but it is not high enough. My goal is to have more people go that way. I am all for marrying in the faith but I think that can be promoted and encouraged in a way that does not, at the same time, make intermarried people feel badly about themselves or unwelcome.
And that is my criticism of some of the leaders in the Jewish community. They are promoting marriage between two Jewish partners and conversion in a manner which really puts off many interfaith families and discourages them from getting involved.
Aufbau: Which concept of interfaith families do you focus on in your work: On those families in which both faiths are practiced or those families that choose one family religion?
Case: The mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to encourage Jewish choices while respecting the traditions of both members of the family. Some of our readers say: This is not really interfaith, this is really very pro-Jewish. But we don’t hide that at all. We do not, in any way, recommend raising the children in two religions. If people inquire about that, I will say that there are other organizations and other web-sites where they can go, such as Dovetail (which encourages the maintenance of both faiths). We don’t condemn it, it is just not our mission. There is a whole range of behavior in interfaith families. I have one family–very close friends–where the mother is Catholic and goes to Mass every Sunday. And her teenage children are very committed Jews. The family often comes to services with the mother, and she is very involved in our synagogue. But when you ask her what her religion is, there is no question. She would say: I am a practicing Catholic, but my family is Jewish.
My own family is at the other end of the spectrum. If you asked my wife what she is, she would say that she lives “Jewishly,” but that she is not Jewish. She has never formally converted to Judaism, but she basically practices Judaism and does not practice any other religion. For example, she is the co-chairperson of the social action committee of my synagogue. She was raised Episcopalian. And then there is a whole range of behavior in between.
Aufbau: Life-cycle events like baby naming, brit milahs and bat or bat mitzvahs not only touch the core family but also the extended family. How is this handled?
Case: Again, there is a whole range of ways that families deal with this. We have online discussions on our web-site, and we have had many correspondents who describe their own experiences in which extended family members do participate in Jewish life-cycle events and are very happy about it. There are some very heartwarming stories. One couple was getting married and wasn’t sure whether the Jewish grandmother would come to the wedding. But, eventually, she came and danced with her new grandson-in-law, saying: “You are my grandson now.” We have had stories of non-Jewish parents coming to a brit (ceremony) or to a baby-naming and being very supportive of it. On the other hand, we printed a contribution by a grandparent who was unhappy when her grandchild was baptized. She felt that the Christian grandparents were not very sensitive to them. That was a very sad story.
Clearly there are challenges with the extended families. A lot of it depends on personal factors, and a lot of it has to do with education and communication–the way that adult children talk to their parents about what they are doing with their grandchildren.
Aufbau: Every year, many interfaith families also face the so called “December dilemma”: Can an interfaith family celebrate Christmas or have a Christmas tree in their house?
Case: We don’t say there are rules that are appropriate for every family. One of our articles was by a young woman who was not Jewish. During her engagement, she insisted to her Jewish fiancé that she would have to have a Christmas tree. And he insisted that they would not have a Christmas tree. Eventually he said to her: “You know, our relationship is more important than a Christmas tree. If you want to have one, we will have one.” Once he had indicated that the relationship was more important, she lost interest in having a Christmas tree.
We have seen that early on in an interfaith marriage there is often a lot of negotiation. And a lot of people will start off having a tree and end up not having a tree. And a lot of people will start off having some Christmas celebration in their home, and–especially if they decide that they will raise the children as Jews–will become uncomfortable with it eventually and cease to do it.
The question really is: What does participating in a Christmas celebration mean? There was a recent study (sponsored by the American Jewish Committee), which I criticized severely. It stated that intermarried families incorporated substantial Christian elements in their homes, and that this was an ominous development for Jewish identity. It turned out that “the substantial Christian elements” were, in many cases, nothing more than going to a Christmas dinner at the home of non-Jewish relatives. My point was that for many intermarried families, participating in a Christmas or Easter celebration has no religious significance to them. They are only participating in a family time, a social time, and they are not affirming any kind of religious doctrine.
My own example is the following: I go to my in-laws at Christmas and they have a Christmas tree. We exchange gifts at Christmas, and I do not feel like a traitor at all. Early on, when I was first married, I felt very uncomfortable with it. I do not feel uncomfortable with it now. My children–one is 23, one is 19–feel that there is no religious significance to Christmas whatsoever. They do not feel it makes them Christian, they just feel that it is a nice time to be with their grandparents who are not Jewish.