What We Can Learn from the InterfaithFamily.com Network Essay Contest

September 2003

When we announced the InterfaithFamily.com Network Essay Contest, “We’re Interfaith Families … Connecting with Jewish Life,” last April, little did we know that on September 10, 2003, two days before the date set to announce our contest winners, the long-awaited results of the year 2000 National Jewish Population Survey–including an intermarriage rate of 47% or 54%, depending on how it is calculated–would finally be revealed. The Jewish community once again faces the issue of whether we want to increase the numbers of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews, thereby strengthening our community.

There is a Talmudic expression, “go and see what the people are doing” (Eruvin 14b). Through the Essay Contest, we asked interfaith families who have made Jewish choices to tell us why they did, what it means to them, what discouraged and what helped them on their journeys. Here are some of the lessons we draw from their over 130 deeply personal statements.

1. Many Jewish partners and many children of intermarried parents express a very strong Jewish identity and commitment to Jewish life, and many non-Jewish partners are extremely supportive of their families’ Jewish involvement. Many writers revealed a very strong desire to identify as Jews and to perpetuate Jewish life, often arising out of a sense of connection with and obligation to parents, grandparents and ancestors, and expressing itself within their interfaith relationship. In perhaps the most powerful example, the Grand Prize essay, Hadassah, Andi Rosenthal tells how she was raised as a Catholic by a non-Jewish mother and a father alienated from his Judaism, and how a mysteriously strong attraction to Judaism began when she first heard Hebrew prayers at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah:

It was then, for the first time, that I felt my heart stand at attention. I did not read or speak Hebrew, and I had no intellectual understanding of what was being said. But it felt almost as if someone had called me by my true name…. That feeling did not go away.

Rosenthal began to study the Holocaust and “wanted to be able to identify with the strength and resilience that had helped a community to rebuild following catastrophe.” She discovered that her father’s mother was a convert to Judaism, and ends up converting to Judaism herself.

Similarly, in The Letter, the First Prize essay in the Raising Jewish Children category, Gary Goldhammer, an intermarried Jewish man, composes a moving letter in which he tells his deceased father how he is raising his five-year old daughter Alexandra:

I need you to know…. Dad, you won’t believe this, but she speaks Hebrew. She goes to synagogue and observes Shabbat. She almost knows more about our people and our religion than I do, probably because she pays more attention in services than I ever did. She is a Jew, dad. I want you to know that.

Annie Modesitt, author of Out on the Porch, the First Prize essay in the Engaging in Jewish Life category, is an extremely supportive non-Jewish mother. (Regular readers of InterfaithFamily.com may recall two of Annie’s previous articles, The Strength of Our Interfaith Marriage and An Interfaith Sweater. Gary Goldhammer’s wife Christine is “very supportive of [their daughter’s] Judaism.” She sings the Barechu “pretty well, too. Oh, and Christine also puts together the synagogue newsletter and is active in our Havurah. Not bad for a Lutheran.”

Two of our writers founded synagogues with their non-Jewish spouses; one child of intermarried parents is in rabbinical school, one plans to be a rabbi, and two were presidents of their colleges’ Hillel. As Joyce MacGregor said:

There are plenty of Reillys and Sullivans and O’Learys who have a Menorah on the shelf, some chopped liver in the fridge, and a deep meaningful connection to their Jewish heritage…. It will be passed to our children as best we know how and continue to be a source of comfort and sadness as we live our lives as part of today’s Jewish people.

Another writer, Felice Morel, said that although her husband never converted to Judaism, he “no longer refers to us as an interfaith family; he calls us a ‘Jewish family in which one parent is not Jewish.'” The Jewish community would do well to understand, accept and welcome that concept – a Jewish family where one parent is not Jewish.

2. Many people–including Jewish partners, non-Jewish partners, and children of intermarried parents–say that because they are in interfaith families, they can not take their Jewish involvement for granted, they have to think about what is important to them, they have to make conscious decisions, and they have to work harder at it. In Beatles Wisdom, the First Prize essay in the Loving Jewish Grandchildren category, Amy Elkes, an interdating Jewish woman, describes her feelings as she brings her non-Jewish boyfriend to meet her Holocaust-survivor grandparents:

I desperately wanted my grandparents to know that dating Nathan had not made me any less Jewish and had, in many ways, strengthened my personal commitment to a faith that was easy to take for granted in a Jewish home, a Jewish grade school, and a largely Jewish community.

And in I am Not a Crisis, the First Prize essay in the Claiming My Jewish Roots category, Anna Mills says,

What does it mean to be Jewish, and how Jewish are you? The questions have an added urgency for me–I can’t take Jewishness for granted.

Today, when everything is a matter of choice, and different activities and affiliations compete for people’s limited time, many people aren’t going to get involved in Jewish life just because they’re born Jewish. Too many Jews–including those married to other Jews–are unaffiliated and apathetic. If we believe, as InterfaithFamily.com does, that engaging in Jewish life is a great source of meaning and purpose and fulfillment, and that people who think about and explore Jewish life will agree that that is the case–then it is a very promising development that people in interfaith families have to make conscious decisions about Jewish life as an option.

One writer, Sara Prentice-Manela, made this very thought-provoking comment:

The biggest challenge interfaith families present to the Jewish community is that we point out to them, by our very existence, that belonging to a community is like being in a marriage–a continuous collaboration, and search, and deliberate choice to belong. That kind of commitment is not entered into lightly.

3. Many parents recognize the importance of giving children one religious identity, and there are particular aspects of Jewish life–theology, Shabbat observance, being non-dogmatic–that appeal to people in interfaith families and could be promoted in outreach efforts. One parent, Joanne Hartman, realized that not choosing led to confusion: “By not choosing we were treading water in a swirling current of religions, without a boat to claim our own.” Another parent, Angela Meyer, said:

Religion is like clothing. It is the parents’ responsibility to dress the very young child appropriately. (“Here is your red coat.”) As the child gets older, explanations may be added, but the clothing decision is still ultimately the parents’. (“You need your red coat because it is very cold today.”) Eventually, the child will be able to choose between a red coat, a blue coat, or even no coat at all. Undoubtedly, if my husband and I had only spoken of religion in the theoretical sense, our children would have been running in the snow with shorts on, and wondering why they were cold.

Several committed Christians said they were comfortable choosing Judaism for their children and family because Jewish theology is not inconsistent with their beliefs, and they recognized that Christian theology is inconsistent with Jewish beliefs. Rosemary DiDio Brehm, for example, said that the question came down to how they could best worship as a family.

Many writers said that they had found Shabbat observance to be particularly meaningful. For example, Cheryl Coon said: “When we sit down together, there’s a peacefulness that comes over us. Something about it, about the ancient Jewish prayers, about being linked to a worldwide tradition, about sharing it together, all of us, has truly brought the beauty and bond of Judaism into our intermarried home.”

Many appreciate how Judaism values questioning, searching, and struggling for answers. Samie Faciolo: “I enjoyed the Jewish encouragement of asking and answering questions. I am still fascinated that through the guidance of texts, traditions and teachers, I have the freedom to question my religion and search for answers.”

4. The power of loving gestures–by both Jews and non-Jews–to invite and support the Jewish choices of people in interfaith relationships cannot be underestimated. In the Grand Prize essay, Andi Rosenthal writes that when she explained to her Catholic mother what becoming Jewish would mean to her:

I had been so afraid of hurting or disappointing her. But she pulled from her purse a small box, which contained a Star of David pendant. She said, “Now I understand what this means to you. I know you want to convert. It’s fine with me. I understand now.”

In the First Prize essay in the grandparenting category, Amy Elkes tells how her Holocaust-survivor grandfather ended his first meeting with her non-Jewish boyfriend by “giving him the same good-bye kiss he usually reserves for his grandchildren”:

There are few moments in my life that have been as meaningful as that kiss on the cheek. My courageous grandfather chose to show affection to a boy who likely represents some of his greatest fears, rather than make his granddaughter feel bad about who she loves.

5. Many interfaith families resolve the fact that there are two identities and traditions in their family by viewing their children as having two cultural identities but one religious identity. Participation in Christmas celebrations should be viewed in this context. About a third of our writers wrote about Christmas. Except for one or two, they all participate in Christmas celebrations, in varied ways. Some don’t have any Christmas in their own home but go to relatives. Some don’t go to church, others do. But without exception, our Jewish writers, including the children of intermarried parents, do not experience Christmas as having religious significance (even those who accompany a non-Jewish parent to church). Their participation is a way of honoring, respecting and caring for the tradition of the non-Jewish partner or parent.

Jemi Kostiner Mansfield, a Jewish educator whose child goes to a day school, has a Christmas tree in her home, because her husband,

wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian…. As we see it, our job is to make our family’s Jewish identity so natural, so much a part of us, that it’s not threatened by the presence of a Grand Fir in our living room for one month out of the year.

Judaism is a very family-oriented religion. We can’t expect an interfaith family to cut off half of its background. But we can understand that respecting a parent’s tradition does not have to compromise a child’s religious identity–it does not make the child Jewish “and something else.” As Jo Kaiser wrote,

I also hope to show my daughter that she doesn’t have to banish one part of herself to embrace another. I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn her into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life. Assimilation happens because what is outside, over there, looks better than what is inside. You don’t guard against it by building a higher wall between you and the rest of the world. What you do is make sure the life you have is irresistibly worth leading.

In another thought-provoking comment, in the First Prize essay in the Engaging in Jewish Life category, Annie Modesitt said,

I have the nerve, chutzpah and joy to believe that marriages and families such as ours will usher in a new renaissance of Jewish thought and learning…. I feel that it is incumbent on all non-Jews who have chosen to affiliate themselves with Jewish spouses and families to use their own cultural tools to enlarge the experience of the Jews in a positive way.

6. The Jewish community’s efforts to increase the involvement of interfaith families should abide by Dr. Phil’s maxim, “every interaction either contributes to or contaminates a relationship.” Interfaith families respond positively to welcoming interactions. Interfaith families respond particularly to rabbis who express gratitude to non-Jewish partners, as when Joanne Hartman said: “The rabbi said that non-Jews raising their children Jewish are making the ultimate generous gift to the world. My non-Jewish husband listened and lovingly said he understood.” Interfaith families respond to rabbis who acknowledge the “Jewishness” of non-Jewish partners’ lives, as when Laura Padersky said: Our Rabbi said something that proved to be a defining moment in my spiritual journey. “You may not have converted, but you do realize that you are living as a Jew, don’t you?” Imagine that, being told by a Rabbi that you act like a Jew!

Many writers were grateful to rabbis who officiated and co-officiated at their weddings. Several were grateful to rabbis who officiated on condition that the couple agree to raise their children as Jews, because, as Kathy Miller said, “the commitment we made to the rabbi was a real one that occurred after mutual discussion and individual soul-searching.”

People want to be welcomed and they want to be accepted as they are. Our writers responded well when they were encouraged to visit and join a synagogue; when the synagogue had many interfaith family members; when synagogue leaders were intermarried; when the worship services and prayerbooks were “user-friendly” with transliterations; when non-Jews are considered members; when non-Jews are allowed to participate in their family’s life-cycle services (Mark Young: “By the time my son became a Bar Mitzvah, I was the first gentile that the old rabbi had ever allowed on the bimah. May his memory be for a blessing.”).

The fact that some branches of Judaism do not recognize the children of Jewish fathers as Jews is a major obstacle to the involvement of interfaith families in Jewish life. This was expressed particularly clearly in two of the prize-winning essays by children of intermarried parents, Nick Zaller (“perhaps the most significant problem children from interfaith families have, particularly us patrilineal Jews, is acceptance from others if or when we decide on a particular religion. I have been told over and over again that I am not a real Jew”) and Johanna Karasik (“I’m struggling a lot with my Jewish identity. There’s no question that I feel Jewish, but halacha says that I am not a Jew”), and also in the First Prize-winning essay in the Raising Jewish Children category, by Gary Goldhammer (“So what does it matter that her mother isn’t a Jew? Don’t I matter, too? Aren’t my genes relevant?”).

7. Many interfaith families respond positively when they know that other interfaith families are involved, and to outreach programs aimed at them. Angela Meyer: “I discovered a dozen other mommies struggling with the same kinds of issues.” Mark Young: “We did visit the temple, and I was very relieved to meet the McVeighs, the O’Flahertys and the Gianninotos.” Laura Kaufman: “I needed a support system. We met other couples like us and joined a havurah made up of interfaith couples.” Participating in a program enabled Leah Singer “to meet other couples, make friends with people who are facing the same issues we face, and feel comfortable branching out into other communities of Judaism in a synagogue.”

Some writers told quite extraordinary stories of the impact of outreach programs on their families. Several wrote about Stepping Stones programs (of parallel parent and young children education, for unaffiliated interfaith families); one young man, Alex Coven, wrote that his parents had been ambivalent about choosing a religion for him, but then they happened to go to such a program, and they ended up joining a synagogue and having his Bar Mitzvah service on Masada. Some writers–both Jews and non-Jews–noted that they needed “how-to” adult education programs because they didn’t “have the tools to make a Jewish life together,” as Leah Singer said. Others were helped by programs designed to help couples communicate about religious differences.

8. Interfaith families connect with Jewish life at varied times and in random ways. The variety of possible connections emphasizes the importance of always standing ready to capitalize on an opportunity to welcome that may arise. People make decisions about Jewish life at varied times: before weddings, when children are born or start school or reach Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, when they go to college, and later. Our writers got involved in random ways: they read articles and books (one non-Jew found her husband’s childhood book about Jewish holidays and customs and starting learning from it); writers saw advertisements for outreach programs in Jewish newspapers or parenting magazines, in emails forwarded by friends or in temple bulletins; they went to a synagogue ostensibly to buy something and ended up talking to someone who invited them in; they were put in touch with someone intermarried who welcomed them (Sue Repko: “I guess that’s what I was hoping would fall from the sky all those years–someone to say, ‘You’re welcome. You can be one of us.'”). Several young adults, children of intermarried parents, wrote about how important it was in their journeys to be welcomed at their college’s Hillel. One young mother experienced a welcoming Jewish community for the first time in her daughter’s Jewish pre-school.

At bottom, we need to have a real change in attitudes. Traditionally, kol yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. To strengthen the Jewish community by increasing the participation of interfaith families, we need to add that every Jew should also be responsible to be aware of and sensitive to, and to take advantage of, every opportunity to invite interfaith families into Jewish life. We should adopt that new approach, if we truly hear what non-Jews connected with Jewish life, like Teresa McMahon, are saying:

Judaism to me is not a race in danger of elimination, it is a set of ideas that should be shared. A wonderful belief that human beings can make the world a better, more just place. I believe this and I believe that my marriage upholds this set of ideas. We wish more people would be willing to put a bit more faith into interfaith marriages.

Or, in the words of FD Fields:

It may be the poor reception which intermarried couples receive, rather than intermarriage itself, which creates a barrier to be overcome before couples can even consider raising their children Jewish. Perhaps a more constructive approach toward couples, who happen to be intermarried, would increase the percentage who want to choose Judaism for their children.

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.