Americans are leaving behind single-faith identities. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, almost one quarter of all Americans attend religious services of more than one faith or denomination. Interfaith marriages are increasingly common, with families who are Jewish-Christian constituting the first great wave of religious intermarriage. Clergy often argue that children raised with two faiths will be confused, and oftentimes one religion takes precedence over another in an effort to minimize conflict. Choosing one religion works for many families, but not all of them. After conducting a survey of parents who joined interfaith communities and put their children in interfaith education programs, I believe that celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families and greatly benefit children. Being both is not simply a compromise or negotiated settlement, but a positive, inspirational choice. Here’s why:
1. It Promotes Transparency About Differences.
Neither parent’s religion is being suppressed, so children are less likely to feel confusion, guilt or even resentment on behalf of the “out-parent.” Meanwhile, interfaith children trying to formulate an identity as solely Jewish or solely Christian often struggle against society’s assumptions about their religion, based on physical characteristics, name, and extended family. An interfaith child raised Jewish may be presumed otherwise because of brown skin or even blond hair. An interfaith child raised Catholic, but whose last name is Cohen, will be presumed to be Jewish. Children allowed to identify equally with both sides of the family may more easily integrate the reality of their hair, their name, and even their grandparents. And while the children must learn to integrate two worldviews, as rebellious teens and young adults, they often appreciate the respect their parents show them by allowing them to make their own decisions. “No one is dictating to me what to believe and what not to,” reports a thirteen-year-old girl in the Washington interfaith group.
2. It Encourages Family Unity.
Families who choose to raise their children in an interfaith community often cite unity as one of their reasons for doing so. In my survey, 48 percent of adult respondents, over one hundred of them, responded that one of their reasons for joining an interfaith community was that they didn’t want one spouse to feel left out. In an interfaith setting, both parents have equal status. Both parents can sit at a gathering or holiday celebration with the children, and neither will feel like a guest. There is never a question of who can hold the Torah, who can say a blessing. Ideally, when a family chooses both, it means parents also take on equal responsibility in transmitting culture and beliefs to the children. If a Christian wife is toting the kids to Hebrew school, at least she knows she can also tote them to Mass. It also means that while both parents may be sacrificing some of their traditions because of time and logistical constraints, neither parent is being asked to sacrifice everything.
3. It Gives Extended Family Equal Weight.
Choosing one religion can strain relationships with the extended family celebrating the “out-religion.” Parents feel they must be on guard against grandparents from the “other side” proselytizing or lobbying in more subtle ways. There may be pressure to minimize contact with the “wrong” side during school vacations, which often coincide with religious holidays. Grandparents may not understand what it means at first to choose both religions, since interfaith family communities did not exist when they were raising children. Often, they become less skeptical when they visit the community or when they see the results of dual-faith education in their grandchildren. One of the benefits of choosing both is that both sets of grandparents may transmit beliefs and rituals more freely. A Catholic grandparent can teach a grandchild to say the rosary, even while a Jewish grandparent can teach a grandchild to say the Kaddish (the traditional Jewish prayer for mourners). In fact, extended family members on both sides can be appreciated as guardians of religious lore and family history. A mother of two young children in Washington, Veronica Sholin was raised Catholic; her husband was raised in Reform Judaism. When asked about the greatest benefit of raising children with both religions, Sholin replied, “Both sets of holidays are celebrated in our home, and our kids can identify with both parents and the grandparents.”
4. It Sidesteps the Matrilineality Conflict
In interfaith families choosing one religion for their children, the issue of whether it is the mother or father who is Jewish can have a tremendous impact. Children raised as Jews with a Christian mother will not be accepted by Conservative or Orthodox Jews unless they undergo conversion. Children raised as Christians with a Jewish mother will hear from these same quarters that they are Jews, no matter how they were raised or how they feel. And sadly, despite the historic decision by Reform rabbis to allow patrilineal Jewish children into the fold, even many Reform Jews continue to reject them. Generations of tradition and tribal consciousness are not easily erased by a rabbinic recommendation. As a patrilineal Jewish child whose parents did everything by the book to raise me as a Reform Jew, I can attest to this. In an interfaith community, children are raised to believe that they have a right to claim both their Jewish and Christian heritage, regardless of which parent is Jewish. Of course, when interfaith children go out into American society, they must still face these issues, but at least they have the strong support of an interfaith community. In the end, since the different Jewish communities have different opinions on the heritability of Judaism, and these opinions are still in a state of flux and conflict, it seems difficult and rather fruitless to try to conform to them.
5. It Provides Literacy in Both Religions.
The most common reason parents in my survey cited for choosing an interfaith community was a desire for their children to be knowledgeable about both religions. More than 90 percent of parents chose this as one of their reasons for joining. Whether or not a family also belongs to a church or synagogue or both, a dual-faith religious education program gives children the freedom to compare and contrast in a way that is rarely condoned in a single-faith educational setting. And an interfaith education program provides practical advantages over shlepping children to two different religious schools. One Washington parent explains, “We didn’t feel competent to be the sole religious teachers for our child, but sending him to both church and temple religious school was not realistic or appealing.”
Even if your child chooses not to practice a religion as an adult, or to embrace a non-Abrahamic faith, our culture—American literature, music, politics—was forged in a Judeo-Christian context. A familiarity with Bible stories, rituals, and holidays from Judaism and Christianity makes a child more culturally literate.