Raising Jewish-Christian children

Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, left, Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant, center, and Father John Hester lead services in the chapel at Berkeley´s Pacific School of Religion. (Sue Fishkoff)

Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, left, Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant, center, and Father John Hester lead services in the chapel at Berkeley´s Pacific School of Religion. (Sue Fishkoff)

BERKELEY, Calif., Aug. 10 (JTA) — When Ned and Mary Rosenbaum got married in 1963, they told the officiating priest that they planned to raise their children in both the Jewish and Catholic faiths. “He said that was perfectly awful,” recalls Ned, who is Jewish. But he and his wife persevered, taking their three children to church and synagogue, teaching them the values and traditions of both faiths, sending them to Hebrew school and Sunday school, though not at the same time. “They had to choose each year, and commit to going for that entire year,” says Ned, who taught Jewish studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., for 28 years. It wasn’t easy, Mary admits. “Raising children in both faiths only works if both partners are actively involved in their own religion,” she says. “To do it successfully you have to be really interested in religion and willing to spend a lot of time and energy. It’s not just Christmas and Chanukah.” Today Mary Rosenbaum, still a practicing Catholic, is executive director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources, a Kentucky-based organization that provides emotional support and practical information for interfaith couples trying to make sense of their dual heritages. With close to 700 active members, and a mailing list of 12,000, virtually all of them Jewish-Christian intermarrieds, the Dovetail Institute is believed to be the largest such organization in the country. About 100 people attended the groups’s biennial conference Aug. 6-8 in Berkeley, Calif., where they explored with rabbis, ministers, sociologists and other experts such themes as educating interfaith children, creating baby-welcoming ceremonies, holding meaningful holiday services and finding clergy to conduct rituals. Sari and Blake McConnell, an intermarried San Francisco Bay area couple with one 16-month-old son, came to the conference “to take a lot of notes,” Sari says. She is Jewish and Blake is Presbyterian. They belong to a church and a synagogue, and a mohel performed a brit milah, or ritual circumcision, on their son, and a pastor conducted a welcoming ceremony. This young couple says they “definitely” want to raise their children in both faiths, even though they know it will be hard. “If your religion is important to you, that also takes work,” Sari says. This was the third Dovetail conference for Eve and Scott Edwards of Maclean, Va. With an infant and a four-year-old, they are eager to find a structured way to teach their children about both Eve’s Judaism and Scott’s Catholicism. A year ago they formed a Jewish-Catholic dialogue group with two other intermarried couples, with the goal of creating a Jewish-Catholic supplementary Sunday school in the Washington, D.C. area. At the conference, Scott is listening to a workshop session on interfaith schools. There are currently such parent-led schools in four cities around the country, where spouses take turns teaching their faith traditions to the children. The presenters are laughing about the “Big Question,” — how to teach about Jesus in a way that won’t offend Jewish sensibilities. Scott, a practicing Catholic, is worried. He doesn’t want to “water down” his faith, giving his children something he doesn’t himself believe. The Christmas tree and the menorah are the easy part, he says. “With a little creativity and imagination you can handle it, but the faith issue,” he says, his voice trailing off as he shakes his head. The Edwardses belong to a Reform congregation, and while Eve says she “feels comfortable” telling her temple friends that she and Scott “are exposing our children to Judaism and Catholicism,” she has kept mum about their plans for the school. Jewish groups “feel threatened” by interfaith alternatives, Eve says. “They feel it takes their people away. But that’s not true; these people would be nothing instead.” Nehama Ben-Mosche, a doctoral candidate in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, describes the fourth-grade curriculum at one of these schools, the Interfaith Community in Manhattan, where she acts as an adviser. The classes are team-taught by a Jewish and a Christian educator, and the children read from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. They learn the Shema and the Lord’s Prayer, they discuss the story of Noah’s Ark, the binding of Isaac and the crucifixion. “We have to be careful of the language we use, that it be inclusionary and not exclusionary,” she says. “We expose the children to the biblical text but we don’t indoctrinate them in any particular meaning of that text. We allow them to choose their own meaning,” she says. Of all the topics Dovetail deals with, the one that generates the most controversy is the notion of raising children of interfaith couples in both parents’ religions. While Dovetail does not advocate that approach, officials say, it provides support and resources for families who choose this path. Mary Rosenbaum, the group’s executive director, estimates that about half the group’s members make this choice. The other half, she says, raise their children Jewish, as Dovetail founder Joan Hawxhurst does. A few choose a third option, such as Unitarianism or ethical humanism, but Rosenbaum calls that alternative “artificial” and says it is rarely successful. Very few couples in the group raise their children as Christians exclusively, which Rosenbaum suggests is the case because, while there are few things a Christian spouse would object to in Judaism, a Jewish spouse finds it more difficult to sit through a church service, with its focus on Jesus. “Also, there’s a lot of pressure on the Jewish parent from the Jewish community, whereas the Christian community is not as worried about intermarriage” from the numbers point of view, she says. Indeed, most of the criticism she hears comes from the Jewish community. Alongside Jews’ very real fear of disappearing through assimilation or attrition, she says, “Judaism tends to emphasize the needs of the community, while Christianity is more concerned with the individual soul.” Dru Greenwood, outreach director for the Union of Reform Judaism, says that the goal of Reform outreach to the intermarried is quite clearly “the hope that couples will choose Judaism for their family.” Even when that is not possible, she says, the Reform movement urges intermarried couples to choose one religious identity for their children. Ed Case, president and publisher of interfaithfamily.com, an unaffiliated non-profit that seeks to encourage intermarried couples to raise their children Jewish, agrees. “First, I don’t think it’s possible to be both Jewish and Christian. There’s a theological inconsistency. Second, we hear from children that it’s confusing. They feel torn between two religious communities, and are not really part of either,” says Case, who is intermarried and raises his children Jewish. Adds Greenwood: “There are good ways to honor and respect the cultural heritage of both parents in an interfaith home. Raising children to be both Jewish and Christian is not one of them.” That’s not what Dovetail members are doing, the Rosenbaums maintain. “We raised our kids with both religions, not in them,” Ned says. Their hope was that when the children grew up, they would choose. Their daughter Sarah did, converting to Judaism. Their two sons are still unaffiliated. One of them, 34-year-old Ephraim, a writer living in New York, considers himself “half-Jewish.” “I’m proud of it,” he says. “I would never want to deny my Jewish heritage.” But he very much straddles the religious fence. “I don’t think I seriously contemplated being one or the other. That’s one of the disadvantages of being raised interfaith — it has kind of a paralyzing effect.” As far as raising his own kids one day, he says he’ll look to his future wife for religious direction. If she has “strong feelings for either,” he says, “that’s the way we’ll go.” The Rosenbaums’ experience appears typical of other Dovetail members, who give their children all the tools they can, believing that it will strengthen rather than confuse them. “Kids are really sharp,” says Debi Tenner, an intermarried mother of two teenagers who both chose to become Jewish. “They can understand the concept of having serious roots in two very different religions.” The important thing, these families say, is for parents to make a united decision, and stick to it. If the parents are confused about what they want, the children will be as well. “We want our kids to choose,” says Mike Farnon, a leader in Chicago’s Family School, an interfaith school with 150 students. “Most of our graduates have chosen one or the other.” But in some interfaith communities, syncretism is more common. “We have kids whose parents teach them they are interfaith, who set them up so they won’t go through the process of choosing,” says Ben-Mosche of Manhattan’s Interfaith Community. And raising a child in one religion, even in a traditional in-married family, is no guarantee that the child will remain within the fold. “You can raise your kid Catholic, and as an adult he becomes a Muslim or a Wiccan,” says Kate Cohen, a college senior and a child of intermarried parents who exposed her to both Judaism and Catholicism. “It’s not necessarily true that you will make your child’s choice less difficult by raising him in just one religion,” says Cohen, who told the conference she considers her own religious identity as “interfaith.” Ned Rosenbaum posits Cohen’s identity as a new and valid one. “She’s the future,” he says.

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