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Tackling the ‘december Dilemma,’ by Teaching Children Both Their Faiths

The “December Dilemma” — the annual tug-of-war between Christmas and Chanukah played out in streets and living rooms across America — provokes sighs and consternation in many Jewish homes. But nine Chicago kids in The Family School’s sixth-grade class here don’t find it at all confusing.

“I like celebrating both,” says Sarah Liebreich, 11, who, like her classmates, has one Jewish and one Catholic parent. “I go to a lot of Chanukah parties, and if there are people who don’t know about the holidays, you can teach them.”

“Usually on the last night we invite people over,” says Anna Cohn, also 11. “Most of our neighbors are Catholic. They come over and play dreidel, they see we have a Christmas tree, and they think it’s really cool.”

The Family School is the oldest and largest of a small but growing number of interfaith religious schools in several cities across the United States. The schools are run by intermarried couples who meet on Sunday mornings to teach their children the basic values and traditions of both parents’ faiths.

Started in 1993 with nine children from seven families, The Family School today draws more than 120 children from 75 families to its twice-monthly classes, held on the campus of Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago.

Similar parent-taught initiatives have sprung up in New York, Washington, Minneapolis, the San Francisco Bay Area, New Haven and most recently in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Some, like The Family School, are for Jewish-Catholic families. Others, like the Bay Area Interfaith Sunday School, draw Jews married to a broad range of Christians.

All of them are responding to the same reality — the 31 percent of American Jews who are intermarried, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Study.

But in contrast to most mixed-faith families, who decide to follow one — or no — religion in the household, the parents associated with these interfaith schools have decided to teach their children both traditions.

It’s a difficult course, requiring great effort and time commitment, as well as steely nerves, on the part of the volunteer teacher-parents.

In their introduction to The Family School’s curriculum, founding members David and Patty Kovacs try to “dispel potential misunderstandings” that their interfaith school has any kind of hidden agenda.

“We do not advocate educating children in two faiths unless it is the family’s wish to do so,” they write.

The very notion of dual-face education engenders opposition from every Jewish stream. Even the Reform movement, with the strongest programs of outreach to the intermarried among the streams, prefers that intermarried parents choose one faith — either one — rather than risk confusing the kids.

For the most part, Jewish organizations and programs engaged in outreach to intermarried families do so with the hope that they will join the Jewish community.

The goal here is different.

“After 10 years of doing this, I’ve gotten used to the people who nod and smile and turn away,” says Amy Crowe, a clinical psychologist who, with her husband Jeff, is part of the Bay Area school.

“Not every kid can do this,” she says. “Not every parent can do it. This is not something we’re trying to ‘sell.’ “

On one recent Sunday, Chicago Tribune reporters Blair Kamin and Barbara Mahany are in charge of their son Willie’s sixth-grade class at The Family School.

The week’s focus is “The Jewish Jesus,” and Mahany has the children compare three of Jesus’ “miracle” stories from the New Testament.

Following Family School precepts, she highlights the universal aspects of the stories, finding the points at which Christianity and Judaism intersect.

Parent-teachers in these interfaith Sunday schools tread carefully to avoid proselytizing or offering interpretations not acceptable to their spouse’s faith, while at the same time not watering down their own religious beliefs — a delicate theological dance.

“We’re going to take these stories apart and see that they can still be really important when seen through a Jewish lens,” Mahany tells the class.

“You’re not like me, a little Catholic girl growing up with no analyzing, where I just believed these stories as gospel truth. And you’re not growing up as Jews, where you just dismiss it all.

“Remember, the people writing down these stories were Jews,” she instructs. “They were looking at Jesus’ life as Jews, through the powerful Jewish symbols of their time.”

Those are pretty sophisticated concepts for 11-year-olds — but these children have been dealing with such subtleties for years.

“I think these stories are symbolic,” Anna Cohn says. “I don’t take them literally. When I was really little, I thought Jonah,” who is swallowed by a whale in the Bible, “might be real. But now that I’m older I realize it symbolizes something important.”

“If you go to different churches and they read the same gospel, they change the story a little,” chimes in Lauren Kolaczkowski, also 11. “So if it’s different in each church, how could it be true?”

“It makes it a little less powerful if the stories aren’t true,” Anna admits. “And if one story is just symbolic, how do you know if any of them are true?”

Willie Kamin, also 11, pipes up: “Then again, we don’t know if any history is true. The oldest person in the world is 117, so we don’t have proof of anything that happened before,” he calculates quickly, and concludes, “1887.”

Teaching about Jesus was the hardest thing to bring into The Family School curriculum, says David Kovacs, one of the school’s founders.

“We were in existence five years before we could do it,” he admits. “When you start talking about Jesus and Paul and the Gospels, people have a visceral reaction. But there were just as many others who said, ‘How can we not?’ “

Though some of the Catholic parents feel their faith is given short shrift in a curriculum that focuses only on Jesus’ moral lessons, the Kovacs say that The Family School is not supposed to be “teaching faith.” That’s something one should get at home, they say.

Joy and David Hambourger have two young children in The Family School. Both had baby naming-baptism ceremonies this year, officiated jointly by a priest and a rabbi.

David feels his girls “might choose when they’re 10, which is when you’d start thinking about a Bat Mitzvah,” but Joy suggests they “might not have to choose” — though she’d like them to experience the “spiritual comfort” she derives from going to Mass.

No matter which religious path his girls eventually take, David feels confident that he and Joy will have given them the religious tools they need, with love and honesty.

“The fact that we’ve committed to make both faiths part of their upbringing doesn’t put one of us in the background,” he says. “That’s the most important thing: We both get to play a part in this, without either feeling a sense of betrayal.”

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