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Some Families Solve Annual Dilemma by Celebrating Christmas, Chanukah

While many intermarried families are struggling this month to juggle Christmas and Chanukah, the 60 children and parents singing carols and eating latkes one recent evening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side have found a way: Celebrate both. They’re taking part in the annual Christmas-Chanukah celebration of the Interfaith Community, a New York-based nonprofit that offers support groups, children’s and adult education and holiday events for mixed Jewish-Christian families.

Founded in 1987, the group has expanded to New York’s Westchester and Orange/Rockland counties, helped a branch open in Denver and recently added a Long Island chapter.

The Interfaith Community and similar parent-run organizations in Chicago, Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area try to provide a safe, neutral space for interfaith families to navigate their way through prickly terrain. Hundreds of families, Christian and Jewish, are involved.

“Pretend you’re a candle and stretch up tall, very tall,” David Schildkrit, the New York group’s Jewish educator, tells eight youngsters as their parents and older siblings listen to lectures and sing carols in a room down the hall. Each children’s class, at this event and in the religious schools, is team taught by a Christian and a Jew.

“Now how would you look as you melt?” Schildkrit asks, and the children sink down slowly to the floor. Schildkrit discusses the meaning of candlelight.

“One of the great things we learn as Jews is there are many different numbers of candles,” he says, sitting in a circle with them after the exercise. “Two for Shabbat, three at the end of Shabbat and how many for Chanukah?”

Four little hands go up.

“Eight!” shouts 5-year-old Gabriel Gendzier-Imperiali.

“But at the end, there’s only one flame,” Schildkrit points out. “It’s important to know we’re all lighting that same flame, even though we light different candles.”

That’s the Interfaith Community’s main message: Christianity and Judaism are different yet equally valid paths to God, and both faiths provide guidelines for living a moral life.

Sounds simple, but it’s not, adults in the group admit. Tonight’s celebration is one of the more festive aspects of what parents involved with the Interfaith Community describe as a very difficult — but unavoidable, for them — undertaking.

“I’m Catholic and Sam’s Jewish,” says Christina Polyak, who moved recently to New York with her husband and two young children. “We decided before marriage that we’d raise the children Jewish, but we want to honor both traditions. If people ask, they say they’re Jewish, but they know that Mommy and Grandma and Grandpa celebrate other holidays.”

“We make it work,” adds Sam Polyak, who had a bar mitzvah and says he considers himself “culturally Jewish.”

About 28 million American adults live in mixed-religion households, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. Most choose to raise their children in one religion, or in none.

But some are trying to give their children both heritages, either because two believing parents can’t give up their respective faiths or because even when a couple has agreed to raise the kids in one faith, they want them to feel comfortable with relatives on the “other side.”

Raymond Reichenberg, who’s at the Christmas-Chanukah celebration in New York with his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, admits he couldn’t bring himself to sing the Christmas carols earlier in the evening. But, he says, this is the only way his family can negotiate their dual-faith reality.

When he and his wife, a Roman Catholic, got married, they agreed to raise the children as Jews.

“But when the time came, she couldn’t tolerate it,” Reichenberg says. “The hardest thing was giving up my desire to have Jewish kids. We wouldn’t have gotten through it without this place, and the exposure and tolerance they’re learning.”

Sheila Gordon, co-founder and president of the Interfaith Community, says the group’s goal is not to raise kids in two faiths but to educate them about both faiths, “to give them the tools to do with as they wish” when they’re older.

The group neither encourages nor discourages members from affiliating with churches or synagogues. Parents range from weekly church-goers to those who know little and practice less of their birth religion.

For some — 57 percent, according to a recent informal survey — the only services they attend and the only religious education their children get are at the Interfaith Community.

“We’re not teaching dogma and we’re not demanding belief,” says Tracy Dunning, co-coordinator of the group’s two-year-old Denver branch, which has six children in its religious school. The curriculum of all the schools teaches the values, rituals and Bible stories of Christianity and Judaism, focusing on universal moral lessons.

“We’re giving the children tools to engage in their own spiritual journeys, to give them a sense of comfort in both faiths,” Dunning says.

But some parents feel their kids are missing out on something real they got from their own faith communities.

No Jewish stream approves of raising children with two faiths.

Even the Reform movement, more welcoming to intermarried couples than Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, discourages this choice strongly, and since 1995 has encouraged its religious schools to enroll only children who are not being educated simultaneously in another faith.

A child “recognizes at a very young age that he cannot be ‘both,’ and that he is being asked to choose between Mommy’s religion and Daddy’s religion,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, at the group’s biennial convention last month.

In fact, none of the children interviewed this month in New York, or for previous JTA articles about the interfaith schools in Chicago and San Francisco, seemed confused.

“We do both,” Gabriel Gendzier-Imperiali said of his family’s religious practice. “But there’s only one God, though.”

Added Charlie Cohen, 8, “the only way you find out is when you die.”

Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, says he sympathizes with these parents and faults the Jewish community for not being more open and welcoming.

“Hundreds of thousands of intermarried households are raising strongly identifying Jewish children, while very few are actively educating their children in both religions,” he says. “I think the lesson for the organized Jewish community is, if we can help create similar safe spaces for the majority of intermarried households, more of those who are currently doing very little, or are already leaning toward Judaism, would join us.”

The leaders of the New York and Denver groups insist they’re bringing many children back into the Jewish fold.

“These are people already lost to Judaism because they or their parents decided not to participate in the Jewish community,” Dunning says.

An active Catholic married to a non-practicing Jew, she says that if not for her efforts to bring her kids to the Interfaith Community school, they would learn nothing of their father’s Jewish heritage.

“There need to be these avenues to re-engage people,” she said.

Parents in the group say they’ve learned more about their own faiths, and in many cases have become stronger in their beliefs, because they’re forced to articulate them to their spouses and children.

A recent survey of the New York chapter showed that 68 percent of the Jewish spouses feel more connected to Judaism since joining the group, and 82 percent of respondents, both Jews and Christians, said that joining the group has increased their family’s exposure to Judaism.

Pam Gawley, founder of the new Long Island chapter, grew up Reform but didn’t realize how important Judaism was to her when she married a practicing Christian 21 years ago. It was only when their children began asking about God that she and her husband knew they had some hard decisions to make.

“Being interfaith is not my first choice,” she admits. “I’d rather raise my children Jewish, but that’s not an option.”

She wishes the Jewish community would understand the benefits that could accrue from the choice she and her husband have made.

“This is so much better than doing nothing,” she said. “You come out with knowledge and respect — and who knows? You might even come out Jewish.”

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