Interfaith families constitute an important part of the U.S. population today: over one in four American adults who are married or living with a partner are in a bi-religious relationship, according to
the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A small but increasing number of interfaith couples within this growing demographic group are choosing to raise their children in both religions.
“The decision to raise children in more than one religion is a relatively new decision,” said Samuel Heilman, Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York. “In the past this wasn’t an issue because intermarriage usually led to one of the members of the couple giving up the religion of origin and becoming something new. But in the post-modern world where multiple identities—racial, religious, ethnic—is a given…this is a whole new question.” (See full video interview down on the right)
A LACK OF INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT
Interfaith parents who choose to raise their children in two religions generally lack community support: besides opposition from some grandparents or extended family, these families struggle to be accepted by many established congregations. Respective Christian (especially Roman Catholic) or Jewish clergies advocate for raising children in one religion.
Father Leonard Gilman of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in New Jersey, was baptized and raised Roman Catholic but attended synagogue for high holidays because of his Jewish father.
“It gave me such a rich understanding of my faith and who Jesus was because he himself was a Jew,” he said of being exposed to Judaism, too. “We believe in the same God.”
Although Father Gilman appreciates an exposure to both religions, he still believes parents need to make a decision.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to raise children in both faiths,” said Father Gilman. “The children will not see any one religion, will be confused and won’t be committed to either one.”
Roman Catholicism is one of the strictest Christian denominations because of its hierarchical structure that leaves little space for debate for choices such as these. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have similar guidelines that refrain clergy from educating interfaith children. Both clergies typically argue that a mixed upbringing will dilute or blend the children’s religious education and experience.
DILUTION AND CONFUSION?
“There are those who call them ‘interfaithless’ meaning that they’re not raising them in any particular faith at all,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, an independent national organization that helps welcome unaffiliated and intermarried families to the Jewish community.
The more conservative factions of the Jewish community still frown upon this choice. Some, for example, believe parents are taking the “easy way out” by avoiding the struggle of making a hard decision and leaving it up to the children to decide when they grow up.
“Adult children have come to me and said, ‘My parents were cowards because they raised me in two faiths and didn’t make a choice,’” said Rabbi Olitzky. “Some people feel that but, on the other hand, many adult children of intermarriage have found a way to embrace both faiths and it’s because they’re really not embracing the faith–they’re embracing the family experience of those faiths.”
Most adults who were raised interfaith, however, are comfortable with their dual religious affiliation. Susan Katz Miller, an interfaith woman whose blog On Being Both focuses on the topic, claims that such attitudes create negative stereotypes. “Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused,” she writes on her blog. “In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own.”
FROM EXCLUSION TO INTEGRATION
When the Jewish clergy opens itself to interfaith families, it does so with a clear agenda in mind: convincing those interfaith families to raise their children in the Jewish faith. This decision is driven by a preservationist attitude largely influenced by their declining percentage in the U.S. population. According to a recent Pew survey from 2007, less than 2 percent of U.S. adults are Jewish, whereas almost 24 percent are Catholic. Pew also found that only 31 percent of Jews said that religion was “very important” in their life and 41 percent said it was “somewhat important.” In light of this dwindling following, Jewish clergy are changing some attitudes in order to attract more members.
“When we first started working with women of other religious backgrounds who married Jewish men, they were considered an anathema,” said Rabbi Olitzky. “The adult children of intermarriage are a similar population in that they are not on the Jewish community radar screen yet.” (to hear more, see video interview to the right)
According to Rabbi Olitzky, even Hebrew schools which officially can’t welcome interfaith children because of Halakha (Jewish law), have started applying a “ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” As long as the rabbis are not informed that the child is being raised in two religions, they can teach, and hopefully attract, this growing population. (To hear more, see video interview to the right)
Father Gilman said that even some Roman Catholic priests adopt a similar policy. Technically, the Church enforces a strict rule: a child must be baptized to attend religious education classes. However, some priests close an eye if they know there is an interfaith couple in their congregation who chooses to raise their child interfaith.
A GENERATIONAL SHIFT
“In the past five years, there has been a remarkable generational shift,” said Sheila Gordon, co-founder and director of the Interfaith Community. “We have been working with graduate students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary and other prominent seminaries. The people who were teachers two to four years ago are now ordained clergy in congregations and being even more supportive…There is increasingly an understanding that this is an option.” (See video interview to the right)
Most Jewish-Christian interfaith parents who choose to raise their children in both religions want their children to have religion in their life, regardless of what decision they end up making.
“I would prefer if my daughters decided to be Jewish than nothing because I would like them to practice a religion,” said Peggy Cambier-Weinstein, a French Roman Catholic married to an American Jew raising her two children in both religions.
THE INTERFAITH COMMUNITY
The Interfaith Community in New York City, which started with informal gatherings with families from the Trinity School in 1987, is the oldest organization in the U.S. to address this growing need for a bi-religious education without any agenda other than to provide interfaith support through classes, counseling and celebrations. At the time the organization was founded, the rate of Jewish intermarriages had grown to more than 40 percent from 13 percent before 1970, according to the National Jewish Population Survey.
“When we first started working on this 25 years ago, there was a tremendous amount of resistance,” said Gordon. “Most clergy would say you simply could not do this, this will confuse the children and it’s bad for the marriage – they just could not begin to conceptualize it.”
The organization was co-founded by Gordon, the current director, and Lee Gruzen, author of “Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child.” Both women, with interfaith families of their own, wanted to create a social structure to help support families like theirs who refused to pick just one religion and struggled to raise their children bi-religiously without community support.
“I felt strongly that the children of mixed marriage had this special big gift handed them, not something that was going to be in conflict but something that was just a profound enrichment,” said Gruzen. (See video interview to the right)
Similar organizations were created throughout the country, such as The Interfaith Families Project, founded in Washington D.C. in 1995, that now counts 110 families and has branched out to Philadelphia. Another example is The Family Foundation School in Chicago and its suburbs, which has provided a bi-religious curriculum to approximately 120 families since 1993.
Today, the Interfaith Community provides counseling for interfaith couples, classes for children from four to 13, and celebrations of Christian and Jewish high holidays. It is the leading New York-based organization that provides a complete bi-religious curriculum for children without promoting one choice. Its seven nationwide chapters, which started with 20 families and now count 230 families, have spread to the New York suburbs, Denver and Boston. This year, the curriculum, contemporaneously taught by both a Christian and a Jew, was expanded to include “Identity & Transitions,” a program for teenagers. The program aims to help interfaith children understand both religions and their options at a time of precarious and rapid growth of identity.
“This community provides a space where it is okay to talk about who you are and where you come from,” said Reverend Joel Gibson who has worked with the Interfaith Community since 1987.
To meet an interfaith family, click here.
Interview with Professor Samuel Heilman on why raising interfaith children is a new phenomenon:
Interview with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky on putting interfaith kids on the Jewish radar:
Interview with Rabbi Olitzky on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding interfaith children at Jewish institutions:
Interview with Sheila Gordon, Interfaith Community Director, on this generational shift:
Interview with Author Lee Gruzen on why interfaith children have a gift: