In The Faith
How interfaith couples establish a Jewish family life
Elizabeth Waggenheim and her husband, David, were married in a Catholic Church. Her uncle, a priest, officiated. Nine years and two children later, the Waggonheim’s celebrate Shabbat, attend the JCC’s Early Childhood activities, make a big deal over Chanukah and are raising their children to be Jewish.
Generations ago, when interfaith marriages were fewer and less accepted, the challenge was often parental acceptance. Today, there are still challenges, but with a modern twist. Both of the Waggenheims’ parents were very accepting of their marriage. The challenge for them is to establish a Jewish family life that is both authentic and comfortable.
Sandee Lever doesn’t find this unusual. Lever is the facilitator of The Mothers Circle, a project of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a New York-headquartered non-profit. For the past two years, she has been leading local groups of women, usually six to 10 per group, in the eight-month-long programs. Intended for non-Jewish women married to Jewish men, the program’s goal is to introduce them to Jewish customs and holidays for home celebration.
“No matter how long they’ve been married, there are common threads,” says Lever. These include a lack of familiarity with synagogue customs and a desire to participate in the warmth of Christmas — the familiar December Dilemma — even if the women do not celebrate it in their own homes but at their non-Jewish parents’.
“The women are committed to a Jewish home and they want to do it right,” says Lever.
Ironically, for the Waggenheims, who live in Towson and are not affiliated with a synagogue, the idea to raise their children as Jews arose from the Catholic Church’s required premarital counseling.
For three months, the Waggenheim’s met with “mentors,” another interfaith couple who had decided to raise their children in one religion — Judaism. “We discussed what it meant to have a child as an interfaith couple and decided that’s what we would do, too,” says Elizabeth Waggenheim, whose husband had a secular Jewish upbringing and whose parents, in fact, were mystified at the importance of the religion in their lives.
Kathy Fain and her husband, Joseph Glen, wanted to be married by a rabbi. All of the rabbis they approached turned them down, so in the end, Fain and Joseph Glen were married by a cantor nine years ago.
It was the cantor who brought up the question of future children’s religion. “We hadn’t thought about it at all,” says Fain, although when they did, they decided on Judaism.
“It was more important to my husband that (future children) be Jewish for me than that they be Christian,” says Fain, whose daughter, Rachel, 4, attends Beth El Congregation pre-school. The family lives in Cockeysville and belongs to Beth El.
Fain calls their Jewish life at home a “work in progress.” They celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. They erect a sukkah in the backyard. For Christmas, they go to her father’s house. The couple also talks to Rachel about religion, explaining that Fain, who does not intend to convert, is a different religion.
Actually, conversion is a subject that comes up often in The Mothers Circle, according to Fain. “We ask each other, if someone says, ‘Your child isn’t Jewish’ (because of the traditional matrilineal descent), how do you respond?”
The answer lies in the Jewish community itself, where there are divisions on precisely the question of “Who is a Jew?” “The feeling is, it exists even among Jews,” she says.
Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El does premarital counseling with Jewish couples. But he also gets phone calls from parents whose adult children are engaged to non-Jews. They don’t necessarily object to the wedding, but they do want him to get the couple thinking about future concerns.
“Couples need to figure out how they want to raise their children, what kind of home to have and how to navigate faith-related issues,” he says of the challenges ahead. “You don’t want a situation where you have a baby boy and then have eight days to decide if you want a bris.”
Rabbi Schwartz encourages interfaith couples to raise their children in one religion. Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent. At the Conservative Beth El, children of non-Jewish mothers can be “converted” by immersion in its mikvah. This is usually done when the child is an infant.
Rabbi Schwartz wants to make it clear, though, that interfaith families can raise “wonderful Jewish children,” in his words, and the non-Jewish spouse has an important role in that scenario. Sometimes, he adds, the non-Jewish spouse has to be invested in the process or it doesn’t happen.
When Christine Layton met her future husband, Ned Sackler, she says she knew more about Judaism than he did. Layton grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and had many Jewish friends. Sackler was raised in a secular Jewish home where, even now, 10 years after they wed, there is grumbling when she distributes the haggadot for the Passover seders she hosts.
The couple and their two children, Elizabeth, 8, and Laura, 6, live in Baltimore City and belong to Kol Halev, a newly formed unaffiliated congregation. This year, the girls began attending religious school, in preparation for their bat mitzvot.
A few years after she married, Layton began considering conversion. She felt it was something she could do to give her children a clear religious identity.
“I didn’t want, Dad is this and Mom is that,” she says.
She went through a Reform conversion, followed by a visit to the mikvah. She likes her mother-in-law’s reaction, who, when told, said, “I have no idea why you’re doing this but I am so delighted you are.”
Says Layton, “Chances are, we are not going to shul every week. But I want more ritual [in our home], more living in Jewish time.”
Monique and James Haskins are an African-American couple who live in Catonsville with their two daughters, Gabrielle, 3, and Yael, 1. Married for 10 years, they attend services at different congregations through the Got Shabbat program while they consider which one to join.
James Haskins’ mother converted to Judaism and the federal worker was raised in a kosher Jewish home, attended Beth Tfiloh Congregation religious school and went on a birthright Israel trip. Monique Haskins, also a federal worker, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. She is in the process of converting, a journey that began when she attended Jewish Lamaze classes and became fascinated with the religion.
Next, she wanted a Hebrew name for her second daughter. She became involved in The Mothers Circle. Now, when autumn arrives and the daylight hours grow shorter, she leaves work early on Fridays so she can be home by sundown.
Before marriage, the couple did not discuss conversion. James Haskins did not pressure her on the subject. The decision was entirely hers. “As I studied it,” she says, “I started falling in love with Judaism.”
By The Numbers
Most recently, the NJPS (National Jewish Population Survey) of the United Jewish Communities, the national federation system, reported the following intermarriage rates:
Before 1970 13 %
1970-1979 28 %
1980-1984 38 %
1985-1990 43 %
1991-1995 43 %
1996-2001 47 %
Beth El’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz cautioned that the national figures must be read in context. The numbers are different for affiliated Jews. In the Conservative movement nationwide, the intermarriage rate is approximately 30 percent. Baltimore, too, with its large committed Jewish population, is in the 30 percent range.
Sources: NJPS, United Jewish Communities; Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Beth El Congregation
By Barbara Pash