Alix Coughlin has stressed the importance of a Jewish upbringing to her three young boys.
Her two older children attend a Jewish preschool, the family attends services at Beth El Congregation and celebrates the Jewish holidays with her parents and extended family.
Coughlin maintains a strong Jewish connection for her family, in spite of being married to a Catholic.
Coughlin, who grew up in Pikesville, said she made it clear early in her relationship with husband Mike that if they married and had children, the kids would be raised Jewish. Nonetheless, she admitted she was concerned as to whether or not being an interfaith family would work long-term.
“Growing up in Pikesville, everyone married someone from Baltimore, and [that someone was] usually Jewish,” said Coughlin, 35, whose boys are ages 5, 3 and 1. “My grandmother was more upset than my parents when I married outside of the faith but now she adores Mike and obviously loves her great-grandchildren. She is pleased we [are raising] the kids Jewish.”
One of Coughlin’s biggest concerns was whether or not her interfaith family would be welcome within Baltimore’s Jewish community, a fear substantiated by many interfaith families in the area, according to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study. That study concluded that
intermarried households in the greater Baltimore area feel especially disengaged from the Jewish community. For example:
• 30 percent of interfaith families in 2010 — compared to 62 percent in 1999 — raise their children solely Jewish
• 14 percent of intermarried couples belong to a synagogue — compared to 72 percent of Jewish couples
• 2 percent of children to the age of 4 from interfaith families attend a Jewish preschool — compared to 64 percent of children from Jewish households.
Interfaith families’ sense of disengagement could possibly be reflective of their minority status. In Baltimore, according to the study, many fewer Jews marry out of the faith: Just 20 percent of Baltimore’s married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse, compared to 48 percent nationally.
That does not make the issue less relevant. How to reach out to interfaith families is a matter of debate — in Baltimore and within the national Jewish community.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said interfaith marriage is one of the biggest issues facing Jews in North America, and how we respond to the issue “will, in fact, determine the future landscape of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Olitzky believes the key to bringing more interfaith families into the fold is through “big-tent Judaism.” This, he said, entails including — whether or not you agree or accept — all types of Jews.
“Jewish continuity is only possible through an affirmation of its diversity,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “In order for outreach to be effective it has to be strategic, systemic and systematic. It can’t be done through an ad hoc way of looking at programs. It’s not about program fixes. It’s about changing the culture of our institutions and changing the culture of our communities.”
Eva Stern, director of training at the Jewish Outreach Institute, said the key to improving
relations with interfaith families is being proactive and reaching out to them, as opposed to passively waiting for them to come into Jewish institutions. She said this often translates to meeting people where they are, like at department stores, restaurants, libraries and skating rinks, where families congregate. In those locations, programs can be developed to serve as low-barrier entry points for interfaith families.
“One of the things we’ve seen is that utilizing secular spaces as one of the first portals of entry can more than double the percentages of interfaith families that come to these programs. That’s
because there is a fear of stepping into the walls of Jewish communities despite all the efforts we make in creating a welcoming community,” Stern said. “[Interfaith families’] primary interests are not in Jewish communal engagement.”
Stern noted that it is not just about having a presence, but offering something meaningful through one’s presence.
Michael Hoffman, chief planning and strategy officer for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said many of Baltimore’s interfaith families are not active in Jewish life
because they live in areas like Roland Park, Guilford and Towson, where Jewish organizations have a limited presence.
Hoffman added that the Associated is exploring ways of expanding its reach into non-traditional Jewish communities in the Baltimore area, not just for interfaith families, but for Jews overall.
“It’s harder to be Jewish in communities where Jewish institutions aren’t close by,” Hoffman said.
“Many Jews [49 percent according to the Communtiy Study] find Jewish organizations to be
remote or non-relevant to their needs. … We have to continue to find ways to ensure Jews, including those in interfaith families, don’t feel pushed away. Also, with schedules being stretched so far
for many families today, many people won’t be
engaged in Jewish life if it’s not easy to do.”
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation said the goal of his synagogue is to encourage Jewish life for anyone seeking to enrich him or
herself through faith. He said many interfaith families don’t feel a connection to Jewish life, and he hopes to change that. At his synagogue, interfaith couples are welcome, and the rabbi will marry them. However, he will not co-officiate a wedding with clergy of a different faith.
“Part of my job is to encourage living a Jewish life, not to push people away,” he said.
Jessica Normington believes there are plenty of avenues in Baltimore for interfaith families to feel welcomed — as long as they know where to look.
Normington, the executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, raises her two young children Jewish; husband Scott is Protestant. The Normingtons are members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and of the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Center. She said they have never felt isolated.
“There are some interfaith families that just don’t realize everything that is out there today wasn’t
available many years ago,” Normington said. “People move around much more today, and interfaith families are more common and accepted now.”
Normington has lived in Baltimore all of her life, and her family has been involved with a number of community initiatives. This made it easier, she said, for her to know where to turn.
Ivy Ammann agrees. The Reisterstown mother said the only challenge she and her husband, Chris, confronted as an interfaith couple was finding someone to marry them. Since then, they have raised their children, 4 and 2 months, as Jewish.
The Ammanns gather for weekly Shabbat
dinners. Their oldest daughter is enrolled at preschool at Beth Tifiloh Dahan Community School. The Ammanns believe their children have been completely embraced by the Jewish community.
“We worked out everything on how to raise
the kids even before we got married,” said Ivy
Ammann, who attends services at Beth Israel
Congregation. She noted there were plenty of
resources available for interfaith families interested in raising Jewish children.
Edmund Case, chief operating officer of InterfaithFamily, has built his job around connecting interfaith families with the Jewish resources available to them. Through the Massachusetts-based organization, he works to support interfaith
couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities.
Case said InterfaithFamily offers programs,
resources, training and access to clergy for interfaith families across the country.
“Too often there are examples of people hired to start programs in various communities at the JCCs and federations, and they are not there anymore,” Case said. “For some reason, those programs aren’t a priority, or there are competing priorities, or there are financial pressures.”
But not all resources really are available to interfaith families, and that is because for some
segments of the community, children of non-
Jewish mothers are not considered Jewish — no matter how they are raised.
Conservative and Orthodox synagogues only recognize matrilineal descent, as per traditional
halacha or Jewish law; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the principal organization of
Reform rabbis in North America, recognizes
patrilineal descent and has done so since 1983.
Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation said his Conservative synagogue adheres to the Biblical directive. At the same time, he said he could see the Conservative Movement eventually following the lead of the Reform Movement, defining a Jew as someone born either to a Jewish mother or father.
“[Changing the definition] won’t be for a while,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “I do believe the Conservative Movement should at least begin a conversation about this issue.”
Rabbi Schwartz said his congregation tries to be welcoming of interfaith families, including allowing the non-Jewish spouse to stand with the Jewish spouse and their son or daughter at the aron kodesh during the child’s bar or bat mitzvah. Children born to non-Jewish mothers have the option of going through a formal conversion prior to their bar or bat mitzvah.
“We have to be sensitive to how closed our community can feel to someone who has not grown up in [the faith], and we have to let interfaith families know that they have a place in the Jewish community — and not only a place, but that they are wanted, [that] we need them and appreciate them.”
Rabbi John Franken of the unaffiliated Bolton Street Synagogue said the determination of who is Jewish should be based on more than just the mother’s bloodline. His Bolton Hill congregation prides itself on being inclusive to anyone who identifies as being Jewish.
“I believe that our approach has allowed many people to practice Judaism than would not have otherwise,” Rabbi Franken said. “Many of these people would have been left spiritually homeless
or isolated religiously. … Our approach to who is considered a Jew … is more rigid in many aspects than the halachic approach. We base Judaism on identity rather than on biology.”
Andrew and Danya Young can appreciate Bolton Street’s philosophy. Andrew is Jewish, and Danya is not. The Youngs have raised their three children Jewish, despite Danya’s background and never thought to do otherwise.
“Our children are Jewish and I have never felt stronger toward Judaism than since we joined Bolton Street,” Andrew Young said.
At the same time, Young is aware not everyone shares his viewpoint. This was apparent about a year ago, he said, when his youngest daughter learned about Israel in her secular elementary school.
“The teacher told the class that if the mother is not Jewish, then the children aren’t considered Jewish,” Andrew Young said. “That left my daughter upset and me angry. She has since gotten over it, but it [reminded me] there are still differing views on who is considered Jewish.”
Sam Snyder said being Jewish is not just about religion, “it’s a way of life.” The Jewish 57-year-old retired Baltimore County paramedic has been married for 26 years to his wife, Mary, a Methodist.
Together, the couple has raised their son, Jeremy, 25, to appreciate both sides of his heritage. The family keeps kosher on Passover, hosts meals on the High Holidays and tries to follow the key traditions of the Jewish faith. They also offer opportunities for Jeremy to connect with Christian practices.
“Before we got married, we spoke with clergy of different faiths, and all of them said to pick one faith for our children,” Snyder said. “But we have made a conscious effort to have Jeremy respect the principles of both religions and let him make up his mind about which path to take religiously. We believe he is a well-rounded person because of that.”
Snyder said despite his wife not being Jewish, she has gone out of her way to embrace his faith’s customs and traditions. From learning how to prepare kosher dishes to understanding the meaning of the holidays, that effort, he said, gained the respect of his immediate family, many of whom are Orthodox.
“As much as my parents were upset that I married outside the faith, they considered Mary the daughter they never had, in part because of the respect she showed to Judaism,” said Snyder, who used to attend Ner Tamid Congregation with his family. Today he does not have a specific synagogue affiliation.
Focusing of religious commonalities is something that has worked in Sara Amin’s family for almost 40 years. Amin, 29, a marketing account executive at The Associated, has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father.
That family makeup offers Amin a unique perspective. While Judaism is based on the mother’s religion, Islam is based on the father’s lineage.
Growing up in Montgomery County, Amin said she leaned more toward Judaism but was taught about her Muslim heritage, especially when her family took trips to visit her father’s family in Egypt.
“I understand the Jewish people have had many struggles through the years and have concerns over losing the identity of people who intermarry,” Amin said. “Still, it’s important that children of intermarried families know where they came from” — both sides.
Amin’s parents, SherriJoyce King and Hussein Amin, agree.
“We never felt pressured to push our children one way or the other,” Hussein Amin said. “We focused on morality, good character and charity — all principles important in both faiths.”