Living Well in the Extended Interfaith Family

By Karen Kushner


Being with our family is supposed to be comfortable. It may not be the most stimulating, or the most perfect, but we know what to expect, right? The usual turkey dinner, Aunt Carol’s kugel, Uncle Arnie’s jokes, and a flute recital by cousin Julia. Private jokes and reminiscences, tolerance for idiosyncrasies that are so very familiar. But this year is different. New people are coming. Our son or daughter (our niece or nephew or cousin) has married someone . . . different.

We are upset, our thoughts are racing. This is not the future we fantasized about. We knew the younger generation would get married and bring their spouses to holiday celebrations, but we had pictured it differently. We expected them to be like us, we thought their recipes would be just like ours, that they would laugh at our jokes, enjoy our stories, understand our language. They would come from a family just like ours. They would create another generation, just like us.

Now we feel self-conscious. Will he look at us like we are weird? Will she think I have no style? No class? No intelligence? What do we do now? Explain why we do what we do? Talk about what Jewish culture is? Is it insulting to explain things? Maybe it is better not to offer to clarify? If I don’t explain, isn’t that unwelcoming? She went to an Introduction to Judaism course, maybe she knows more than I do! I haven’t taken a class since I was twelve.

No matter what alternative you choose, it seems either inauthentic or rude or awkward. You expected to be sharing the cooking for a seder with daughters-in-law and nephews’ wives, building a sukkah, wooden hut, with sons-in-law and nieces’ husbands, watching crowds of children searching for the afikoman. Crowds of Jewish children! Now all this seems in jeopardy.

Unexpected change can make people behave in uncharacteristic ways. You may be irritated, resentful, angry. You can’t help wanting things to be different, to be the way they were. You may tell jokes about the superiority of Jews, the ineptness of non-Jews. You use many more Yiddish expressions, describe your boss as having a “goyisheh kopf.” You use all the Hebrew words you know in your conversations.

When your dreams about the Jewish future of your family go up in smoke, you are left lost and confused. The old rules are gone, but what are the new rules? Your role and your place in this changed family are not on any map you’ve seen. How do you make someone new part of the family? How do you make someone different a member of the clan! How will your family ever feel comfortable again? What do you do now that there are two religions in one family?

I know you have all read statistics that intermarriage rates are 50 percent and that this is the end of the Jewish people, but these statistics ignore the many interfaith couples that raise Jewish children. Many non-Jewish spouses are working hard to create Jewish children. These parents take their Jewish parenting seriously, often learning side by side with their children and going to adult classes. They send a clear message to their children that Jewish education is important. They become learned and many find that raising Jewish children leads them to become a Jew. They are better “Jewish” parents than many born Jews whose ambivalence about being Jewish is unresolved and who drop off their children for an education that they take no interest in and give no time to for themselves.

I can’t give you hard and fast rules to ensure that the non-Jews in your family will make this choice, but I can give you some rules towards making sure your family relationships don’t preclude that from happening!

1. As you would a completely new acquaintance, get to know this new generation of adults in your family. You may think that you know your family members because you have seen them at family events for years, but you may be surprised to learn their interests and perspectives. Introduce yourself to them. Allow them to meet you and be surprised by your uniqueness. This is the most welcoming thing you can do.

2. Accept the non-Jewish partners for who they are. Pushing people to be different creates resistance to change. People change most when they feel respected and accepted.

3. Give explanations if they want them. Give them opportunities to display their Jewish knowledge if they want to. Find out just what they do want and do your best to make them comfortable. Their comfort will make you comfortable.

4. Discover their good qualities and tell them why you appreciate them, with comments like “You are such an attentive father,” or “You are such a hard worker.” After all, if your relatives choose to love and spend the rest of their lives with these people, then there must be something very special about them.

5. Get rid of your assumptions about Christianity, or Islam or Buddhism, and ask lots of questions. Avoid thinking and speaking in stereotypes. This means you have to explore the meaning and purpose of religion. Create a climate where they can be equally curious about Judaism. Talking to them will make you clearer on your own connections to Judaism.

6. Be scrupulously honest and never pretend to be or feel what you do not. Let this be true especially for your feelings for Judaism. Let them know why it is important to you. If you have never talked about it before or if you are discovering its importance for the first time, as you see the younger generation moving away from Judaism, that’s okay. Just talk about it as it speaks to you. “I get enraged when I read in the newspaper . . . ” “I worry about the rise of anti-Semitism when . . . ” Let them hear how Judaism works in your life and why it has an  important place FOR YOU.

7. Be truthful about your doubts and complaints about Judaism. It is okay to say, “I wish some of this sexist stuff wasn’t there.” or “For long periods of my life, I found this all boring.” Judaism is not a religion of belief, and we have a long history of sages and rabbis who were doubters at some time in their lives. Let them know that doubting is acceptable in Judaism.

8. Have fun being Jewish. Find ways to really celebrate, with friends as well as family. Let them see that being Jewish is more than liturgy and synagogue attendance. It is a way of life with beautiful music, delicious recipes, and jokes and silliness, too.

9. Notice any and all similarities between their non-Jewish values and yours, and speak of them. If they quote Bible passages, you can say, “We both think reading the Bible is important.” If they say grace, you can say, “We both think thanking God for the food we eat is important.” Criticizing and emphasizing differences creates DISTANCE. What you want to do is reduce the distance. Perhaps one day they will see themselves within Judaism. Even if they never do, you both will have acknowledged all those similarities, and you will have reduced your own fears of your values not being carried forward into the next generation.

10. Become a junior partner in the religious upbringing of the children these couples are raising. Follow the goals and agenda that their parents design. Never, never, go behind their backs to promote Judaism. You are, of course, allowed to live your own life as Jewishly as you would if they were not there.

11. Never compete with the non-Jewish extended family. As much as possible integrate the Jewish and non-Jewish members into one family. Invite them to your holiday celebrations and go to their celebrations when you are invited. This keeps the children from having to feel they need to choose one side over the other.

12. Show respect for all other religions in front of your relatives’ children. Never belittle or make fun of any practice or belief of the non-Jewish parent or non-Jewish relatives. Many children learn to avoid any religion because they sense it is a topic of conflict in their family. By discarding all religions they attempt to avoid making anyone sad or angry.

13. Encourage the adoption of one religion for children. Having a religion is healthier than not having a religion, even if it is not Judaism. Following two traditions is an enormous undertaking and most families cannot do it evenhandedly. Even if they chose that the children be Christian, you can still find ways to pass down your Jewish values, but only if you can keep a warm and loving relationship with their parents.


About Karen Kushner

Karen Kushner is a consultant to, and past Chief Education Officer for, InterfaithFamily. She is known for the workshops, trainings and booklets of the Jewish Welcome Network, which provided outreach consultation and resource to synagogues, Jewish schools and agencies of all denominations and affiliations.