Overlapping Faiths: High Intermarriage Rates, High Divorce Rates–What Happens When They Mix?

By Leisah Woldoff

January 2006


Reprinted with permission of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

PHOENIX, Oct. 16, 2003–Before getting married, Mitchell Sweet’s future wife Heather, who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism because she felt it was important to have a unified religious experience in the household.

“I felt really strongly that if we were going to raise a family, that it should be in one faith and that the parents should have a single faith,” Heather Sweet says. “I think it’s really helpful for the children.”

She began taking classes at the local Jewish community center in Washington, D.C., to start learning about Judaism. “It was really the only choice because Mitchell felt very strongly that he could never convert,” she says. “While we were courting, it became evident to me that the only way to have the same religion would be if I converted.”

Heather had attended mass regularly all through grade school and high school and considered herself religious. “That isn’t to say that I didn’t have my deviations from the Catholic faith all through college, but I don’t know that that’s any different than any religion.”

Mitchell, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, took a similar path during his college years, and when the couple met, neither was actively practicing their religion. “After my son was born, it became much more important to me,” he says.

The couple married in 1999 and had a son, Max, soon after. The couple attended Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Phoenix.

Two years later, the couple separated and Heather decided to return to her Catholic roots and began attending church again. “The day after he moved out, I went back to mass and I haven’t stopped going,” she says.

Now, after divorce, the couple must decide how they want to raise their son.

Custody issues are the biggest challenge of interfaith divorce, says Rabbi Andrew Straus of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. This includes decisions about “who has the kids on which days”–with regards to Jewish holidays or religious school attendance.

Straus advises that couples discuss these issues early on in the process–whether in the marriage process or the divorce process.

Mitchell Sweet agrees. His advice to interfaith couples planning on getting married is to have the discussion about religion “before you get married and before you have the children to really understand what type of experience that you want your children to have.”

Straus also encourages the Jewish partner to include specific decisions in the divorce decree. “If it’s really important to you–put it right in the decree (that) the children will be raised Jewish” and be specific about what that includes, he explains.

He emphasizes that parents must remember to put the children’s best interest in the forefront: “Don’t let kids be the pawn in the fight between the couple, which too often happens.”

In her divorce, there wasn’t anything specific about in which religion Max would be raised, Heather says.

“I would have actually not wanted anything about his religion stated in the decree because I would like him to be able to choose his religion at some point down the future.”

Mitchell, however, says he “would have wanted things to be more explicit in the divorce decree as to what really constitutes raising a child Jewish–In terms of what observances would happen in either parent’s home.”

Max, now 3 1/2, attends the Beth El Center for Early Childhood Education at Beth El Congregation, where his father is the president of the Parent’s Action Committee (PAC) and a member of the synagogue.

When he is with his mother, Max attends Catholic worship services and celebrates Christian holidays with her family.

“Her taking him to church with her on Sundays doesn’t make him not being raised Jewish,” Mitchell says, “but he’s just getting a lot of other religious influence that I think . . . is a little confusing for a 3-year-old.”

Heather feels strongly that Max “should know both of his parents’ faith systems and the reasons why they have cultural differences.” She isn’t necessarily concerned that her son be raised Catholic, but just wants her son “to have a really strong faith in God.”

“I very much believe that we’re blessed to be on the earth and things happen to us for a reason and that we have a connection with God,” she says. “(And also that) we’re respectful of each other and everybody’s opinions and their faiths and their ideals and he grows up to be a good person as a result of that. That’s the most important thing to me.

“If he’s a good Jewish person or a good Catholic person or a good Buddhist–that’s not as important to me as that he gets a sense of respect for a greater being and a greater power and that he can thank God for the things that he’s blessed with.”

She’s pleased that Max is attending a Jewish day school. “I think it’s one of the strongest schools in the neighborhood,” she says. “I’m very happy with Beth El and I’m very happy with the fact that he’s learning Hebrew and that I think it will expand his ability to learn other languages and expand his ability to think openly about people and cultures and races and religions.”

She also has no qualms about his learning about Judaism. “If he wanted a bar mitzvah, that’s an amazing accomplishment. I would be very proud of him if he was able to accomplish such a thing.”

Although Heather expresses a respect for Judaism, she says she was never completely comfortable with it.

“It was really awesome actually to get exposed to the religion and there’s just so many incredible things about being Jewish that I had a whole lot of respect for,” she says. “Being Jewish was great; it just wasn’t me. It was something I did for my spouse and for my family in an effort to try to create a cohesive unit, but it wasn’t what I was comfortable with.”

Currently there are no known statistics of what happens to children of interfaith couples after divorce with regards to Jewish identity, but information about children in intermarried households was included in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

According to the survey, 96 percent of children in households with two Jewish spouses are being raised Jewish, compared to a third (33 percent) of the children in households with one non-Jewish spouse.

In the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, half of the estimated 9,200 children in intermarried households are not being raised Jewish; 18 percent are being raised “Jewish and something else” and 26 percent are being raised Jewish, according to the 2002 Greater Phoenix Jewish Community Study.

Most commonly, couples have worked through religious issues before the divorce, Straus says. “They already, when they were married, made the decision they were going to raise their kids as Jewish or they were going to raise their kids as Christians and that seems to be the path that’s followed.”

The NJPS found that 47 percent of Jews who have wed since 1996 have chosen non-Jewish spouses. Although there are currently no known statistics on the number of interfaith divorces, with more than half of all marriages ending in divorce the issue of interfaith divorce will likely gain more prominence in the Jewish community in upcoming years.

Recently, the topic has been argued in courtrooms across the country.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet decided a case involving religious upbringing and custody, there is no uniform national law, according to Nolo.com, an online legal information site. Instead, the law varies from state to state and courts attempt to balance protecting both a parent’s First Amendment rights and the rights to raise his or her child as he or she wishes and protecting the best interests of the child (Visit nolo.com for case examples).

In Arizona, there isn’t a certain route that a divorcing couple has to take, says Sherri Toussaint of De Blank and Toussaint, a Phoenix law firm in with an emphasis on family law.

“It doesn’t come up that often in my practice at all,” Toussaint says. “I do a lot of custody work and I can honestly say that issue is hardly ever thought about. In the last four years, I’ve had it come up once. That tends to be something that they can either agree to disagree about and let each parent do whatever they’re going to do when their child’s in their custody or they agree.”

If they don’t agree, mediation through the courts is available.

In Arizona, parents going through divorce are required to attend a one-time, four-hour parent information class, says Holli Sanger, director of home-based services at Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Both parents are required to attend the class separately before the court finalizes the divorce.

The goal is to help people understand the needs of the children going through the process, Sanger says, and how to put the child’s need first, rather than their own emotions and frustrations.


About Leisah Woldoff

Leisah Woldoff is managing editor of the The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.