Dear Wendy: Giving Our Future Children a Faith

By Wendy Weltman Palmer


InterfaithFamily is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer’s experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.

Dear Wendy,

I’m Catholic and my husband is Jewish and we’ve been together for eight years (we got married three years ago). We’re planning to have kids in the short term and we’ve been discussing how we should raise them regarding religion/faith. Neither of us converted to the other religion nor are we thinking about it. I’m very open-minded and I wouldn’t have any problem raising my kids as Jewish, if my husband would be more into his own religion. He grew up in a Jewish environment, he went to Jewish schools, made his Bar Mitzvah, etc., but he doesn’t have a strong feeling about his religion or traditions. In fact, as we live in Mexico (we’re from Argentina), I’m the one who insists on celebrating holidays, making special things, getting together with some friends to spend Shabbat dinners, etc.

I believe that you teach your children through example, not only by telling them what to do and how. That’s why I think that it won’t be enough for them only with my husband’s example (because he does nothing regarding his religion or traditions).

My husband doesn’t want our children to be raised as Catholic, and instead he says we can show them “both sides of the story” and that’s it.

I want to give my children a faith, a religion, something that gives them part of their identity and where they know they belong, and I’m very afraid that showing them both sides of the story wouldn’t be enough for them to have something in which to believe.

Despite the fact that we’ve been talking about this for a long time, I know we have lots of conversations ahead of us, but sometimes I don’t think that is enough. Could you help us?

Thanks in advance,

Open-Minded in Mexico

Dear Open-Minded in Mexico,

Your description of your interfaith marriage sounds strikingly similar to that of an American interfaith couple where the husband has been raised Jewish but is inactive or uninvolved with his religion. In all the years that I have been facilitating groups for interfaith couples, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this refrain from the non-Jewish fiancee or wife: “I don’t understand why he insists on our children being raised Jewish when he hasn’t set foot inside a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah!” This position of feeling strongly about the perpetuation of Jewish identity (i.e. your husband does NOT want the kids to be raised Catholic) but not necessarily feeling committed to the practice of the religion can be very puzzling. That a Jew could feel deep connection to Judaism without feeling the need to attend services or observe home ritual seems very strange indeed to a Christian whose depth of religious expression is often measured by church attendance. Yet many Jews feels strongly about passing on their sense of Jewish peoplehood, even if not the religious aspects of their identity.

You refer to your aptitude to make things special, celebrate the holidays, and preserve time–even Shabbat–with friends, and here I must confess to a little confusion. Are you given a stronger role in these matters because the society in Mexico is more egalitarian than your native Argentina? Or, are you implying that your dominance in this social/relationship sphere has something to do with the influence of the Latin culture? Because, my observation is that in most American families, it tends to be the wife or mother who takes responsibility for the social and cultural life of the family. In fact, in most cultures it seems to be the female who is “in charge” of the home, which of course, includes the religious life of the family.

Nonetheless, you are wise to anticipate that it would be an uphill climb for you to try and raise a Jewish family without significant input and help from your Jewish husband. You could grow to resent the burden of educating the children in a religion that you were not brought up in. And, it would be difficult to create an authentic Jewish home without, as your say, “examples” from both parents.

You are also wise to understand that raising your future children in a single faith and giving them a clear religious identity creates a very important foundation. Children raised with a clear religious identity are able to answer the question of “Who am I?” with more certainty as they move through life. They know where they stand in relation to others in the community, not to mention being able to draw from a single coherent philosophy in order to answer the tough questions that inevitably come up for all of us.

And, it may be important for your future children to have a clear religious identity simply based upon where they live. Sylvia London, a Mexican-born psychotherapist who conducts multicultural workshops in the United States, speaks humorously but convincingly of the importance of context. At home in Mexico, she is referred to as “the gringa” because of her European appearance. In fact, her Jewish forebears did emigrate from Poland to Mexico like many of the Ashkenazi Jews who have settled in Latin America. However, when Sylvia was conducting her research in Boston, she was known as “the Mexican.” Your future children will have to navigate their way in this same stratified Mexican society and being raised “as both” or “neither” (which is often the net effect of saying the kids will be raised as both) would certainly add another few pieces to the identity puzzle.

Your interest in Judaism is interesting given that your husband seems to demonstrate some ambivalence toward his own born religion. Sometimes, the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage is able to make a commitment to raise a Jewish family because she finds that there is nothing in Judaism to conflict with her own core beliefs and that the creation of family unity is the higher goal. At least in the United States, this sacrifice and devotion is increasingly being formally acknowledged by the Reform Jewish community. These men and women are being recognized as the heroes that they are because they have committed to raising the next generation of Jews even though they may not have converted to Judaism themselves.

My hope is that your husband can come to appreciate your amazing persistence. You seem open to creating the next generation of his Jewish family line, and you deserve to have every sort of help in that effort: patient in-laws, progressive clergy, but most particularly, love and support from the papa himself. Good luck!


About Wendy Weltman Palmer

Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.