As the winter holidays usher in another season of the gift-getting ‘gimmes’, many parents may stop to reflect: Is raising a child who values integrity, tolerance and respect a greater challenge in today’s turbulent world than ever before? Most parents will more than likely respond with a resounding “yes”. Or at least with a nod of the head, perhaps followed by a fleeting glance skyward. But pose this question to parents in an interfaith marriage and the answer might be more complex, the glance upward less fleeting. Many interfaith couples struggle with such issues daily, and the dilemma delves far deeper than deciding between a Christmas tree and a menorah. Pam Gawley, of Manhattan, can attest to that complexity. Raised a reform Jew, Pam was bat mitzvahed and attended Hebrew school. Judaism continues to be a priority for her, and Catholicism is equally important to her Irish-Catholic husband Steve. Early in their relationship, the couple agreed they would raise their children with both religions, as neither was comfortable with the idea of converting. “I felt I couldn’t ask my husband to do something that I wouldn’t,” says Gawley, who, like her husband, wanted to find a way to expose their two children — ages 3 and 7 — to both traditions. Finding that way, however, was easier said than done. So for quite a few years the couple simply celebrated the Christian holidays with Steve’s family and the Jewish holidays with Pam’s, pushing the issue of making an actual decision off to the side. But they were forced to face it, Gawley says, when their daughter began asking questions about religion that they couldn’t answer. Gawley searched for answers in books, finding many that “basically said you had to pick one religion over the other, or you would confuse the children. I was very disheartened by that,” Gawley says. Then she found Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Heritages by New York City author Lee F. Gruzen, and immediately bought 10 copies to give to relatives on both sides of the family. Gawley found in Gruzen’s book, “the answer to my prayers. It gave me permission to do what my heart said I was going to do anyway,” as well as a roadmap for making it work. Gruzen’s book also led Gawley to Manhattan-based Interfaith Community, a members-led association of Jewish-Christian families that strives to provide a safe and neutral space for them to explore and celebrate the traditions and richness of both religions, which Gruzen co-founded in 1987. “We felt that if we were clear about what we were doing, and did it well, the children would not be confused,” explains president and co-founder Sheila C. Gordon, Ph.D. The main objective is to provide the children with enough literacy in each tradition to make them comfortable, “so if they wanted to take their own journey, they would have the tools to start — and I think we accomplished that,” Dr. Gordon says.
Finding a welcoming community key One of the hardest challenges for interfaith families is that they feel alone as they’re trying to sort these issues out, Dr. Gordon notes. “Our society is still operating within this sort of paradigm that people and families are affiliated with one church or synagogue, and yet the reality is changing completely underfoot. But as a society, we haven’t figured out how to respond to that,” says Dr. Gordon, who is Jewish and married to an Episcopalian. Churches and synagogues may try to accommodate interfaith families “but they don’t represent them. That’s why the work we’re doing is important because that’s who we represent — interfaith families.” For Manhattan couple Regan Szczepanowska and her husband Rich Frankel, the community has provided an opportunity to learn about each other’s traditions and holidays, but it also offers so much more. When they joined three years ago, shortly after blending their family, “We had a lot of things going on at the same time,” Szczepanowska says. Her son Jared, now 9, had expressed a desire to be baptized and Frankel’s son Drew, now 16, was preparing for his bar mitzvah. Much of Judaism — particularly the role of a bar mitzvah — “was a complete mystery to me,” Szczepanowska says, “and I wanted to know more about it.” She also wanted Jared to have equal exposure to both traditions, but her main priority was for him to learn “that spirituality could be present in any religion — or none at all.” Over the past few years his interest in both traditions has grown and deepened, she is pleased to note. “He actually enjoys both of them very much.” Szczepanowska and her husband have found fulfillment for themselves as well. “The couples’ workshops and adult education classes feed our minds,” helping balance out the stresses of New York City life, she says. “And spiritually, it reminds me that there’s something a little bit beyond me. It really fills that gap in our lives.” Filling that gap is one of the biggest challenges interfaith families face, religious leaders say. And another route for finding the answers is Unitarian Universalism, a liberal religion with historical roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions, that openly explores the religious questions people have struggled with throughout time. According to Rev. Tracey Sprowls, minister of Community Church of New York, a Manhattan Unitarian Universalist congregation, couples who are seriously considering Unitarian Universalism as an option are “at a point where they’re not really looking for one particular religion to play a bigger role than the other.” Rather, “they want to pass their own traditions onto their children, as well as learn about other traditions,” Rev. Sprowls explains. Rev. Susan Veronica Rak, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flushing, Queens, concurs. A lapsed Catholic who came to the religion after marrying a non-practicing Jew, Rev. Rak often sees people come into Unitarian Universalist congregations after having spent time with no religion or “the religion of the world. Something is missing from their lives and they’re looking for some spiritual and cultural grounding,” Rev. Rak says. “One of the unique things Unitarian Universalism can provide is a community where the different religions can be experienced — not blended so much that you can’t recognize them, but honored and affirmed in their individuality.” Celebrating the winter holidays, for example, “I don’t see them as one big mushed-together festival of light. I see them as distinct expressions of people’s desire to understand the world and creation.”
Is it really possible for a family to be “both”? Religious leaders’ views on this question range from one end of the spectrum to the other, but many feel strongly that the answer is “yes”. Rabbi Bruce Mark Cohen, of Manhattan’s Temple of Universal Judaism (TUJ), says that while his ultimate goal is the perpetuation of the Jewish people, there are many reasons why someone might choose to not officially convert. More important than adhering to religious tradition is coming together as a community and experiencing the pleasures of Judaism, Rabbi Cohen says, adding that while the majority of the congregation is wholly Jewish, people of various faiths attend services. TUJ also conducts a members-led interfaith group. “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a member of our congregation and you don’t have to be Jewish to read from the Torah.” What TUJ seeks is a commitment to the “prophetic Jewish idea that all humanity is related and connected to each other,” Rabbi Cohen explains. People don’t necessarily attend for prayer, he adds, but for the nourishment they get from each other. “We are committed to making a better world and we welcome everybody to join that cause; anyone who comes to our temple is an equal participant.” Rev. Robert L. Brashear, pastor of West Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, voices a perspective that he practices as well as preaches. “A family can be both religions because of the individuals in the family,” says Rev. Brashear, whose wife is Jewish. His children have been raised primarily Jewish — two of his sons have even been bar-mitzvahed — “yet, they’ve always participated in the life of the church where I’m the pastor.” It’s possible to be both, he contends, because as each individual practices his or her own religion “there’s a quality of mutual support that makes it possible.” Dr. Gordon agrees. “How you deal with your own religious traditions and your children’s education is such a hard issue that people take different routes,” she explains. The Interfaith Community is “like a big tent, where people can come and figure it out.” To the argument that you will “confuse the children,” Dr. Gordon’s counter-argument is that if you are careful and thoughtful, you will not do so. “I think that for children, as well as for their parents, religion is a terribly important source of ethics and values, of supportive community, and of rituals that mark the seasons of the year and the seasons of life.”
Struggling with the decision leads to deeper awareness Religious leaders’ perspectives differ, but one place where their views coincide is the importance of struggling with the issues. There are some profound questions couples need to ask themselves — even before getting married — and how to raise their children should top the list. Szczepanowska knows first-hand the value of that struggle. Being part of an interfaith family has made her “dig deeper to come up with answers, and it’s made me really look at what I love about Christianity because in educating somebody else, it makes you hold a magnifying glass up to what you thought you knew. And you actually learn more.” “It’s not easy,” Gawley says. “It takes so much work, so much education, so much effort. It certainly would have been easier if my husband had converted, but that wasn’t an option. We have to be true to ourselves,” and teach our children about both. “So much of disrespect comes from not knowing and feeling uncomfortable,” Gawley adds, “and the more you learn, the less uncomfortable you feel. In the world we live in today, how do you not deal with these things?” Rev. Brashear echoes the sentiment. “It takes twice as much work, but I think the rewards are greater. By the mere fact of living with me, my kids are Jewish in a way that Jewish kids haven’t been Jewish before. And that also means that as they grow older, regardless of how we raise them, they will make their own choices of how they want to live their lives out. The whole thing comes down to whether you see the religions as competing for the truth, or complementary paths to the same end, Rev. Brashear says. “When I see them not as competitive truth claims, but as different doors to the same God, it becomes all that much easier.”