Shabbat with Interfaith Families: Going Deep, Across Generations

On Friday, our family of four attended a potluck Shabbat. To the casual onlooker, our modern American Jewish ritual would have appeared to be very similar to any other potluck Shabbat in America. Eight families gathered, toting sesame noodles, baked chicken, salad, brownies. Led by a dynamic young dad who celebrates Shabbat every week with his wife and three young children, we sang blessings over the candles, the wine, the challah. Then we recited the blessings over our children. I reached up to place one hand on my willowy daughter’s head, and thought about how she will turn eighteen in a few weeks. I reached my other hand out to my son’s head: he turns fifteen today. And then we sang a song to welcome the Sabbath.

As in most Shabbat potluck gatherings, some of us know more of the blessings than others, and some of us, old and young, are still learning them, mumbling and stumbling along. Some of us were relieved when a song shifted into a verse of clapping and nigun–the repetitive, wordless syllables used to inspire mystical ecstasy–since “dai dai dai” makes it easy for anyone to sing along.

What made this Shabbat gathering different, as always in our community, is the simple fact that we are all interfaith families educating our children in two religions. This means that families can immerse themselves in the rituals, without feeling they are being judged about whether they are Jewish enough. The non-Jewish partners can delve as deeply as they want into Jewish practice, without worrying over whether anyone expects them to abandon their own religious practice, or convert, or refrain from passing their own traditions on to their children.

Our hosts, a woman who considered the rabbinate until she intermarried, and a man of Irish/Italian Catholic background, made everyone feel at home. (Well, some felt more comfortable than others when their son brought out his baby python.) But in general, there was romping on the trampoline, a jam on bass and congas, discussion of school politics, and sharing of our different religious experiences. Children and adults were forced to interact socially across age differences. It was all very, very good.

One middle-aged potlucker surprised me when he admitted he had never been to a Shabbat in a family home before, having been raised as a secular Jew. I thought about the children in our interfaith community, and the efforts we are making, as parents, to preserve this most important Jewish holiday of all, to give our children the gift of Shabbat. Growing up as a Reform Jew, we rarely celebrated Shabbat in our home: I do not remember my parents laying hands on our heads and blessing us. As an interfaith community, we are often accused of watering down religious practice. And yet, in some of our interfaith families, I have seen a love of Judaism revive, and the depth of Jewish ritual and knowledge intensify, across the generations. We are going deep on our own schedule, on our own terms, in our radically-inclusive way. We are going deep while simultaneously allowing our children to learn about Christianity. But we are going deep.

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4 Comments on “Shabbat with Interfaith Families: Going Deep, Across Generations”

  1. Carol Says:

    Susan, how did you and your husband keep from competing for the children to adopt your own religion? Did you divvy up the questions or concerns the children had along the way or did each of you simply expose them to your own religion and see if it “took”, so to speak?… I’d be interested in knowing since I’m a new subscriber to your blog…


  2. Carol–Welcome to the conversation!

    I think my husband and I share the belief that even in adulthood, many of us continue on a spiritual journey that may involve seeking out the form of religious practice and the community that fits each of us best in our current time and place. And we know that our children, in adulthood, rather than choosing “between us,” may choose a particular religious practice in conjunction with a spouse or life partner, and based partly on the geography of available communities, factors over which we, as parents, have little control. I find it far more interesting to feed my children a rich religious diet, and see where they go with it, than to try to maneuver them towards a choice that might be temporary anyway.

    As for answering questions, we would have the same response, along the lines of…”Many Jews believe…. Many Christians believe… I believe… Go ask your father (mother) what he (she) believes.”

  3. Ive Says:

    Just had to say that I LOVE your answer to Carol, Susan. I resonate a lot with that approach to spiritual parenting –well, parenting in general — plant seeds without attachment, and open with curiosity to what your children and the universe of causes and conditions make of them. Thank you for your blog!


  4. “Plant seeds without attachment, and open with curiosity to what your children and the universe of causes and conditions make of them.”

    Beautifully said, Ive!

    Happy Valentine’s Day to all! Thinking about this day made me realize how much my blog is a love blog.

    My sappy tweet just now: “Love transcends religious, racial and ethnic differences. Love transcends anti-LGBT ignorance. Love transcends institutions. Love!”


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