Raising Interfaith Children: Sunday School Flashback

Recently, I was visiting my parents, a pioneering interfaith couple. They still live in the house where I grew up, fifteen minutes from the temple where I was educated as a Reform Jew. When I visit now, I often sort through drawers and boxes and come home with a bag full of books, photographs, and childhood ephemera. On this visit, one of my finds was a book entitled When a Jew Celebrates, published in 1971, and used as a text in our temple’s weekly religious school.  The book, described as part of “The Jewish Values Series,” covers life cycle events and holidays and traditions in a manner both lively and learned, which may explain why it is still in print. I plan to try to persuade my teenagers (ages 16 and 13) to read it as a supplement to their religious education in both Judaism and Christianity in our independent interfaith community.

I will have to warn my children that the book includes one page entitled “Against Intermarriage” that makes the (to me, very questionable) twin statements: marriages between Jews are more likely to be happy, Jewish continuity requires marriage between Jews. I was not surprised to see these arguments made in a book written more than thirty years ago, and was even impressed by the authors’ admission that in Biblical times, Jews did intermarry. Ironically, the authors also state, “What you are, and what you stand for, is the addition of what your parents gave you, and what your grandparents gave them, and what your great-grandparents gave your grandparents–and on back.”

I could not agree more. When I read this sentence from my interfaith perspective, it explains precisely why I think all of my children’s grandparents should be acknowledged and honored, all of their great-grandparents, not just the Jewish ones.

In any case, as I was flipping through the book, an inscription on the inside of the front cover caused me to stop and breathe in sharply. In wobbly grade-school printing, one of my three younger siblings had written out a sort of survey or quiz–apparently notes copied from a religious school teacher:

How many times do they attend synagogue a year? What occasions?

Are the children in Sunday School?

Do they believe in God?

Do they care if their children intermarry?

These questions appear to be an attempt to determine….what? Whether a particular family is composed of good Jews? Whether a particular family is adequately guarding children against intermarriage? Were the two considered synonymous? Are they still?

I started musing about the questions I would choose to determine if someone is a good Jew, not that I would ever pass this kind of judgement. But if I were required to list criteria, they might be: Do they live by the golden rule and the ten commandments? Do they study and debate and question? Do they sing and make space for some form of Shabbat, for peace and reflection? Do they devote themselves to tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Do they do justice, love kindness, stay humble, as suggested by the prophet Micah?

The scrawled list also echoed in a most unfortunate way the list of questions that interfaith families face when they attempt to label their children as Reform Jews. In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of Reform Judaism, considered the Biblical evidence for patrilineal Judaism and (in my opinion, very wisely) specified that in the case of patrilineal interfaith children, “the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion.” So in my childhood, in the 1960s and 1970s, interfaith children were tolerated in Reform synagogues, without a lot of questions, and held to the same standards of Jewish practice as any other children.

But after 1983, the Reform movement declared that interfaith children (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) would be considered Jewish only if they performed certain mitzvot (commandments): litmus tests for being Jewish enough. The official list of “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people” includes circumcision, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation. Many of us who are interfaith adults practicing Judaism struggle with this list. Again, it does not align very well with my personal criteria for what makes a good Jew. And it irritates many interfaith adults who want to claim Jewish identity, since we know many “100% Jews” who have ignored some or all of those same mitzvot but do not have to defend their religious identity.

In religious school, I remember feeling marginal, suspect because of my interfaith condition, in spite of being an engaged and avid student. I remember lectures about the dangers of intermarriage from rabbis, from the bima (pulpit). And the notes inside this book, copied so carefully, are proof that some respected teacher described intermarriage as a threat, to one of my siblings. For me, the subtext is clear: your parents should not have married, no matter how happy they are, and your Judaism is questionable. Small wonder, then, that I have decided to raise my children in an independent interfaith community in which intermarriage is celebrated, rather than discouraged.

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