Raising Interfaith Children, and Letting Them Go

Being Both M&Ms
I want to give a thorough response to a recent Washington Post blog post (printed in today’s edition of the paper) entitled, “Not what I expected from my interfaith marriage.” The piece re-enforces some misconceptions about why parents choose to raise children with both religious traditions. In short, raising kids with both religions does not mean they will always claim “both” as a lifelong identity. Nor should it.

The author, Susan Sommercamp, states that she and her (former) husband wanted to share both traditions and “thought” their children could be “both,” but that “unfortunately things don’t always go as planned.” The big reveal in the piece is that one daughter chose to practice Christianity, while the other daughter chose to practice Judaism. From my perspective, having children choose two different religions is not an unfortunate or surprising result. It’s a typical result. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

First of all, we don’t control the ultimate beliefs, practices or affiliations of our children. This is true in mono-faith families, as well as in interfaith families. How many of us have siblings with identical religious practices to our own? As parents, we can choose an initial religious label for our children, and a form of religious education for them. But ultimately they grow up and make their own decisions. This is not “unfortunate,” it is just life. This would be a good moment to put on Sweet Honey in the Rock’s gorgeous rendition of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” which states, “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Second, as a corollary, raising children with both traditions cannot have the goal for children to become, and stay, religiously both. Some will, and some won’t. As documented in Being Both, some will choose one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a new religion. And the choice may not be permanent. Pew Research has found that some half of all Americans change their religious affiliation at least once. The benefits of educating children in both family religions include allowing them to make more informed religious decisions, and allowing them to feel a connection and support from both sides of the extended family, and giving them bi-religious literacy. Not fixing them permanently in a “both” identity.

There were unfortunate aspects of this family story, but they do not stem, in my estimation, from the initial decision to raise the children with both religions. Of course it was unfortunate that the couple divorced, and that the children may have felt a competition between the parents (and parental religions) as a result. It was unfortunate that (partly as a result of the divorce) the two religions were each celebrated with only one parent, and without the support of an interfaith families community, so that the parents and children did not have a way to discuss and integrate their identities in a neutral and supportive space.

And while the author claims in the first paragraph that the couple had agreed to share both “faiths and heritages,” she admits that she took them to synagogue and Jewish religious education, and felt “surprise and some disappointment” when her husband begins taking them to church. In reality, she was attempting to raise them solely with Judaism, plus some holiday celebrations, not with full exposure to both. It is only after the divorce that she tersely accepts a sort of “separate but equal” exposure to both religions. So this family’s experience in no way reflects “doing both” in the context of good communication between the parents and full dual-faith religious education.

Ultimately, despite the divorce and initial tension as the two daughters claimed their religious identities, the author concludes that “we are all more tolerant and understanding because of our messy interfaith family.” It is interesting to note that Sommercamp saw the benefit of being an interfaith family, even after the difficulty of divorce. But those of us who raise our children with both religions with the intention of letting them go, of letting them claim the practices and identities and affiliations most meaningful to them, would never use the word “tolerant” in this context. The goal is not to tolerate each other, but to embrace each other, and embrace the religious choices of everyone in the family.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

2 Replies to “Raising Interfaith Children, and Letting Them Go”

  1. Hi Susan, We’re also interfaith. Husband raised in a secular Jewish household, with no temple membership, Hebrew School, or Bar Mitzvah. Some years they’d attend a seder for nonaffiliated Jews or light a menorah at Hannukah, some years not. His mom was originally Italian Catholic, but did not care about religion much. When he married me, a sometimes practicing Catholic, they were very cool with whatever we wanted. Since hubs had very little religious education or interest in sending our girls to religious instructions. It was up to me. They were raised Catholic, but I also told them about their Jewish side (have always found Judaism fascinating). I hosted seders, Hannukah and Rosh Hashanah dinners for the family, which everyone loved. I love to cook, so I loved it too. Their paternal grandparents occasionally took them to events at their temple.

    We lived for a while in a heavily Jewish MD suburb, and older girl .became very interested in Judaism, and continued to explore it in college, joining Hillel, even going on a Birthright trip. I supported her exploration, but explained if she converted, it meant studying with a rabbi, marrying and raising kids as fully Jewish. She attended law school at LSU, was hired by a Baton Rouge law firm, married a Christian protestant guy, and had not fully converted. It was her job as an associate at the large law firm that settled things for her. She had dinners and participated in philanthropy projects with Catholic and Jewish partners. One day out of the blue, she called me and said, “I’ve decided to remain Catholic, and join a parish, although I will always love Judaism.” Note that I never discussed religion unless she brought it up. She said one reason was spiritual, and the other strictly practical. The practical reason (she was pregnant with my twin grandsons by then) was that she wanted her boys to have a Catholic education. Her husband had asked for this, explaining in his all boys Catholic HS, he’d had Jewish and other non Christian classmates, and it was fine. The spiritual reason was that she was impressed (while fully acknowledging Catholicism’s many difficulties) with all the work the church did to help the poor and dispossessed, regardless of faith. My adored grandsons are Catholic, but their mom and dad have said they will know and honor their Jewish side.

    Younger girl attended a diocesan Catholic HS, was very well educated on all faiths, and her religion teachers loved her because she could talk about all faiths, knew the Bible very well, and was great at apologetics. She suffered from severe ADD, OCD, and depression, as well as seizures for a while. When it was time for college, she attended a small Methodist college. She began to wrestle with religious identity and has said after much prayer and consultation with the theology faculty at the school, she decided she was Jewish. Younger girl is now in grad school and working in the DC area, and will be studying soon with a rabbi a Jewish friend has recommended. She has said she will go the whole route– temple membership, religious ed, bat mitzvah, and Jewish family life. But she will still celebrate Christmas with us. We all support her choice as well. Would I have preferred she had come back to Catholicism? Of course. But I’m glad she’s found God on her own terms, rather than denying Him altogether, or being agnostic.

    I have become more religious over time in my faith, and am OK with both girls’ situations because each found God in her own way, with lots of study and prayer during discernment. Some of this is because one of my two closest friends is becoming a rabbi soon, and has given me good advice on handling all of this. At church it’s fine in the age of Francis our pope. A friend at my gym is a retired priest, and when I told him about my girls, he said they will be stronger because they studied and wrestled with faith over time. My husband remains non practicing of any faith, although if you ask him, he will still say he’s Jewish. He has no interest (I’ve shown him ads for temple classes for unaffiliated Jews, etc.) in his faith. He’s very cool with whatever we do, as long as we’re all happy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: