Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again

In yesterday’s Washington Post, an author named Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote an extremely opinionated attack on interfaith marriage, stating that such marriages “can be tragic” and that “tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right.” I have so many problems with the way this article was written, it’s hard to know where to start.

First of all, Riley devotes her first several paragraphs to the (old) news of the Reyes case, a spectacular interfaith divorce that has already been widely covered in the press and blogosphere. This was not a case of an interfaith marriage gone bad, as much as it was a case of two people in a really, really ugly divorce using religion as a weapon. It is outrageous to imply that the Reyes case is common or indicative of any trend.

Second of all, Riley did not even bother to declare her own biases. This should have been an ethical problem for the Post editors, but never mind that. Every statement by anyone about interfaith marriage is colored by the experience of the person making the statement. Is Riley trying to defend her own choices? Is she, for instance, a Jewish woman married to a Christian, raising children Jewish, as Ms. Reyes tried to do?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the “online chat” with the author this afternoon to find out. But in my experience, writers rarely cover this topic unless it stems from personal experience. And at this point in America, every person with an extended Jewish family has personal experience with this topic.

The heart of Ms. Riley’s “argument” is that divorce is inevitably more common among intermarried couples, a statement that has been made by those “tsking grandmothers” for generations now, based on scanty data, and studies that are often conducted by researchers with a very strong anti-intermarriage bias.

The data Riley references is extremely shaky. One study dates back 17 years–before the advent of communities designed for interfaith families, and before many Jewish institutions began to accept and welcome interfaith families. When she does cite a more recent study, she cherry-picks from the results, pointing out two particular scenarios under which interfaith marriages have higher divorce rates, and ignoring the actual conclusion in this study. The abstract reads, “Theological beliefs and the belief dissimilarity of spouses have little effect on the likelihood of dissolution ((of marriage)) over time.”

That sure makes sense to me. Our rabbi and minister have seen hundreds of interfaith couples put their children through our dual-religious education program over the past 15 years. Of these hundreds of couples, our minister notes, three couples have gotten divorced–and one of those three couples got back together.  Statistically, we’re a bunch of ridiculously happy interfaith marriages over here, getting ignored by researchers and writers. Part of what makes our marriages strong, I believe, is the experience of building our interfaith community together.

Interfaith divorces can happen, as in the Reyes case, when one parent or the other cannot abide being held to a promise made before marriage to raise children in the other partner’s religion. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both parents are free to fully share their religion with the children. Interfaith divorces can happen when couples feel lost, alone, without a community to support them. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both members of the couple have equal standing in a community that fully supports their choice to intermarry.

Obviously, I have a bias based on my own experience in our vibrant interfaith community. I am very open about that bias.  But I  also know a bunch of very happy interfaith families now raising Jewish children, in Jewish communities that have been working hard to fully include them. The statistics Riley relies on, even the more recent ones, do not reflect where interfaith families are right now in this journey, or where we are heading. It is a shame that the Washington Post gave such prominent display to a piece infused with outdated research, and a strangely antiquated attitude.

Reform Rabbis Attempt to Ride the Intermarriage Wave

Yesterday, the largest body of American rabbis inched closer to acknowledging that they cannot stop interfaith marriages from happening. The Associated Press headline reads: “U.S. Reform rabbis suggest welcoming interfaith couples.” It is astonishing, in a way, to think that such a timid suggestion could still be news in 2010. Instead of wailing and gnashing their teeth before the tidal wave of interfaith families, Reform rabbis now propose to make the best of the situation by putting their efforts into outreach to interfaith families.

I am all for anything that makes Jewish communities more welcoming. I want interfaith children to have the opportunity to experience authentic Judaism, and become knowledgeable and passionate about their Jewish roots. Rabbis engaging with interfaith families is good for the Jews, and good for interfaith children. Especially if the alternative is ignorant children, or negative and bitter feelings about Judaism.

Unfortunately, the task force from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (representing over 2000 Reform rabbis), releasing their report at an annual convention in San Francisco, did not suggest overturning the Reform movement’s formal opposition to rabbis performing interfaith marriages, according to the Associated Press (the report is not yet up online). Instead, they continued to maintain that it is up to each rabbi to decide whether or not to perform such ceremonies. Instead, they proposed creating special rituals to bless interfaith couples.

Okay, I’m sorry, but there is so much irony in welcoming an interfaith family by offering them a separate but unequal ceremony. I suspect my gay and lesbian friends can relate here. I try not to get exasperated about the fact that there are rabbis who will perform gay or lesbian marriages but not interfaith marriages. There’s enough pain to go around here.

And yes, I am someone who has never forgotten that our family rabbi refused to perform my marriage. I realize I was a generation ahead of the trend, since I’m only “half-Jewish by blood,” and my husband is Jewish only in spirit. Some will say we had chutzpah to even ask a rabbi to perform such a union. Others will wonder why we wanted to even be members of this club. If our rabbi had offered us a “special blessing” that was not a legal marriage, as the panel now suggests, would we have had any interest in such a thing? Or would we have gone ahead, as we did, and found a rabbi and minister willing to co-officiate? It is clear to me that we would have done the latter.

And, having experienced the beauty, the affirmation, the resonance of a completely balanced and inclusive ceremony, we went on to seek out this balance for our children, by joining an interfaith families community.

“Oh, You Mean THAT Interfaith…”

meeting-of-the-ways, The Lama Foundation


As an interfaith child, I am acutely aware of the increase in “interfaith” activity since 9/11.  So yesterday, I went to the unveiling of the global Charter for Compassion, an interfaith project launched by the non-profit  TED and one of my intellectual heroes, religion writer Karen Armstrong. Then, I blogged about it at

Armstrong is a daring and deep thinker, and when I went up after the presentation to speak to her about the interfaith families movement, she seemed intrigued. But too often, theologians and clergy in interfaith “dialogue” put a heavy emphasis on  maintaining the boundaries between religions. We are exhorted to be very clear about our own personal and singular religious identities, and then make field trips across the boundaries to embrace and challenge each other. As religious adventurers, we are then supposed to return to an even more profound understanding of our own religion. Kind of like going to another country, eating exotic but possibly dangerous food, and then coming home with a renewed appreciation for America, for home.

This is all swell. But it is not particularly relevant to those of us who live with more than one religion in our families, or in our very beings. And surprisingly, the burgeoning cohort of interfaith marriages and interfaith children are rarely even mentioned, let alone invited and included, in these interfaith events. We make everyone uncomfortable, because we represent the blurring of those boundaries. What happens when you cross a boundary to embrace the other, and instead of returning home enlightened, you actually progress to making babies with that other, and commit to forming an interfaith family? The official interfaith dialogues between religious institutions, between clergy members, between well-meaning congregations, do not want to hear about dissolving boundaries.

And yet, interfaith children are here. And I would argue that as travelers who decided to stay and go native, who decided to forgo the comforts of home and instead become bicultural, we have a lot to offer to these interfaith palavers. Some of us who grew up with parents from two religions can act as the ideal tour guides. A lot of us are fluent in two religious languages, and we have spent a lifetime translating from one to the other.

We have gotten ourselves into a semantic situation where “interfaith” has two very separate meanings. Searching for “interfaith” on the web, on facebook, on twitter, turns up a lot of institutions and programs and events, in what seems like every town in America, especially since 9/11. And this is a good thing. But to get to the level of interfaith I’m talking about on this blog, an intimacy found between spouses, between parent and child, between two religions found in a single body, you have to type in “interfaith families,” or “interfaith marriage,” or “interfaith children.”

British Court Stands up for Interfaith Children

Blue Skies, photo Susan Katz Miller

My pulse started racing when I read in the New York Times this morning that the British government has stepped into the center of the hopelessly snarled “Who is a Jew?” debate. A court ruled that basing school admission on whether or not the applicant has a Jewish mother is discriminatory under British law. If Britain’s Supreme Court upholds the ruling, life will become easier for interfaith children who want to identify as Jews.


The court heard how the Jews’ Free School, one of 7000 religious schools in Britain receiving government financing, refused to admit a boy for not being Jewish enough. Although he has a father who was born Jewish, and a mother who converted, she was not converted by the Orthodox. The family sued for discrimination and lost, but the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in the summer.

The court argued that basing school admission on the religion of the applicant’s mother was an ethnic test, and not a religious test, and that whether the criterion was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist, makes it no less and no more unlawful.”  Last week, the case was before the Supreme Court, which is expected to give a final ruling before the end of this year.

As a result of the Court of Appeals ruling, the school has already shifted to a new admissions policy which requires applicants to meet certain litmus tests of  Jewish practice, rather than relying on parentage. This mirrors the shift among Reform Jews in America after 1983 from matrilineality as the test of Judaism, to proof of sufficient Jewish practice.

As a (patrilineal) interfaith child, I certainly agree with the court that religion is a set of beliefs and practices, not an ethnicity, and thus cannot be inherited. To say otherwise is deeply offensive not only to interfaith children, but to people who convert to Judaism, including adoptees who are converted as infants.

As an American, I hold dear the concept of separation of church and state, and I’m a bit aghast at the very concept that the British government is funding religious schools. So there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the co-mingling of public education and religion in Britain led to this groundbreaking legal ruling on the discriminatory nature of matrilineal descent. I do find myself wondering, if the US government funds vouchers to parochial schools, does that give us power to demand the same scrutiny by courts here?

Yet in America, where only about 10% of Jews identify themselves as Orthodox,  interfaith children have many more options for Jewish community and Jewish education than in Britain, where Orthodox Jews constitute a majority and appear to exert a power akin to that in Israel. Here in the US, we have schools representing multiple forms of Judaism, and the freedom to create our own communities in which Judaism is truly a matter of belief, not ethnicity.

Glad I’m Not Intermarried in Israel, Part Two

Lover's Lane, photo Susan Katz MillerToday’s profoundly disturbing NPR story titled “Vigilantes Patrol for Jewish Women Dating Arab Men” is causing a stir in the blogosphere. First of all, once again, thank God I live in the United States where it would not be legal for a municipality to support a group of religious zealots to accost teenage couples parked in a lover’s lane.

The NPR story brought on a storm of protest and questions from listeners. Immediately, we’re plunged into the eternally circular argument over whether Judaism is primarily a religion or a tribe. Is the  “mixed dating” problematic to these vigilantes because it is mixed by religion or ethnicity?  It’s convenient to forget that Jewish girls may actually be Arab  (or Ethiopian, or Russian). Arab boys may be Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish for that matter. So the whole concept of Jewish/Arab mixed dating conflates and confounds.

Why did the NPR reporter interview the Jewish girls and vigilantes , but not the Arab boys? The tone was snarky, and appeared to discount the possibility that there was any possible value to the romantic relationships between young Jews and Arabs. What about Jewish boys dating Arab girls? How does Jewish matrilineality versus Muslim patrilineality play into this? All the vigilantes are men. How do Jewish mothers feel about their daughters dating Muslims/Christians/Arabs? How do Arab mothers feel?

More questions than answers here, and a rather thin story. But the idea of the vigilantes, the threat of violence in an attempt to keep lovers apart, brings to mind Romeo and Juliet. The vigilantes appear to be thrashing around in a desperate last-ditch attempt to forestall the inevitable. It’s ironic that these couples are a byproduct of Jewish settlements built in Arab neighborhoods. A battle against the power of hormones seems doomed.  If we live together, there will be stolen kisses, there will be real love in some cases, and there will be interfaith children.

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

Interfaith Marriage…in Israel and Lebanon

Mediterranean Coastline--photo Susan Katz Miller

If you think being intermarried in the United States is challenging, consider what it would be like in the Middle East. This week’s Economist has an interesting article about the prohibition on interfaith marriages in Lebanon. Couples who are Muslim and Druze Christian, or Jewish and Greek Orthodox, must fly to Cyprus, half an hour away, to tie the knot. That’s because there is no provision for civil marriage in Lebanon.

I raised my eyebrows at the mention of Cyprus. As a “patrilineal” half-Jew, Cyprus already has dark resonance for me. In Israel, I am not a “legal” Jew despite learning Hebrew, becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and all of the sacrifices made by my Christian mother to raise me without any Christian influence. But if I were to marry a Jew in Israel, I would have to fly to Cyprus to do it. And if I die in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to be buried. Is it any wonder I have deep ambivalence about Israel?

Speaking of Israel, the government there unveiled a campaign this week against interfaith marriage, comparing those who have married non-Jews to abducted missing persons. And yes, I know all the arguments for why a tiny and embattled religious minority feels the need to define and guard its tribal identity. Many of us believe that this aggressive and exclusive stance will drive away more “could be Jews” than it will attract. And it is simply offensive.

Meanwhile, newsflash–people from different religions are going to continue to marry each other, and even have the chutzpah to create children together. So be thankful if you live in the USA, where we have civil marriage, the right to raise our children as we please, and the right to be buried in our own country.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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