Raising Interfaith Children

Children with dual heritages - born to parents of different faiths - are increasing in numbers in many American communities.

Interfaith Children

For the members of an interfaith marriage, the question of how to raise children of dual heritage can be daunting.

Photo By Fotolia/chungking

Content Tools

Being Both (Beacon Press, 2013) comes at a time when interfaith marriage is the new norm in many American communities. More than a third of marriages today are between people of different religions, and that number keeps rising. Despite these trends, the idea of raising interfaith children is still controversial to many Americans. Susan Katz Miller chronicles a grassroots phenomenon of families that form progressive communities and support their fellow interfaith families. In this excerpt from the first chapter, Katz recounts her own upbringing in a dual heritage household.

Claiming My Interfaith Identity

When I was a week old, my Episcopalian mother secretly baptized me in the kitchen sink of our walk-up apartment on Beacon Hill in Boston. She had promised to raise Jewish children, and yet there she was, in those first sleep-deprived days of motherhood, dripping water on my forehead. She says she simply wanted to hedge her bets, to give me every possible protection. I also suspect that my baptism comforted her in a last moment of connection to her churchgoing youth, on the cusp of her transformation into being the mother of a Jewish family.

Weeks later, not knowing that my mother had already performed the ritual, my grandmother quietly performed my second baptism in her own kitchen sink. And then my mother’s sister graced me with a third private and unofficial baptism. My mother, aunt, and grandmother did not admit, even to one another, what they had done until years later. As a mother myself, I have nothing but empathy and gratitude for my mother’s brave but covert gesture. These are the sacred duties of a mother: to love and to protect her child and to transmit her history and culture. I think about my parents now, frail in their old age, still fiercely loyal to each other, still deeply in love. Together, my parents have made it impossible for me to view interfaith marriage as a dilemma, a problem. Instead, they bequeathed to me their joy and a sense that in joining together two or more cultures, we share in an act of creativity and inspiration, an act of defiant spirituality and love.

One could theorize that my secret baptisms were the gestures that launched me on a journey beyond the labels and boundaries of religious institutions. Perhaps because I was blessed with tap water and illicit prayer, I was destined for an alternative pathway, drawing from both sides of my religious heritage.

But then, consider the more traditional pathways taken by my three younger siblings, all of them also secretly baptized: one is raising Jewish children, one is raising Catholic children, one prefers Buddhism. The lesson of my family may be that no choice by parents, no set of rituals, can guarantee a particular religious outcome for children or grandchildren, given the inevitability of intermarriage and the increasing religious fluidity of our culture and of our world. Children, whether or not they are interfaith children, go out into this world and make their own religious choices.

NO PATHWAY IS PERFECT: RAISED IN ONE RELIGION

After performing her secret baptisms, my mother held strictly to her commitment to raise us as Jewish. She never once took us into a church. When my parents got engaged in 1960, clergy of every stripe were urging couples to choose one religion—as is still the case today—and that is what my parents did. My mother threw herself into the project, becoming the perfect “all but conversion” parent of Jewish children in an interfaith family. She learned to cook matzoh balls and even took Hebrew classes so that she could follow the prayers when she accompanied us to synagogue. My siblings and I learned Hebrew, and became bar and bat mitzvahs.

My parents worked hard to make us Jewish, in part because they knew our status was questionable in the eyes of the Jewish community. According to traditional Jewish law, or halacha, Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not consider the children of Christian mothers Jewish, and my father’s Judaism—Reform Judaism—is, well, chopped liver. In the 1960s, individual Reform Jewish synagogues tended to accept the small number of children of intermarried Jewish fathers, including me and my siblings, without having a concrete policy on the subject. But I am sure my parents thought that by sending us to Jewish religious school, celebrating Jewish holidays, taking us to shul (synagogue), and abstaining from church, they could convince the world we were “real” Jews.

In Sunday school, we embroidered yarmulkes and matzoh covers, we prayed for Israel during the 1967 war, we read Anne Frank’s diary and wept over the Holocaust. How could we be anything but Jews? And in 1983, the year I graduated from college, the efforts of our family seemed to be rewarded when Reform rabbis voted to accept the children of Jewish fathers as Jews, provided that the children were raised scrupulously as Jews, as we had been.

I believe my parents made the right choice for our family in that time and place. In the 1960s, when intermarriage was still unusual, without the possibility of finding or forming a community that would support them in giving their children access to both religions, they made a necessary and logical decision. I experienced the benefits of being given a single religious identity but also the drawbacks.

In a different era, in a different place, faced with the same decision, I have made a different choice. I am raising my children as interfaith children, educating them in both of their cultures, in both of their religions. As interfaith marriage has become common among Jews, a growing number of families are refusing to choose one religion. These families are giving priority to the full intellectual exploration of both religions by their children. They want their children to feel proud, rather than conflicted, about their dual heritage. And they are forming communities of like-minded interfaith families to support them in this decision.

Will raising interfaith children with both religions doom Judaism? My children are only quarter-Jews by “blood,” and it is even the “wrong” quarter according to Conservative and Orthodox Jews, because it comes through a patrilineal line. The logical choice might have been to choose to raise our children Episcopalian, the religion of three of their grandparents. Nevertheless, I see no reason not to give my children as much education in, and love for, both religions as I can. Maybe they will end up marrying Jews and choosing Judaism for their own families. Maybe they will end up Buddhists, or Unitarians, or Catholics. But they will never say that I withheld knowledge about their Jewish, or Protestant, heritage. Indeed, I cannot imagine suppressing such a compelling story. 

Reprinted with permission from Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller and published by Beacon Press, 2013