This time of year, many interfaith families are preparing to feast on latkes, light Hanukkah candles at the Thanksgiving table and then move on to making Christmas cookies. But beyond holiday celebrations, is it a good idea to raise kids in two religions?
Most rabbis, ministers and priests urge interfaith families to pick one religion, due to fears that celebrating both causes confusion, conflict or apathy. Nevertheless, my husband and I decided to raise our children in an interfaith community, learning both religions from Jewish and Christian teachers working side-by-side, and so have hundreds of other families described in my book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. To join this interfaith families movement, you do need a thick skin, skills in cross-cultural engagement and thoughtful explanations at the ready for critics. Here are some top myths about raising kids with both religions, and responses to the concerns you may hear from family, friends and clergy:
Myth #1: The Kids Will be Confused
Religions are, by their very nature, confusing. After all, they evolve to address questions without answers: the great mysteries of life and death. But are children raised with two religions necessarily more confused? "Children can handle ambivalence, can handle complexity," says social worker and therapist Susan Needles, who works with interfaith families in New York City. "It's only adults who want it tied up in a neat package. Children are going to tear open the package anyway."
Part of the goal of interfaith religious education is to help children address this reality, and to give them a deep understanding of two entwined cultures. "It's a complex world, and I don't think we do our children any favors at all by pretending it's simpler than it is," says Reverend Rick Spalding, who was the first Christian educator in the Interfaith Community (IFC), New York's pioneering interfaith education program for interfaith children. "Kids can handle a multiplicity of identities," agrees Rabbi Nehama Benmosche, who also taught at the IFC. In my survey of teens and young adults raised in interfaith family communities, almost 90 percent said they did were not confused by learning both Judaism and Christianity. One young woman who grew up with both religions wrote, "I don't think that learning more is ever confusing. Or rather, I think that questioning and perhaps being confused (or knowing that there are options) is never a bad thing."
Myth #2: The Kids Will be Stressed by Choosing Between Parents
Parents who have chosen to raise their children with both religions need to explain that a choice has already been made -- the choice to celebrate both. Even if you do choose one religion for an interfaith child, they may be drawn to the other religion, for theological or cultural reasons, or because they identify with the religious "out-parent." In the end, parents can choose a label for their children, but all children have the right to grow up and make their own decisions about religious practice. And they will.
So far, the majority of young adults I surveyed have decided to keep "interfaith" or "Jewish and Christian" identities: they find this identity has more advantages than disadvantages. But I also encountered many interfaith teens and young adults who had chosen either Judaism, or Christianity, after growing up with both religions. "I didn't see it as choosing between my parents," says Matthew Kolaczkowski, a young man raised with both Judaism and Catholicism, who ultimately chose Judaism. "I saw it as a lifelong decision I would have to live with, and I knew that my parents would support me either way."
Myth #3: The Child Will Not Feel Comfortable in a Synagogue or Church
Interfaith children raised in both religions often take on the role of interfaith interpreters, or bridge-builders. At a Bat Mitzvah, they can explain Jewish prayers and rituals to their Christian friends. At a Christian confirmation, they can explain prayers and rituals to their Jewish friends.
Ultimately, whether or not an interfaith child feels comfortable in a house of worship stems from at least three factors -- familiarity with the rituals, comfort with the underlying theology and feeling welcome. The melodies, prayers and style may differ even within the same Christian denomination or Jewish movement, so finding a comfortable religious home is not always easy, even for people raised in one religion. But after being raised with both religions, the majority of the teens and young adults I surveyed said they felt comfortable in a synagogue, and in a church.
Myth #4: The Two Religions Are Contradictory
If either interfaith parent believes in a religious text as revealed truth, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any other religion, this can create tension in an interfaith family. Indeed, a "mixed marriage" in which one parent is fundamentalist and the other is not, poses challenges, even if both parents are the same religion.
However, many intermarried American adults interpret the Torah or Bible not as literal truth, but as inspirational mystery or metaphor, culture-specific literature written to convey moral teachings or political and social commentary. Some see religious texts as powerful guides, while others see them mainly as cultural artifacts. Interfaith family communities welcome believers, spiritual seekers, agnostics and atheists -- but value religious literacy for all.
Myth #5: Jesus is a Huge Dilemma for Interfaith Kids
Parents in interfaith family communities need to agree that Jesus -- whether God or man or myth -- is an important topic of study, especially for interfaith children. One goal of these communities is to help the Jewish partners feel comfortable discussing Jesus without feeling pressure, as they might in a Christian context, to see him as God's only son. They come to understand that many adults raised Christian view Jesus as a great leader or teacher, rather than as a messiah or personal savior. And many Jewish intellectuals have studied Jesus as an important figure in Jewish history. In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler write, "It is difficult for Jews to understand their neighbors, and the broader society of which Jewish citizens are a part, without familiarity with the New Testament."
In an interfaith education program, children are offered the whole spectrum of ways of looking at Jesus -- as a folk protagonist, as a historical figure, as a mysterious inspiration, or as the son of God. They come to realize that they cannot make assumptions about the beliefs of an individual based on religious labels. Not all Reform Jews see Jesus the same way. Not all Presbyterians see Jesus the same way. In turn, this makes it easier for children to understand that developing their own set of religious beliefs is not a particular burden imposed on interfaith children alone, but a universal condition.
Myth #6: Both Religions Will Be Watered Down
Many of us who are choosing both are not coming from churches or synagogues, but from the vast ranks of the unaffiliated. For such parents, giving children both religions may be an alternative to giving them nothing. When this is the case, these children are getting infinitely more instruction in each religion than they would if the parents had steered clear of religion altogether.
With interfaith groups offering structured education in both religions, more families can give their children substantive interfaith educations. For instance, my children studied Hebrew and celebrate less familiar Jewish holidays, including Tu Bishvat and Shavuot, in our interfaith families community. Their knowledge of Judaism easily outstrips that of many friends who are "High Holiday Jews." At the same time, they can recount the life of Jesus and find wisdom in the parables: they may be more knowledgeable than some "Christmas and Easter" Christians.
Myth #7: Only People Who Don't Value Religion Raise Kids Both
My survey found that more than a third of parents from interfaith communities raising children with both religions also attend church. And a third of those who go to church have been going more often since joining an interfaith community. At the same time, about a third of these interfaith parents attend synagogues or other Jewish community services, and more than a quarter of them say they go more often since joining an interfaith community.
The myth that interfaith families practicing both religions are all atheists may have come from the first great wave of intermarriage, when those who intermarried often were forced to leave their cradle religions, and even their families of origin, in order to intermarry. At the same time, it is certainly true that those who have left religious institutions are more willing to intermarry since they do not risk losing the support of communities already left behind. More recently, though, more intermarried parents determined to maintain strong religious identity and regular religious practice have been raising children with two religions, including some intermarried clergy members. And these families are finding more support from their extended families, interfaith communities, and progressive religious institutions beginning to accept the reality of interfaith families.