Forget the big communal question of whether children of intermarried couples can ever feel completely Jewish – the roughly 65 teens and parents at a recent interfaith symposium focused on the practical challenges they face, from discussing faith with their partners to managing in-laws. Members of Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park organized the "Interfaith Roller Coaster."
Jake Boise has a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, but the Cheltenham High School senior’s religious identity appears straightforward: He was raised as a Reform Jew, attended a Jewish preschool, became a Bar Mitzvah and traveled to Israel last year on a teen trip.
Yet as Boise’s experience suggests, the issue of faith for the children of intermarried couples is more complex than it appears.
He often thinks of himself as “mostly Jewish” or “three-fourths Jewish,” he said, speaking during a panel discussion on the experience of teens raised in interfaith households.
“I’m Jewish, but I’m interfaith. I think that is really the way I take it,” Boise said during a program that took place at his home synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park.
He said he’s still curious to learn more about his mother’s religious heritage. “That’s half of me. I still want to understand what that is because it’s a part of me.”
Boise’s story raises real questions in the ongoing discourse about intermarriage in the Jewish community. Does it mean that intermarried parents can raise a proud Jew or that a child of intermarriage will never feel fully part of the tribe? Or are the two not mutually exclusive?
In a sense, those questions were, if not beside the point, then not the main focus at the Interfaith Roller Coaster, a half-day symposium at the Reform synagogue.
Often, the interfaith issue is framed from the standpoint of the organized Jewish community and the notion of what is best for Jewish continuity. But this program, organized by synagogue members, focused on the point of view of families and the issues they face.
Julie Cohen, who organized the event and is raising a 10-year-old Jewish boy with her Christian husband, said she thinks interfaith parents need to offer their children the space to explore the other parent’s faith. If their curiosity is rebuffed, kids then might begin to resent Judaism, she said.
“It’s OK and you get to figure it out on your terms,” Cohen said, referring to what she hoped participants would take away from the program. “I want to find that space that welcomes them.”
Kol Ami has run a group for interfaith couples and parents since its founding 18 years ago. Members thought the synagogue community had learned a thing or two about managing hot-button issues surrounding intermarriage and wanted to share them with others, organizers said. Rabbi Elliot Holin, who takes part in the discussions, said he always advises parents to raise their kids in one faith tradition.
Roughly 65 people — including newlyweds, new parents and at least one couple married for more than 30 years — attended the program. Workshop topics included “The Interfaith Partnership: Negotiating the Conversations”; “Managing the In-Laws”; and “The Unique Joys and Challenges for the Non-Jewish Mom.”
Anita Diamant, the Boston-based novelist and journalist best known for her novel The Red Tent who also created a mikveh for non-traditional use, spoke in her keynote address about the disappearance of borders separating the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. She pointed out that many non-Jewish spouses are clearly part of the Jewish community, even if they haven’t converted.
“This does not look like the end of times for Judaism to me,” said Diamant.“There is no generic Jewish family, just as there is no generic American family. “
At the teen panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Marsha Friedman, who is also a psychologist, Cheltenham High School freshmen Arin Edelstein said that, unlike the other two participants in the discussion, she was the one who pushed her parents into getting more involved with Judaism.
“A bunch of my friends starting going to Hebrew school, and I was wondering why I wasn’t going,” said Edelstein. “So I kind of decided that we would mostly be Jewish.”
Still, she noted that celebrating Christmas with her mother’s family may very well be her favorite holiday — not because of any religious aspect but for cultural and family reasons. Edelstein also spoke about the difficulties of explaining her religious background to her Christian grandparents, who recently moved in with her nuclear family.
Jeff and Robynn Margasak, an intermarried couple whose son recently celebrated a Bar Mitzvah at Kol Ami, said the teen panel got them thinking about the need to explain to him why they made the decision they did regarding his religious upbringing.
“It’s a great perspective to hear from the actual children that are growing up and have their own thought processes,” said Robynn Margasak, who is not Jewish.
Newlyweds Eric and Meredith Frank came from Cherry Hill, N.J., to take part.
Eric Frank, who described his wife as Jewish and himself as agnostic, said that the biggest takeaway “is that we are not alone in dealing with these issues.
“We come home from work,” added the attorney, “we are both very busy and we both work very hard. This is not part of our daily conversation. It’s nice to take a couple hours out to just discuss things.”