Dawn Kepler is the director of Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces interfaith families in the Bay Area and helps them negotiate religious and cultural choices. Her advice column appears every four weeks. Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband is not Jewish; I am. Neither of us is very religious, but we are spiritual. Our kids are 3 and 5, and we can’t figure out what to do about religion. We want them to understand both of us and our backgrounds. We love the idea of a moral teaching that supports our values. Right now we do Christmas and paint eggs at Easter. We have a menorah most of the nights of Hanukkah and we go to my parents’ for a Passover seder. But I feel like we aren’t really committed to any tradition. That just seems lame to me. — Otherwise Happy Mom
Dear Mom: There are hundreds of families like yours who are trying to figure out what to do. You are not alone. Let’s explore what’s going on for your family.
You state that neither you nor your husband is very religious, but you are spiritual. What does that mean? This is a very common claim in America and perhaps especially in the Bay Area. I find that when I press individuals to define this idea, usually it means they have a sense of something greater than we as mortals, a belief in the universal moral teachings of all religions, a weak understanding of their own religious tradition and a dislike of “organized religion.”
Unfortunately, religious instruction for most Americans, and certainly for most American Jews, ends in adolescence. That leaves many of us with a 14-year-old’s understanding of our religion. Imagine what your marriage would be like if you had a 14-year-old’s understanding of sex!
Do you really know what is being taught at synagogue? Today’s synagogues teach the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, supporting equal rights for all; they urge people not to gossip, treat elders with respect, care for little children and be sure to vote. These are all values that I’m betting you and your husband support wholeheartedly. The most common myth is that religion causes war. I won’t give you a history lesson right now, but suffice to say, no synagogue, church or mosque in America has a personal army.
If you want your children to have a spiritual education, a religious institution is the place where you will be supported in that effort. Just the way you will use teachers, coaches and aunts to create a community of shared values, you can use rabbis, ministers and religious school teachers to build a community of shared values and spiritual perspectives.
You are absolutely right that your children need to know who each of their parents is and where they come from. But that message should be delivered from the child’s perspective. They are not mini extensions of you and your partner; they are whole beings who carry a part of you in them.
This means that the first thing to determine is not, who are Daddy and Mommy, but who is Junior? What identity are you giving your children? This will be the basis for their understanding. Let’s say you have a son; you will talk to him as a boy, not as a variation of your female identity. So, too, if you give your children a Jewish identity, they will understand their Dad’s non-Jewish identity as belonging to him and being connected to them.
Years of working with adults who grew up in interfaith homes have convinced me that a half-and-half identity is not reassuring for a child. The brain reaches full size between ages 25 and 30. At that point, a human is able to do complex gray thinking. During the years we are raising our kids, they are predominantly black-and-white thinkers. The world around them will define them as Jewish or not. Their peers will need to categorize them as part of their own mental development. I suggest you decide on a single religious identity for your children and then integrate the additional heritage under the dominant identity.
To get started, begin a discussion with your spouse about your own identities, how you want your child to self-identify and what traditions could support your family. This can feel like a big task. An easy way to have this all laid out for you is to attend an interfaith-intercultural couples discussion group.