Our differences shouldn’t divide us; we are family

Your column is always suggesting convoluted ways that interfaith couples can deal with more traditional Jewish views. Why bother? Why don’t you just tell them to join a Reform synagogue and be done with the people who don’t agree with their life choices or see their kids as Jewish? — Annoyed with Traditional Jews

Dear Annoyed: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you asked this question! I’ve been wanting to discuss this topic since I started writing the column.

I don’t know the religious makeup of your family, but my loved ones include Christians, Muslims, atheists and Jews of all stripes. Additionally, they are white, black, Hispanic and Asian; some Jewish, some not. What do they have in common? I love them. I don’t want to discard any of them. I may not agree with all their views or practices, but I choose to hold them close all the same.

The most challenging moment of inclusion I experienced was traveling to Texas to visit my nephew, who was serving in the Army. He wanted to take us all to a shooting range as an outing. He had dozens of guns and had prepared some for our use. Live ammunition was to be used. What should I do, I who was raised by a pacifist to abhor violence and guns? I sucked it up.

I looked at this situation through the eyes of my beloved nephew. For him, guns are a daily part of life and were essential to staying alive when he was deployed in Iraq. Shooting is a skill, and like hunting, fishing or golf, it can be a hobby. Granted, it is a hobby that I never anticipate adopting, but I made the effort to see it all through the eyes of someone I love. I am proud to say that I was able to do that.

I also came smack up against my boundaries. I realized right then and there that I never even considered being among people who own guns. I don’t want a gun owner to move in next door. I don’t want people to be allowed to carry guns in my community. That means I wouldn’t want my nephew as a neighbor — but the thing is, I would, guns and all.

So the dilemma is: Is the love we feel for our family members so strong that we can accept things about them that push our buttons?

Jews within the same family circle are going to practice their Judaism differently. Interfaith families with patrilineal Jewish children will have family members who accept only matrilineal descent. Therefore, an interfaith couple needs to figure out how to live among those they love despite significant differences. We all need to figure this out for ourselves, because whether we embrace traditional halachah or not, we will interact with Jews who do.

I see more and more adults in my work who grew up with a non-Jewish parent. It is vital that our entire Jewish community stop speaking for this next generation and instead listen. For decades, many have said of interfaith families with patrilineal children, “Let them be Reform,” essentially avoiding the work of creating caring relationships. It is time to ask young adults from interfaith homes to share their experiences with us: What are we doing well, and what needs to change? It is time for both individuals and institutions in the Jewish community to be open to patrilineal children and observant coreligionists alike, without judging or condemning their beliefs.

I am currently involved in a study of the experience of those raised in interfaith families. Their Jewish practice is across the spectrum. In the Bay Area, they have been met with kindness by rabbis in all movements, although they have not always felt empowered to share their feelings about their upbringing with other Jews.

This is a time and opportunity ripe for learning. As we approach the High Holy Days, I hope we can all commit ourselves to love our fellow Jews, patrilineal or matrilineal, observant or secular, as members of our family.

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Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.