picture of Dawn says "mixed & matched: advice from dawn kepler

Should our rabbi care more about our feelings or which holidays we celebrate?

I’m Jewish and just married a woman who grew up with no religious traditions. She celebrates the Hallmark holidays like Christmas, but doesn’t go to church. I’m an only child and my parents are totally understanding of our relationship and are open to us raising the kids with “Christian” holidays like Christmas and Easter. We are pregnant now and I’d like to join my parents’ synagogue, and I want the rabbi to know that we intend to celebrate these holidays. Shouldn’t a rabbi be more worried about how we feel than little things like a secular Christmas? — Son in the North Bay

Dear North Bay Son: Because you are the only son of loving parents, I am guessing they have been very accepting and highly sensitive to your feelings all your life. Should rabbis care about your feelings, too? Of course, all adults should be considerate of the feelings and beliefs of others. But it doesn’t mean they will necessarily agree with you.

It’s time to see your potential rabbi as your peer and an expert in her field. If she isn’t supportive of your choice to celebrate Christmas and Easter, she has a reason for it. What might that be? Might you learn something from her?

You don’t take your car to the mechanic and say, “I hear a noise under the hood. I want you to take a look at it and tell me that there’s nothing wrong and it won’t cost me a penny.”

You are meeting with a professional who not only was trained for her job and has lots of experience, but also has a mind of her own. Why not go in with an open mind and say, “Rabbi, this is our situation and this is what we are thinking we’d like to do. I don’t want to have a debate, but I would like to get your thoughts and see if we are a good fit for you and the congregation.”

Before you and your wife go to this appointment, I suggest you sit down and ask yourselves, “What do I want for my future child?” Each of you should answer these questions individually:

  • Do I want my child to have a personal religious identity?
  • If yes, what do I want that to be?
  • If no, what identity do I want to teach my child is theirs?
  • What steps am I willing to take to assure the outcome I desire?
  • Why do I want what I want for our child? (Hint: You are probably attached to the idea of being a Jew and your wife is attached to the family feelings and tradition of practicing Christmas and Easter. It’s likely you each have strong emotional ties. What strong ties do you want to give to your child and why?)

After answering these questions, you and your wife should compare notes, noticing where you agree and disagree.

Talk to the rabbi in terms of your future child’s best interests. What does the rabbi say about the approach you and your wife have chosen and how it has worked for other children in her congregation? She will have seen different children react differently to the same choice. Even siblings react differently! Your goal is to create a plan that you believe will be good for your child, agreeing on a best-case scenario with options B and C available should your child assert his or her personality in a way you have not anticipated.

Let me rephrase your question: “Shouldn’t parents be worried about how their children will feel?” There are ways of explaining your decisions to children that do not demand adult thinking. Sometimes a parent does things because that is what they want to do. And there are times when that’s just the way it is and perfectly fine for kids to hear. But putting your needs first should be explained in a way that is not dismissive of the child’s unspoken emotions.

kepler-dawn-WEB
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.