A bus ad in Toronto, 2009 (Photo/Flickr-Atheist Bus Canada CC BY 2.0)
A bus ad in Toronto, 2009 (Photo/Flickr-Atheist Bus Canada CC BY 2.0)

My boyfriend is an atheist and I’m a believer

Dear Dawn: You wrote previously about a couple where one partner is Jewish and the other claims to be an atheist. But the atheist still had “warm” feelings for his church. My boyfriend is a true atheist and dislikes all religion. He doesn’t have any warm memories of community or shared holidays. He thinks religion is just a waste of time and money; he doesn’t celebrate Christmas or any holiday. I was raised Reform and believe in God. I have a meaningful spiritual life and don’t want to give it up. I feel like I can’t convince him that God exists, but this is a deal-breaker for me. I want the joy of raising Jewish children. Is there anything I can do to bring him around? I’ve been trying for two years. — Observant Reform Jew

Dear Observant: I’m afraid you are correct. There is no special message or action that can convince your boyfriend that God exists or even that religion is worthwhile. I don’t know what you’ve done to try to persuade him thus far. But here are some thoughts.

In terms of your own spirituality, share with him what your beliefs and practices do for you. Does prayer comfort you? Do holiday rituals give you a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, something eternal? Does belonging to and participating in a synagogue give you valued friendships and support in hard times? Ask him if he can recognize the value it gives to you and appreciate the fact that you benefit. Can he see this and honor it even if it baffles him?

For so many Jews, Judaism is not so much a religion as a community and shared culture. Look at the elements in your life that reflect this concept.

Here are some of the pros that others have mentioned to me or that I have experienced.

Shared humor: There is Jewish humor and you’ll know that when you see someone unfamiliar with Judaism be told a Jewish joke. It’s fun to be “in on the joke.”

A feeling of extended family: I have a young friend who was hitchhiking around Europe. On a Friday when she was in Spain without any place to stay for the night, she went to a synagogue for Friday night services. She told them her situation and one of the families took her home with them.

Language: Hebrew is the universal language of the Jews. You can speak it and be understood in services, or on the street, in any Jewish community around the world.

Calendar and holidays: There is a feeling to the Jewish calendar. Just as many Christians have an excited anticipation of Christmas, so too do many Jews feel about the approach of Passover or Sukkot or the High Holy Days. You know where you are in the seasons and what comes next. Shabbat wraps up the week in so many emotional ways.

A safety net: If you’re in trouble, other Jews are required to help you. A young friend was in financial difficulty and his car was about to be repossessed, which would have led to a loss of income. We contacted his rabbi, who arranged for a member of the shul, an accountant, to meet with him for free and figure out how to handle this situation and how to budget for the future.

A contact for anything Jewish: A woman I know was orphaned as a teen and had since moved around the country, eventually ending up in the Bay Area. She wanted to visit her parents’ graves in New Jersey, but because she was 12 years old at her mother’s funeral and 17 at her father’s, she couldn’t remember where the cemeteries were. We contacted her rabbi, who asked what town they had lived in. Within a couple hours, the rabbi had located the graves.

Someone who will remember you: A childless woman who converted to Judaism was worried that when she died no one would say Kaddish for her. She expressed her fear to a friend, who told her, “I will say Kaddish for you.” You’ll notice that before the Kaddish prayer, it is always mentioned that we include “those of the Six Million who died in this season and have no one to say Kaddish for them.”

Someone who will always care: I knew a very cranky woman who needed a great deal of assistance. She didn’t drive, was something of a recluse and lacked social skills. But she needed to be taken grocery shopping, to doctor’s appointment, etc. So her rabbi enlisted a small army of assistants for her. By sharing the less-than-enjoyable job, they took care of her and remained remarkably cheerful. So cheerful, in fact, that after a couple years of this “intervention,” the woman began to participate in a variety of the synagogue’s activities and became surprisingly pleasant!

You’ll notice that I have not mentioned God. God is essential to Judaism; I’m sure someone will argue with me about that! But God is not essential to participating in Judaism. If your boyfriend cannot see value in any of these things, that is information for you. You have to decide whether you want to live with that approach to life.

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.