Central Synagogue in New York City (Photo/Wikimedia)
Central Synagogue in New York City (Photo/Wikimedia)

My atheist wife refuses to go to Jewish events with me — what do I do?

Dear Dawn: I am Jewish and my wife is an atheist (family hasn’t been Christian for three generations so there are no issues with that). We had a Jewish wedding and agreed to raise our future child Jewish. While we were engaged, my wife took a yearlong conversion prep class (didn’t convert). But since our marriage and a move to California, she hasn’t wanted to go to any Jewish events. She has refused to go to any services, including the Humanists. She says there is no place for her in Judaism and even social events make her uncomfortable because she doesn’t believe in any spiritual aspect to life. And let’s face it, interfaith relationships aren’t always welcomed in Jewish spaces. So I go to services alone. And it’s almost always uncomfortable. I feel like I don’t fit in most Jewish communities here. I’m in my late 30s and I don’t have children (but I’m married), plus I show up at these services and events alone and anxious. But even when people are welcoming, I am the “odd man out.” My wife says there is no room for discussion. She will not go to Jewish events. But I am so uncomfortable going alone. What am I supposed to do?— Disappointed

Dear Disappointed: Let me first express my sympathy for a difficult situation for the two of you. I see two options for you: 1, finding a space where your wife enjoys participating or 2, finding a space where you can go on your own and have a good time.

Have you talked to your wife about why her feelings have changed? At one point she was interested in a Jewish life, yet now she says there is no place in Judaism for her. What happened that made her come to feel excluded? Where have you gone together in the past? Did you mainly attend religious services, where God and spiritual talk will be more prevalent than, say, a Purim carnival?

Since your wife did not grow up with a faith community, all of this is new and unfamiliar to her. She is trying to adapt to multiple changes at once. Maybe we can break it down.

What kind of social events have you done together? Lectures? Classes? Eating in a sukkah? Jewish film festival? Perhaps your wife could become interested in Judaism as your culture rather than as a spiritual practice. Discuss with her which cultural aspects of your heritage she finds interesting (or at least tolerable). Food, music, literature, film or art are areas that she may find enjoyable since they need not include spirituality.

You say you show up at services “alone and anxious.” Well, that state of mind invites a negative experience. Expecting to not fit in, you are projecting an attitude onto the people you meet. While it’s true that interfaith relationships aren’t “always” welcomed, neither are loud adults, crying children, latecomers and coughers. When people are welcoming, you feel like the “odd man out.” Why? There are plenty of single people at shul. There are others whose partner doesn’t have any interest in synagogue life.

It sounds like you have not made connections — yet. The first thing to do is show up on a regular basis. Few people will emotionally invest in you if you are rarely and unpredictably present. Consider the social options that are available. You could go to Torah study, join the men’s club, help with the oneg set up. Go to some classes or lectures. Meet with the rabbi and share your interest in forming relationships.

Don’t make participation in Jewish life dependent on your wife. She will feel it as a burden. Instead, find enjoyable activities and interesting people. Then share them with your wife. Eventually you can go out to dinner with new friends from shul. Get tickets to a Jewish event (music, film, food, etc.) with the new friends and invite your wife.

I know many men who are invested in their synagogue while their wives are not. If you have an uncomfortable time at synagogue and tell your wife, it will reinforce her belief that she, too, will be uncomfortable. Conversely, if you come home giddy and talking about the delightful time you had, it may pique her interest in joining you.

Let me know if you want help finding the topics and events that will interest you: dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org

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.