By Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Aaron and Danielle arrived in my office fresh from a meeting with her childhood pastor. As their relationship was rapidly progressing toward engagement, they had decided to seek counsel from clergy representing both his Judaism and her Christianity. They came to both of us with the same question – “given that neither one of us is interested in conversion, did we foresee any problems in making this work for the long term?”
Aaron spoke first: “We met with her pastor during a trip to visit her family last week. He told us that it would be simple – interfaith marriages happen every day and, as long as we love one another, there is no reason to worry. He was very reassuring.” The couple took each other’s hands and beamed. Turning to me, Danielle asked: “Rabbi, do you feel the same way?”
I took a deep breath.
As Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, I meet with hundreds of couples a year who are wrestling with similar questions. I told them that I wholeheartedly agreed that a couple so deeply in love could surmount any obstacle to make a family together. And, that such a family would be equally worthy of respect and dignity as any other.
However, I wondered if they had explored certain issues for their shared future: How, for example, would Danielle feel about explaining to her parents that a future child would not be baptized? She looked shocked – of course, she couldn’t do that, it would surely break their hearts. I turned to Aaron and asked: “In that case, how would you feel about inviting your family to the christening?” His face turned a shade of green.
Looking at them I said, “I believe your pastor is right and he is wrong. Interfaith marriage is the rule, not the exception in America, and countless couples are successfully building mutually respectful and deeply loving families in two faiths. However, the families who are successful at it share one thing in common: They know that it is definitely not simple.”
Honestly, making a family with another person is never simple. Every new family represents the dynamic blending of two worlds, with its own unique set of compromises and complexities, needs and challenges. Even when both people in the marriage were born Jewish – as this Conservative rabbi from California married to a Reform Jew from Texas can well attest – that does not mean they think about Judaism (or much of anything else for that matter) in the exact same way.
It is worth celebrating that over the past few decades many of our Jewish communal institutions have committed themselves to become more welcoming of interfaith families. Where once such families were treated as marginal, at best, and threatening, at worst, now we see a profound shift to inclusion and embrace.
However, we need to go beyond just welcoming. Many interfaith couples, like Aaron and Danielle, are looking for tools for how to navigate the often confusing waters of identity. Truly supporting these families means creating spaces for real, brave conversations to take place. It means inviting discussions about core values and personal boundaries, teaching people how to communicate with both genuine honesty and deep compassion, and assisting couples in finding their way to honor each of their uniqueness while forging a common path.
Several years ago, the Miller Program launched a pilot initiative called “Two Faiths/One Family.” Inspired by community organizing principles, the program gathered interfaith couples for open conversations in each others’ living rooms. The exchanges were rich with insight, humor, and often pain. People swapped stories of navigating uncomfortable growing pains in their relationships, and moments of realization when they came to understand their partner more deeply and discovered new ways to move forward together.
Our tradition has a lot to teach about how people of different perspectives can communicate with respect and arrive at deeper truths that either one could have discovered alone. These conversations, at their best, are models of the type of encounters that Martin Buber called “I-Thou,” where people connect at the deepest level, and the presence of the Divine is invited to hover in between them.
Aaron and Danielle and I began a conversation together that day, which I am proud to say continues nearly five years later. We shared time together in my Intro to Judaism course, over twelve days on a Honeymoon Israel bus, and around our Shabbat table. Now married and living in another city, they host discussion groups and events in their home for other interfaith couples, like our “Two Faiths” gatherings, where they bring together friends to help them have the conversations that they didn’t know how to have when they were first falling in love.
Family is never simple, but there is no project more worthwhile than navigating life’s complexity with another person at one’s side. If we can do more than just welcome a family, but actually become partners in helping them to flourish, we offer a gateway to genuine engagement for all who seek to find their place in our community.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest learning program for those exploring conversion to Judaism in North America, with affiliates in 27 states and Canada. He also serves as Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and supervises the AJU Community Mikvah. He speaks and teaches nationally on interfaith and millennial engagement, serves as a Master Rabbi/Educator with Honeymoon Israel, and is a Fellow with the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL)’s “Rabbis Without Borders” initiative. In 2016, Rabbi Greenwald received the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in Jewish Education.