As a five-year-old, Ella Goldberg suspected Santa wasn’t real. After all, he never came to her house, just to her grandmother’s. Finally, her mother confirmed her suspicions, but made her swear not to tell her friends at school.
“She said she couldn’t lie to me because ‘it wasn’t part of your tradition,'” Goldberg said this week. Goldberg, whose mother is Catholic and father is Jewish, converted to Judaism as a baby and grew up in the faith.
“From a young age, it was always very clear to us that Christmas was ‘mom’s holiday.’ We knew that Hanukkah was our tradition and we were proud of it,” she said. “My younger sister Lauren brought in a Hanukkiah [candelabra] for ‘show-and-tell’ in first grade and proudly proclaimed that ‘you all have one day of presents and we have eight!'”
It’s relatively easy for interfaith families to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah — when the holidays are distinctive dates. In a true December dilemma, this year the two coincide. (According to a nifty Vox article replete with charts and graphs, the convergence of the first day of Hanukkah with Christmas Eve or Day has occurred on seven other occasions since 1900.)
As jokes fly about Chrismukka or Hanukmas, in Jewish circles the volume on the constant communal intermarriage conversation has moved to full blast.
There is objective cause for concern among those working towards Jewish continuity: Over 60 percent of Jews who married since 2000 have non-Jewish spouses.
Add to this mix another — even more pervasive — push factor: the rise of the religious “nones.” According to the 2013 Pew Survey, “A Portrait of American Jews,” 22% of adult US Jews consider themselves “Jews of no religion.”
In an increasingly secular United States, this religious disaffiliation is hardly unique to Jews. “Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular,'” according to a 2016 Pew report, “The factors driving the growth of religious ‘nones’ in the US”
But this combination of intermarriage and increased secularization creates for the makings of a perfect alarmist storm: “Intermarried Jews, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith,” according to the 2013 Pew Survey.
As interfaith families such as Goldberg’s are increasingly common, the question now goes beyond whether they will observe Christmas, Hanukkah — or both, a la Natalie Portman’s first Christmas tree — on December 24, the first night of candle lighting.
Even as their parents struggle to remain in the pews, will today’s interfaith youth be raised inside, outside, or maybe with one foot in the American Jewish community?
No longer a Solomonic compromise?
In many cases of interfaith marriage, there may be more “oy gevalt” among the Jewish leadership than perhaps need be.
“The Jewish community is always tense about the relationship between Hanukkah and Christmas in so-called interfaith families. I say ‘so-called’ because so many practice what I would call civil religion with a smattering of Christmas and Hanukkah rather than actually raising their children in two faiths or practicing two faiths in one family,” said Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, the executive director of Big Tent Judaism.
Trans-denomination organization Big Tent Judaism tries to find and engage those that Pew would label “Jews of no-religion.” There are Jews who are unaffiliated, marginalized, or disenfranchised by mainstream institutionalized Jewish practice. The idea is to welcome them and their partners on their own terms, and give resources and support towards a fulling Judaism in their lives.
“Often the family’s religion is Judaism but there is a nod to the other religion practiced in the family, usually by the other adult partner,” said Olitzky.
While that doesn’t seem so dramatic, the statistics sound dire: According to the 2013 Pew Report, “79% of married Jews of no religion have a spouse who is not Jewish, compared with 36% among Jews by religion. And intermarried Jews, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.”
But maybe the phrase “in the Jewish faith” should be prefaced by the word “only” as blended families increasingly choose to expose children to both families’ heritages. This was the case for Ella Goldberg, whose interfaith childhood is no longer rare in a Jewish community where intermarriage rates have significantly risen over the past 50 years.
‘Interestingly enough, it was my Catholic mom who made sure we had a Jewish home, observed all of the holidays and attended Hebrew school’
Far from growing up confused or torn apart by her parents’ “competing” cultures, Goldberg said, “Interestingly enough, it was my Catholic mom who made sure we had a Jewish home, observed all of the holidays and attended Hebrew school.”
Her Jewish education produced a strong Jewish identity: Eight years ago, Goldberg immigrated to Israel. Today, she is married to an Israeli and has a four-month-old baby Eitan.
“Religiously, I only practice Judaism and continue to have a strong Jewish identity (I did make aliyah after all!),” she said. At the same time, her mother’s Catholic heritage is also an acknowledged part of her make-up. “I also still continue to enjoy the traditions from my childhood by enjoying Christmas music, hanging a stocking and exchanging gifts with my immediate and extended family,” she said.
It is possible to embrace ‘both’
Journalist Susan Katz Miller, the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” is both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her father is Jewish, her mother is Protestant, as is her husband.
Based on Pew data, she told The Times of Israel that “some 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages are raising children with more than one family religion.” Her family included: Katz Miller, a Reform Jew, and her husband raised their children in a community of interfaith families, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC.
“I found that these parents, whether they are religious or secular, want their interfaith children to have interfaith literacy. They want their children to have bonds of affection with both family religions. They want their children to be informed and knowledgeable and fluent with the traditions of both family religions. And they want both parents to be able to play an equal role in passing on family traditions,” said Katz Miller.
In one of her many blogs on the subject, Katz Miller writes, “After experiencing both the ‘choose one’ pathway as a child, and the ‘choose both’ pathway as a parent, my contention is that there is no way to exclusively raise a child with one religion in an extended interfaith family… Family is family, and in the end, a claim that we are raising children exclusively in one religion means trying to exclude the emotional weight and sensory memories of the family traditions we experience together.”
For Goldberg, for example, growing up Jewish while honoring and observing some of the traditions of her Catholic mother was a net positive.
“I am especially grateful for my interfaith upbringing as I feel it helped to make me aware of and sensitive to people who are different from me… I’m proud of our multi-cultural family and I plan to continue to teach Eitan (and our future children) about his grandmother’s traditions as he grows up as I feel there is enormous value to learning about and being exposed to different cultures and faiths,” Goldberg said.
Rabbi expelled for performing interfaith weddings
Although Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) members are officially discouraged from officiating at interfaith weddings, the movement has pursued serious outreach to blended families from the late 1970s. Additionally, in 1983, the movement ruled that a child whose father is Jewish and is raised in a Jewish home may be considered Jewish.
But the issue of interfaith marriage is still a minefield and forbidden in much of institutional Judaism, including all forms of Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement.
Just this week, Conservative Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom was expelled from the movement’s rabbis’ association, the Rabbinical Assembly, for performing interfaith weddings — including that of his stepdaughter to her non-Jewish spouse.
In response, Rosenbloom told JTA, “It’s a futile policy, a policy that will eventually be overturned because the trend of history is against it.”
The Conservative denomination, which considers itself a halachic movement (even though, anecdotally at least, most of its adherents do not fully commit to Jewish law), refuses to condone intermarriage. At the same time it is cognizant of the repercussions.
“How we work with families where not everyone in the family is Jewish is tremendously important to us,” Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said. “A tremendous amount of effort is invested by the Conservative movement and the Conservative rabbinate in making our synagogues really welcoming places for everyone.”
‘It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make US Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make US Jews more inclined to intermarry’
In parsing out the whys and wherefores, for some in Jewish leadership, intermarriage is construed as a “failure.” But according to the 2013 Pew report, “It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make US Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make US Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both.”
However, where many Jewish leaders see a problem, some organizations see a chance for deeper learning and mutual respect.
Big Tent Judaism, for example, is hip to the void in institutionalized Judaism in terms of interfaith families. “The future of the North American Jewish community will be determined by the warmth, wisdom and caring with which we welcome and engage intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews into our midst,” reads the Big Tent website.
Unfortunately, for many children of interfaith families, or Jews marrying non-Jews today, Big Tent’s style of outreach may be too little, too late.
“Millennials are disaffiliating from religious institutions that are dogmatic or inflexible about how to teach interfaith children, or that try to place restrictions on how interfaith families get to educate their children or celebrate in their own homes,” said author Katz Miller. “Interfaith families are learning that interfaith education can be a joyous intellectual process, and can inspire their children to be bridge-builders and peacemakers in the world.”
Today, for those who are attempting to raise children in two faiths, there are several independent organizations to support their decision.
“While religious institutions continue to oppose the dual-faith education model, interfaith families are voting with their feet,” said Katz Miller.
An opportunity, not a problem
One such support network is the New York-based Interfaith Community, which was initially founded as an informal association of families in 1987. By 2003, it was legally incorporated as a nonprofit organization, began curriculum development, and opened programs in other locations.
Currently the Interfaith Community has five chapters, with a sixth in formation, throughout the New York metropolitan area. Its programs include education for pre-school through 8th grade, in classes that are team-taught by 20 part-time Jewish and Christian professional educators.
According to Dr. Sheila C. Gordon, the volunteer president of Interfaith Community since 2001, the chapters vary in size and membership fluctuates. “This year altogether we have about 90 paid member households and about 140 children enrolled in classes. We have served many hundreds of couples and families over the years,” said Gordon.
In an increasingly diverse world, said Gordon, families can — and must — accommodate, respect and nurture their differences. “The traditions families incorporate are not only Jewish and Christian, but also include cultural differences from each,” said Gordon.
“Jewish families include different heritages,” Gordon said, citing an Israeli-born member married to an American from a Roman Catholic background in a New York chapter who has introduced everyone to sufganiyot, a Hanukkah staple in Israel.
“Our primary focus has been on educating families – and helping them to sustain authentic religion in their lives. But of great importance to us is our role in explaining interfaith families to the world,” said Gordon.
‘We are aware of how rapidly attitudes toward our dual-tradition families have changed in just a few years’
And headway is being made. As one of the older kids on the interfaith block, “we are aware of how rapidly attitudes toward our dual-tradition families have changed in just a few years,” said Gordon.
Olitzky of Big Tent Judaism is also cautiously optimistic.
“While the general tension with regard to interfaith families is less, I do not think it’s less regarding Hanukkah and Christmas issues,” he said.
“Unlike most of the organized Jewish community, I do not assume that the presence of a Christmas tree presumes that this is a family that is raising their children in two faiths… I am also among the few who believe that you can have a faith experience in another faith without compromising one’s religious identity,” Olitzky said.
How to be a Jew and ‘observe’ Xmas
Ella Goldberg is currently in the US for the holidays — both of them. Her strong Jewish identity, she said, is a result of a combination of factors. Foremost among them appears to be basic acceptance and support on the part of both sides of her religious equation.
“My mom’s total commitment to raising her children in the Jewish faith, celebrating holidays with my Jewish relatives, attending Hebrew school (three times per week through grade 8) and finally but perhaps most importantly, Israel,” all contributed in shaping her religious identity.
“My Jewish identity, while always existent, was hesitant to be expressed until I experienced and moved to Israel. I still vividly recall my first trip to Israel with Birthright and standing on the shore of the Kinneret [the Sea of Galilee] in tears, overwhelmed by the sense of belonging I felt,” said Goldberg.
And so it is from a place of utter security in their Jewish identities that Goldberg and her husband prepare to introduce their baby Eitan to Christmas.
“My mom bought him a stocking with his name on it and it will be filled with small gifts for him. This year we will be at her house through Christmas and New year’s, so we will celebrate with my mom and her family,” she said. “In the future if we are in Israel for the holiday I plan to celebrate, but not in the same way that I would at my mom’s house with a tree and stockings.”