Interfaith family: How do you raise the kids?

Many parents raised in different religious backgrounds seek to impart the values of both religions on their kids. Does raising children with two religions offer them the best of both value systems or result in a watering down of faith?  

OP-ART: Lisa Haney
A drawing of a Christmas tree decorated with bagles, stars of David, dreidels and topped with a menorah illustrate an article by Julia Gorin on the attractions of Christmas to a Jewish girl.

Tis the season for your interfaith family to celebrate. But celebrate what? The 12 days of Christmas? The eight nights of Hanukkah? And what happens in the New Year? Should Junior have a confirmation or a bar mitzvah? Does the baby have a baptism or a bris? Some people say that raising your kids in two religions gives you the best of both – that if one faith is good, two must be even better.

In a recent piece in Time, Susan Katz Miller author of the recently published “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” argues just that. She says that raising children in an interfaith community that draws on two religions schools your kids in both sides of their religious heritage, avoids the need to favor one parent’s “better” faith at the expense of the other, and skirts a whole host of practical problems interfaith families confront.

Not so fast, say others, who warn against inclusivity at the cost of identity. After all, the essential doctrines of Judaism and Christianity – the religions Ms. Miller calls “the first great wave” of a growing phenomenon of interreligious marriage – are at odds. Do you believe that Jesus was the messiah, or that the messiah hasn’t come yet?

Jim Remsen, author of the “Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians” and former religion editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, believes the practice of watering down two religions to try to accommodate them both disrespects both religions. “Maybe this dumbing down is the way society is going. Maybe it’s the best we can do,” he says. But in articulating a “middling” approach to faith for the next generation, “You’re cheapening what’s a long and serious tradition and that’s a shame.”

Interfaith communities, schools, and practices are hard pressed to answer the obvious: “What is your message?” A single faith enjoys the institutional imprimatur, authority, and beliefs that have underpinned that religion throughout history. When it comes to the recommended interfaith religion classes, Mr. Remsen asks, what is taught beyond, perhaps, the very subjective experiences of a parent volunteering that day? Parents may think they are presenting two religions but in fact the interfaith model creates a third. “You can expose [children] in a superficial way but what is their identity going to be?”

Remsen, reared Protestant, agreed to raise his family Jewish, which was his wife’s religion. She was more religious than he, and though he never converted, he immersed himself in the Jewish community and in synagogue life with his family, including three now grown sons.

For those facing a similar decision, he says, choosing one religion for the family is not a win-lose proposition, where one spouse’s faith is squelched. Maybe religion is simply more important to your spouse than to you, or vice versa. Maybe you were actually drawn to your mate because of his different faith.

For Christian/Jewish couples contemplating their family religion, he advises that you take the time to think very seriously about what you really believe about Judaism and about Christianity – even to the point of making a checklist – and to identify what beliefs you are unwilling to surrender. What do you want your kids to believe – not just when they’re little, but at confirmation and bar mitzvah age, and beyond? How will the grandparents feel? Faith isn’t something for kids to “dabble in,” Remsen cautions. “Your concern is about their souls.”

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