Two faiths are better than none
AS THEY GATHER AROUND THE DINNER TABLE EACH EVENING, the Yala family of Oak Park, Illinois gives thanks to God in both English and Arabic. Dana bows her head and intertwines the fingers of both hands, just as she was taught as a young Catholic. Her husband, Mohamed, keeps his hands open with palms up, as he learned as a Muslim growing up in Algeria. Their daughter follows Dana's example, while their son switches from one form of sitting in prayer to the other.
"In that moment every night when we pray together we feel that we incorporate both traditions," says Dana Yala.
Such creativity is an important ingredient for successful interfaith marriages, say Catholics married to non-Christians.
Tradition times two
Increasingly, interfaith couples actively participate ineach other's places of worship and celebrate holidays from both faith traditions in their homes. They select symbols and rituals they both can agree on for their weddings and for ceremonies that dedicate their children to God or recognize their children's coming of age. Some Catholic-Jewish couples have designed combined Catholic-Jewish religious-education programs and developed joint Baptism and baby-naming ceremonies that are recognized as valid sacraments by the Catholic Church.
While interfaith marriages are nothing new—especially between Christians and Jews—they are becoming increasingly common and varied in an American society that is more diverse and integrated, say experts in interfaith relations. No longer are Catholics growing up in predominantly Catholic neighborhoods or attending predominantly Catholic schools. They are meeting non-Catholics—and non-Christians—on playgrounds and in school.
Also changing, say the experts and interfaith couples themselves, is each partner's insistence on retaining some of his or her faith traditions and passing them on to their children.
In the past, couples tended to choose to raise their children in one faith. One spouse may have been more involved in his or her faith than the other; one spouse may have converted to the other's religion; or, in some rare instances, the two chose as a family to participate in a third, neutral tradition. Often the family chose the easiest path: observing no religion at all.
Now, however, couples are seeking out new options that allow them to share two faiths in one household and immerse their children in both traditions.
"It's the openness of society. Interfaith marriage was taboo...until fairly recently," says Joan Hawxhurst of Dovetail Publishing in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which publishes a journal by and for Christian-Jewish families. Also, she says, "people are less willing to give up something that's important to them to appease the extended family than they used to be."
Nancy Nutting Cohen and her husband, Harry, agreed at the outset that they wouldn't ask the other to convert or to choose either Judaism or Catholicism for their children. After a few early years of having little religion in their lives, the family has joined both a church and a synagogue near their home in Minneapolis. As parents, they stress a relationship with God and encourage their two daughters to pursue their own spiritual journeys.
When they were married 17 years ago, guidebooks and support systems for Catholic-Jewish couples were not yet available, Nutting Cohen says. So she and Harry improvised.
Their wedding ceremony was respectful of both traditions, she says. And while deciding against a traditional Catholic Baptism for their daughters, "it was very important to me to have some kind of ceremony...to acknowledge we wanted to raise our children with a recognition of God," she says.
Nutting Cohen found a priest who was open to baptizing her children at home in a ceremony that also incorporated Jewish symbols and stressed that as a family they all were walking toward God. "Even as we were baptizing them I didn't feel we were claiming them for Christianity or Catholicism," she says.
Then as her eldest daughter, Kate, neared 13, an age when the girl's cousins were celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs, "I wanted to do something to recognize the coming of age of a young woman," Nutting Cohen says.
She designed a ritual that included a blessing for the girl's wishes and dreams and an acknowledgment of the girl's strengths. She incorporated symbols from Baptism, including water from the River Jordan and soil from her native Iowa.
Now the girls are making their own choices clearer. Twelve-year-old Michaela has begun the rigorous preparations for a bat mitzvah, while Kate, 15, is an aide in the church's religious education program and a member of the church youth group.
"I feel they're searching kids and they're questioning kids," Nutting Cohen says. "We probably talk about religion more in our home" than do families with one shared faith.
Statistics about interfaith families are difficult to come by, but researchers estimate that there are about a million Christian-Jewish couples in the United States. About a quarter of them are Catholics married to Jews.
This is a more touchy subject for Jews than for Catholics, as Jews fear the gradual loss of religious identity, researchers say. According to a 1990 Jewish population study, more than half of all Jews are marrying outside their faith, and only 28 percent of Jews who marry non-Jews are raising their children as Jews.
Catholic Church law permits clergy to preside alongside rabbis at interfaith marriages. But the national Orthodox and Conservative Jewish bodies forbid their rabbis from officiating at such ceremonies, and only a minority of Reform rabbis are willing, say Jewish scholars.
Within the past 15 years, however, there has been a "radical shift" toward including and welcoming interfaith families into synagogues, according to Egon Mayer, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute at the City University of New York's Center for Jewish Studies. Synagogues of all but the most Orthodox branches are offering classes in Jewish holidays for non-Jewish partners and hosting discussion groups for interfaith couples, he says.
The openness varies by geographic region, Mayer says. The East Coast tends to be more traditional, and it could be difficult to find an Orthodox congregation that would welcome an interfaith family. In the larger cities of the West Coast, some Orthodox rabbis have chosen to include these families instead of taking the risk of alienating the Jewish spouse.
"People want to be present, want to have the benefits of a communal life but not at the expense of their families," Mayer says.
The Catholic Church is also reaching out to interfaith couples.
Mixed-religious couples no longer have to commit in writing to raise their children as Catholics. The church now requires only that the Catholic spouse verbally agree to do his or her best to raise the children in the Catholic faith—and lets each couple decide how that would best be accomplished.
Canon law ordinarily requires a couple to marry before a priest or deacon in a church. But interfaith couples may receive a dispensation from form, out of recognition that a secular setting or a secular presider at the ceremony may be more comfortable for all the families involved.
Some dioceses have established marriage-preparation programs designed specifically for Catholics engaged to non-Catholics. Those programs—which include Catholics marrying other Christians as well as those marrying non-Christians—explain the Catholic Mass to the non-Catholics and encourage discussions about differing values.
Forging ahead into the unknown
We were, everywhere we went, the unusual ones.
Priests said so. Rabbis did too.
Neither one of us, the Irish Catholic or the Jew, took our faiths or traditions casually. Neither one of us was willing to give them up. We would, we were convinced, weave two strong cords into a third one even stronger.
It hasn't exactly worked that way—a truth I am in some ways sad to report.
Oh yes, in lots of ways it has worked.
Every night, after a long and winding prayer that is a recap of the highs and lows of the day, our 5-year-old, Willie, blows kisses to God, a God he hears so much about he used to wonder why he couldn't see this guy who seemed like the invisible fourth member of our small family.
Every Friday night, following a rich and ancient Jewish tradition, we come together for the Sabbath dinner. I set the table with candles and challah, the braided bread. I cook something scrumptious and substantial, not unlike the evening itself. We are all there.
I light the candles and say the Sabbath blessing. My husband says the blessing over the wine, and Willie, stumbling over the Hebrew but saying it nonetheless, leads us through the blessing of the challah. Then, with his tiny hands, he tears off a chunk of challah, dividing it among the three of us, always making sure the biggest chunk somehow is his.
One night, sitting in the candlelight and sharing conversation, Willie offered, "You can't see a lie, but you can feel it inside." It is a time when the havoc of everyday life is barred at the door and we are wrapped in the burning light we vowed would be ours.
But I must admit there have also been dark nights in my soul, nights when I knew the pilot light was on but, Lord, I ached for the flames I used to know. The truth is it's hard, sometimes, to know how to forge ahead on this path neither of us has gone.
How can I tell the Christmas story or the Easter story without tripping on a land mine of a word or a belief that to my husband is too foreign?
I cannot teach some of the first, most elementary steps I learned as a little girl whose mother and grandfather never missed a day's Mass. I cannot teach the sign of the cross, I cannot teach the Hail Mary. I cannot follow a script.
So I write my own dialogue. I ask hard, hard questions of myself. And I pray to God that my own faith guide me along, as we grow as a family of one strong faith: the belief in a God who very much sanctifies our every breath of life.
A few support groups for Catholic-Jewish couples around the country also help with creating a ceremony that can be meaningful to people of both faiths—and then with the issues that come up well after the marriage ceremony.
In Chicago, for instance, Dan and Abbe Josephs helped establish a support group for Catholic-Jewish couples at Old St. Patrick's Church about 10 years ago. Started with 10 couples, the group has since grown to about 530 couples from all over the metropolitan area. Participants include dating couples as well as those who have been married for 25 years.
The group meets monthly to discuss such topics as raising children, celebrating holidays, and dealing with extended families. Three times a year couples meet to discuss dating issues or wedding plans. Once a year the group hosts a seder to teach non-Jews about the ritual Passover meal.
The group, which includes a priest and rabbi as consultants on religious matters, also clears up religious misconceptions and disentangles faith-based beliefs from customs to help couples find room for compromise, says Dan Josephs, who is Catholic.
The group has helped create a more hospitable environment for interfaith couples than Dan and Abbe found when they wrote their own wedding ceremony 15 years ago and were married by a priest and one of only two rabbis in the area at the time willing to co-officiate.
The couple has heard some horror stories of Jewish families saying the Prayer for the Dead when a relative married a non-Jew.
For a time Dan distanced himself from the church in which he had grown up after Abbe accompanied him to a Good Friday service. "One of the lines was that the Jews killed Jesus," which was distressing to Abbe, he recalls.
Now the couple, who have no children, are both active at Old St. Patrick's and Macom Shalom, a synagogue where non-Jews have equal membership. Both usher at the church, and Dan sits on the synagogue board. "The rabbi refers to me as his Catholic altar boy," Dan says.
The support group at the church has developed 35 different wedding programs for Catholic-Jewish couples to choose from and three different ceremonies for babies. Couples can choose a Jewish baby-naming ceremony with the addition of some Catholic rituals, a Catholic Baptism with the addition of some Jewish rituals, or a combined ceremony that is recognized as an official Catholic Baptism by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Five years ago the support group even established a religious-education school at Old St. Patrick's that offers students a grounding in the traditions, symbols, and rituals of both faiths. The school has five classrooms, with a total enrollment of 49 children, the oldest of whom are in the seventh grade.
"It wasn't a blending of faiths," explains Eileen Smith, one of the school's founders. "It was offering full rituals and faith traditions in a safe environment."
Eileen, who is Catholic, and her husband, Steve, who is Jewish, have been married for more than four years and are now expecting their third child. The couple didn't want their kids to just go to CCD because that was exclusively Catholic. They wanted them to have a background in both religions and to experience rituals that are important to both faiths.
"I realized it didn't work for me to just let it happen and let the kids choose when they got older," Eileen says. "Every time a friend had a baby and had a Baptism a knife turned in my stomach."
The couple's children have been baptized and had baby-naming ceremonies. They celebrated their First Communion at a seder meal.
"This is a way to be in love and to be true to your faith tradition," Eileen says of incorporating both traditions into their family life. "I love my husband and my God."
She concedes that she feels more at ease with Jewish rituals and in the synagogue than Steve does in a Christian setting. "There's nothing Jewish that's not Catholic," she says. "There's never been a line where I had to draw and say `no more.'" Baptism and First Communion were outside Steve's Jewish theology, however, she says.
Overall, Catholics and Jews have much common ground, making it less than surprising that they are increasingly marrying, researchers and the couples themselves say. Both faith traditions rely on rich rituals and on theological interpretations instead of just on biblical teachings, factors that distinguish them from many Protestant denominations. Many Jews and Catholics also share a Mediterranean cultural heritage.
Marriages between Catholics and other non-Christians pose new challenges—and are only just beginning to get attention, researchers say.
"Jewish-Catholic [marriage] has been around for quite some time," says Chester Gillis, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University and chair of the Interreligious Interchange Consultation of the American Academy of Religion. "What's novel now is Hindu-Catholic and Muslim-Catholic, and people don't know what to do with them."
In March the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Circle of North America cosponsored a gathering of Muslims and Catholics from several dioceses and Islamic centers in the Northeast. Participants discussed marriage and family life as a basis for possible future cooperation on interfaith families, according to John Borelli of the bishops' staff for interreligious affairs.
Some individual dioceses and national groups of Catholic family-life ministers also report that they are just beginning to look into how to support a broader spectrum of interfaith couples.
Gillis, who teaches a course on Christianity and world religions, notes that challenges begin with the wedding ceremony. Muslims, for instance, don't permit religious symbols in their worship space and consider prayers to "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" as violations of their belief in one God. Hindus, meanwhile, have multiple gods and symbols.
Cultural customs, such as dietary and alcohol restrictions, complicate things further, Gillis says. People need to deal with practical matters such as: "What do you do with Grandma atthe wedding or the reception?"
Religious and cultural differences are sometimes difficult to disentangle, says Dana Yala. "It's an ongoing challenge. I don't know if I'll ever feel we've worked it all out."
The couple was married nine years ago, first in a three-day affair in Algeria planned according to the Muslim customs there and then in a service at her Catholic church in Chicago. The church service eliminated Communion—to make Mohamed feel more comfortable—but it included placing flowers at the statue of Mary, who is honored in both faiths. The couple committed themselves to raise their children in the rules of love, instead of in the way of Jesus.
The guest is god
Midnight Mass on Holy Saturday is always crowded in Dehra Doon, and, really, you have to have lived in India to know what crowded means. The church is packed with every Catholic in town and many of their friends. Hindus and Muslims consider it a mark of respect to participate in the Christian ceremonies for very special occasions, and they turn out in force.
This year I attended with two of my children while Ravi, my Hindu husband, stayed at home with our youngest.
Just before Communion, one of the priests stepped up to the microphone and announced sternly, "Only Catholics may receive Holy Communion." Then he translated it into Hindi, and it sounded even worse. I looked around and saw several people who had been moving toward the line stop in confusion and turn back to their seats.
In India, there is a saying: "The guest is God." No home, no matter how poor, will ever allow a guest to leave without having something to eat or drink. This hospitality is carried into religion as well, and one cannot visit a temple without taking prasad, sweetmeats that are blessed and considered sacred. In the 18 years I have lived in India I have never once been denied this gift. If anything, because my being a guest is more obvious than most, I am treated with special deference.
That Holy Saturday night I thought about Jesus and tried to imagine him up there saying those words, telling people that some of them were in the club and some were not. But the idea was so ridiculous I gave it up. I got in line myself and concentrated instead on the Jesus who came for all of us, the Jesus whose love is unconditional, the Jesus I have come to know better in my 20 years of marriage with a Hindu who loves him as much as I do.
The couple now has two children, Malek, 7, and Nadia, 4. Dana says she would like to have them baptized, but Mohamed struggles with a sense that he would lose his identity if he agrees.
The issue has come up again as the couple considers enrolling Malek in a Catholic school this year, when his classmates would be preparing for their First Communion. "Of course, if he's going to do that we have to have him baptized," Dana says.
Mohamed sometimes accompanies her to church, and she participates in Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting from sunrise to sundown. As a family they celebrate Christmas, keep an Advent wreath, and commemorate Easter.
Dana says she focuses on the similarities between their faiths, not their differences. She reads Bible stories to the children and shows them religious videos that incorporate the shared stories of the creation, Abraham, and Mary's virgin birth.
"My greatest fear was that they would grow up areligious, without anything," Dana says of her children.
Joan Hawxhurst started Dovetail in 1992 to address those types of concerns for Christian-Jewish families.
"It's quite comfortable to be an interfaith couple when you're just a couple and just accompanying each other to the synagogue and church," she says. But once you have children, "there's a sense of competition because in most people there is a deep desire to have children believe what you do."
The "Jesus question—what each partner believes about Jesus and how that affects their lives—is the next thorniest issue, Hawxhurst says. "The most successful interfaith couples agree to disagree" and explain to children that it's OK to live with that tension.
Since most of her readers are families with young children, they are just beginning to face some of the decisions about coming-of-age rituals and the death of a spouse.
Some clergy are now developing bar mitzvahs and confirmations that include rituals from the other tradition, Hawxhurst says. These ceremonies are jokingly called "barfirmations" or "confirmitzvahs."
Older interfaith couples, meanwhile, are confronting questions of funerals and burials. A Christian spouse may worry about not knowing the Jewish Prayer for the Dead, which is recited as a sign of respect for the deceased, Hawxhurst says. And spouses wanting to be buried together may have to decide on a neutral cemetery, apart from other family members laid to rest in all-Christian or all-Jewish cemeteries.
Mary and Ned Rosenbaum of Carlisle, Pennsylvania provide a model of how interfaith couples can weather the years. Married in 1963, the couple confronted various challenges without the assistance of publications or support groups.
At the time, Ned, who is Jewish, was not religiously active. They each signed papers agreeing to raise any children as Catholics, but Mary says she defined that in her heart as exposing the children to both religions even after they were baptized.
Now their oldest son doesn't practice any religion and their younger son is interested in Christianity generally. Their daughter, who decided at age 13 to convert to Judaism, distanced herself from Catholicism at age 10 when she heard a prayer about Jesus dying "for us men." "Her head went up, and she said, `Didn't he die for me, too?'" Mary recalls.
The conversion was a joyous event, she says. "I didn't see it as turning away [from me]. I saw it as embracing an older religion that has roots for my own. It's more of a problem for me that my older son has not chosen either [religion] and is not raising his child in any religion."
As Ned deepened his Jewish spirituality over the years, the couple has embraced both traditions in their own lives. They keep a kosher kitchen and observe the Sabbath with the lighting of candles and reciting of prayers at dinner. Mary has served as executive director of the Reform synagogue, and they both serve on the Harrisburg Diocese's marriage-preparation board.
"His discovery of his Jewishness brought us closer together as we shared a spiritual bond," Mary explains. "To me the real 'mixed' marriage is between someone who is religious and someone who isn't."
Marianne Comfort is a freelance writer in Schenectady, New York.
Resources for interfaith marriages
Read what it's like to be part of an interfaith marriage during the holiday season. What happens when a couple doesn't celebrate the same religious holidays? How does it effect their children? In December 1996, host Korva Coleman and her guests discussed the choices and sacrifices people make when they marry outside their religion. NPR's Talk of the Nation: Interfaith Marriages
ParentsPlace.com has devoted a message board to couples that have married and are of different religious faiths. It offers opportunities to share, explore, and gain support on issues within your marriage as well as with concerns over raising children in interfaith marriages. To post a message, simply click the Add Messages button at the bottom of this Web page. ParentsPlace.com's Interfaith Marriages Bulletin Board
This online journal, published twice yearly, discusses the theological and pastoral issues raised by the existence of interchurch families (especially families in which one partner is a Roman Catholic and the other a Christian of another communion). It shares the experience of these families with a wider public, and helps readers keep abreast of developments which concern mixed marriages and interchurch families, in the context of the widerecumenical movement. Interchurch Families Journal
Two documents on interfaith marriage—"Reflections on Interreligious Marriage" and "Marriages between Christians and Muslims: Pastoral Guidelines for Christians and Churches in Europe" can be found, in its entirety, at this site. Interfaith marriage guidelines
This online brochure details how family, friends, and clergy can help support couples making difficult decisions about appropriate interfaith wedding ceremonies. Interfaith Marriage: A Brochure of the Presbyterian Church USA
The Interfaith Connection addresses the special needs of interfaith couples where one of the partners is Jewish. The site helps couples deal with particular issues throughout the year, such as celebrating a holiday, planning a wedding, the birth of a child, or deciding about the religious orientation of a household. Interfaith Connection (Jewish Community Center, San Francisco)
Dovetail is an independent source of resources devoted to the challenges and opportunities of life in a Jewish/Christian interfaith family. Dovetail (Publisher of materials for Jewish/Christian families)
The Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling provides a list of rabbis who officiate at intermarriages, conducts and promotes research on intermarriage, offers premarital and marital therapy for intermarried couples and their families, and presents a variety of programs specifically geared to the needs of intermarried couples. Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling Home Page
Sponsored by Chicago's DePaul University College of Law, The Interfaith Family Mediation Project helps divorcing couples reach solutions about the religious upbringing of their children. The project offers parents online the opportunity to resolve personal and sensitive religious issues in a manner that best meets the needs of their children and themselves. The Interfaith Family Mediation Project
Columnist Jim Rosenberg is Jewish. His wife Barbara is Catholic. Rosenberg discusses interfaith coupling and says marriage is tough whether or not there are different Gods to contend with. Jim Rosenberg column on interfaith marriageAll active news articles