The Religion Decision

Intermarriage, religious continuity, adult children of intermarriage, inclusiveness… these are topics covered on this blog on a daily basis. Intermarriage creates a complicated path to navigate, and at JOI we do our best to help families find their way to a meaningful Jewish future. But these are not simply Jewish issues. They are American issues, spanning religions from Baptist to Zoroastrian.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Lylah M. Alphonse opened up a seemingly simple question to her readers. She asked: “Who makes the religion decisions for your kids?” It has touched off quite a robust discussion on the Globe’s website. Some say they have chosen to raise their children in both religions and when the “children reach an age when they can decide for themselves, then they can choose whatever religion (or none) that they want to practice.”

The ones who say they aren’t going to have any religion in the home say they will support whatever future decisions their children make. But some argue: “How are children expected as adults to choose a religion when they are not introduced to one when they are younger?” And for many there is the added pressure of grandparents and extended family, all weighing in with their opinions on what the parents should or shouldn’t do.

The discussion is evidence that nearly every religion grapples with intermarriage. It’s an issue that is becoming unavoidable as religious groups blend more and more. So we would like to open this question up to the readers of our blog – if you are in an intermarriage, how do you make religious decisions for your family? How do you respond to external pressure from family, friends and the community? We welcome your insights!


  1. Since my husband is an atheist, and when we married, neither of us was religious, are we “intermarried”? He is rabidly post-Christian; the God he doesn’t believe in is the Christian God, whereas I am the product of a “mixed” secular household with Unitarian Universalist and Jewish influences, but no particular observance beyond eating knishes & blintzes at the cousin’s Christmas party, and attending a bat mitzvah as well as a Catholic wedding. My mother was Jewish - so am I a Jew, or a convert? Am I “Nothing”? According to David Mamet’s shrill collection of essays “The Wicked Son” it is not possible to be of Jewish descent and be Nothing and be happy. I tend to agree. What are we now? My husband says, “God is a dangerous gateway concept that can lead to other, more dangerous ideas.” I understand where those feelings come from and I respect his desire to protect himself and our children from unhealthy influences. I, however, would like our children to learn about Judaism, but I have to content myself with my own explorations for now. I hope on some level our kids will absorb Jewishness from me - but I REALLY, REALLY hope that if they do, there will be room for them in a Jewish community. If there is any external pressure it’s to remain secular - this pressure comes from encounters with Jews and from atheist/secular relatives.

    If I have any “insight” to offer, it is: One size does not fit all. I’m not a convert; neither am I a Jew; we’re not intermarried even though we are; our kids are nothing or a blend of something; one of them likes Buddhism. We do not fit into any pre-defined category. There is no clear path, no established method, no simple or obvious point of entry. All I can do is gather what I can gather, and for the most part I do it alone.

    Comment by Sara — May 19, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  2. To clarify: I consider myself a Jew, but there is no current outreach category for me. I hope in the future anyone who identifies as a Jew will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of prior religious affiliation, lineage, or what their spouse/partner does. I’m not sure why an expansion of boundaries can’t be part of the broader Jewish story, especially since we haven’t read all of it yet.

    Comment by Sara — May 19, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  3. We will welcome you to study with us.
    We believe that the tent of the Jewish community is wide and expansive enough for all.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — May 19, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  4. Thank you. The entire issue tears me up. Honestly, it makes me ill - I want to peel off my skin like a snake - that’s what the ongoing struggle of being stuck between Jewish/Not-Jewish feels like. You wish someone would recognize that you exist - and you wish someone would say Welcome Home - but they never do - instead they say What Are You Doing Here? Given how deeply the issue effects me you would think there is, in fact, such a thing as a Jewish soul which, like a migrating bird, knows where it needs to be. Do people just not realize what they are doing? Or is it that they don’t care? How can it be spiritual to make newcomers feel terrible?

    Would my irrational kneejerk love for Jewish people be more wisely extended to an irrational kneejerk love for humanity, animals, plants, fish, and the health of the planet? If I were Buddha I’d love everyone with the same loyalty, compassion, and commitment I give my spouse and children. I thought that’s what Jews are supposed to try to do. In any case it seems like a worthy goal.

    Thank you for what you are trying to do. I know there are good people out there who place Jewish continuity above these kinds of exhausting boundary issues. I am grateful for your efforts and theirs.

    Comment by Sara — May 21, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

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