The high profile case of a messy interfaith divorce in Chicago has become fodder for dozens of editorials in the last few months, in both the religious and secular press. Briefly, Rebecca Reyes, who is Jewish, and her ex-husband Joseph, who converted but has gone back to Catholicism, are at odds over the religious upbringing of their daughter, Ela. Though both agreed to raise Ela Jewish when they were married, Joseph has had a change of heart and recently won the right to take his daughter with him to church. While the parents hopefully work towards some kind of compromise, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), uses this episode to explore the unfavorable question of “who gets religious custody in an interfaith divorce.”
Writing in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Hirschfield first explains that he believes the judge came to the right conclusion. It’s not up to the court to weigh in on the decision of which faith to raise a child, and each parent has a right to take her to either church or synagogue. Therefore, he writes, Ela Reyes will grow up doing “what more and more people, including the children of multi-faith families are learning to do – appreciate that they are part of multiple religious communities and figure out how to honor that reality.”
How this reality is honored can be expressed in multiple ways. Some children of intermarriage will “claim multiple memberships, not unlike those who hold dual citizenship in two countries,” but others will fuse the “multiple faith traditions which inform their life.” What’s most important in all of this, writes Hirshfield, is keeping “positive relations between the two groups.” We really will destroy our world if we aren’t able to “affiliate with one tradition while genuinely respecting those who follow others.”
When asked recently by the Chicago Tribune about this situation, JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin said he hopes the Reyes case will “not become a referendum on intermarriage.” Even within a loving and stable interfaith relationship, parents will often encounter challenging questions regarding the religious identity of their children. These challenges only become amplified when the parents can’t find common ground. Neither parent in the Reyes case – nor any intermarried family – can claim religious superiority. The best thing parents can do is create positive religious memories which will provide their children with the tools they need to make religious decisions that best suit their way of life.
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