Lea Khayata and Elettra Fiumi, two students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, have recently completed a compelling digital masters project on Jewish-Christian interfaith families called “Being Interfaith.” As part of the project, Khayata and Fiumi looked at teenagers who have been raised in two religions through participation in the Interfaith Community, a non-profit organization that supports interfaith families by catering to the spiritual needs of both spouses.
Interfaith Community holds services, celebrations for Jewish and Christian holidays, and classes for children and adults. Two teachers, one Jewish and one Christian, lead classes for children with “each sharing his or her own faith’s history, traditions, and practices, to give the teenagers the tools to make informed decisions regardless of the religious path they choose.” The organization’s focus is on a small segment of the population – intermarried parents who will not or cannot choose just one religion for their children, yet still want to provide their kids with a deep understanding of both. Many more intermarried couples do, in fact, choose one religion (or no religion) on behalf of their children, or do “both” in a very perfunctory way, a little of Hanukkah/Christmas, a little of Passover/Easter, what we at JOI call “American Civil Religion.” For those who choose “both” and still want to provide a deep understanding for their kids, there are few alternatives like the Interfaith Community, which provides children the education and capability to eventually choose for themselves. They make informed decisions, and many choose Judaism, a choice that might not have otherwise happened if their parents had chosen “none” rather than “both.”
However, upon watching the videos of Khayata and Fiumi’s interviews with several teenagers who participated in Interfaith Community, I immediately felt uncomfortable with two of the interviewees’ choices to remain “interfaith,” to their resistance not to choose. To religiously identify as “interfaith” confounds me. While I understand that the interviewees are teenagers, and that, as the Being Interfaith project notes, our religious identities are constantly in flux, “interfaith,” from my perspective, presumes belief. I know many adult children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish, as Christian, or neither, or as culturally both. I recognize that everyone has the right to choose how they would like to religiously identify or what to call themselves. And I’m happy for these teenagers (or anyone) who have found a spiritual path that works for them. Moreover, I recognize that they could very well shift toward one religious identity over time or at any time.
Still, for me, and I believe for many Jews, the idea of being both feels like an oxymoron. It plays with our notion of what it means to be a Jew. Some may argue that my discomfort stems from a fear of Judaism’s survival. Deep down, this may be true. How, I ask, will these teenagers raise their children? Will their potential Jewish spouses have them raising Jewish children? Or Christian spouses raising Christian children? What if they marry someone who is Muslim? Will they have their child identify as all three?
There is a possibility, too, that my uneasiness may stem from the fact that these teenagers’ choices challenge to my own Jewish identity – my own choices. While their choices do make me question how I define myself as Jewish, I know that this is okay. Being Jewish should require constant questioning of what “Jewish identity” means and its behavior requires. While I admire these teenagers and their ability to make an informed choice best for them, I know that my uneasiness does not in any way unsettle my own upbringing. I know I made a choice too – to be Jewish.