Do you have an intermarriage issue?

Community offers resources to couples, families

By Beth Lipoff, Staff Writer

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Almost a generation after a demographic survey sparked concern by showing the intermarriage rate had hit 50 percent, it’s hard to find an American Jewish family untouched by the issue.

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have had to adapt, with most welcoming the non-Jewish spouse in various ways.

Several Kansas City area rabbis now will perform interfaith weddings. (See sidebar below)

For nearly a decade, the Jewish community has sponsored Genesis, an outreach program aimed at interfaith couples.

Amy and Jordan Bryant are a typical example. When they got married, they were living in Lawrence, Kan., and Amy did most of her research about being part of an interfaith couple at the Web site of the Jewish Outreach Institute, from whom she also got several books.

Although Amy has decided to remain a Methodist, she and Jordan are raising daughters Audrey, 2, and Lily, 3 months, as Jews.

“It’s one of those conversations you have to have,” Amy Bryant said. “For us, it was the community we were going to bring them up in. They needed to grow up with something. We had decided before we got married that we would be raising the children Jewish.”

She said her father and stepmother were “overjoyed” when the Bryants joined The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah.

“What it was really didn’t matter. It was that we were giving them a faith and instilling something early,” she said.

Making a choice

It’s an important discussion that interfaith couples need to have, said Cantor Paul Silbersher of Congregation Kol Ami.

“I counsel them against trying to raise the child in both religions,” he said. “On Saturday, you learn the messiah hasn’t come yet; Sunday you learn he has come. It’s well-intentioned, but I urge against it. You’ve got to make a decision,” he said.

Susan Tivol, who holds a master’s degree in social work and who facilitates the Genesis program, agreed. To try and teach two conflicting theologies would be like telling a child he or she was both male and female at the same time, she said.

“Long-term studies now show that is psychologically and developmentally not a good thing for kids to be told that they’re both Jewish and Christian,” Tivol said.

After moving to Kansas City two years ago, Bryant participated in the Mothers Circle, a national program of the Jewish Outreach Institute run by Genesis in this area. Mothers Circle is specifically for women like Bryant — they are not Jewish and don’t plan to convert, but are raising their children as Jews.

“The issue of conversion is kind of taking away one part of who I am, basically. I feel comfortable in my faith, and I feel comfortable sharing a different faith than my child,” Bryant said.

The 16-session course runs over the length of the school year and helps mothers learn everything from how to celebrate Shabbat to answer their children’s questions about Judaism.

“These are women we feel we owe a big thank-you to that they have committed themselves to raising Jewish children in a household with a Jewish partner,” said Tamara Lawson Schuster, Genesis program coordinator. “It’s been across the board. We’ve had women come in who’ve already experienced a child’s Bar Mitzvah or women who have 2-month-olds.”

A big difference for many of the women, Schuster said, is that many Jewish rituals and practices, such as Shabbat, are done in the home.

“Some have Jewish in-laws who are very involved; some are coming to this without a lot of support,” Schuster said.

The program includes practicing rituals like a Shabbat dinner or Havdalah together with all of their families. Participants can also go to panel discussions and ask questions of people who have been in the same situation and completed the course already.

“For me, it was more supportive and about meeting other people who were like me,” Bryant said. “I have learned a lot, but I was kind of one of those people who studied a lot before I did something, and this complimented that.”

Why just the mothers? Although the ratio of Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women to that of Jewish women marrying non-Jewish men is about the same, Schuster said, “we still find, even in today’s society, that the moms typically hold the job in the family of the religious upbringing.”

Interpersonal issues

Tivol and Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, who then headed the local adult-learning program, founded the Genesis program together. Tivol designed its curriculum. About 1,500 people have participated in Genesis events and courses in the program’s nine-year history. 

“We provide tools and an opportunity to work through the interpersonal issues that they face in an interfaith marriage,” Tivol said.

Groups of about five couples each meet weekly during the school year.

“The biggest, most urgent question is how to decide the religious identity of the children. But you might also have in a group people who are engaged and people who are dating who want to know everything as general as ‘Should we get married?’ to ‘How do we find someone who will marry us? How do we bring two different families together? How do we find our place in the Jewish community?’ ” Tivol said.

Tivol said she shapes each group’s experience based on the concerns of those involved.“We make it safe to surface every issue. A lot of times, these are things couples don’t know how to bring this up to each other,” Tivol said.

The environment at Genesis is one of learning and discovery for couples.

“We learned about understanding that these are differences, and there are conversations as a couple that we need to have. There are differences, and part of being in a relationship, interfaith or not, is understanding and respecting those differences,” said Kory Hochler.

Hochler is Jewish. His wife, Julie, is not. They participated in the course before they got married in March.

“(Genesis) was more of a forum to be able to discuss things. It just gave an opportunity to be more open. You’re there with other people who can relate. It helped start the conversation,” he said.

Tivol said some Genesis participants have decided to raise their children as Jews, others have gone on to raise their children in the Christian faith and some have even decided not to marry.

“My job is not to persuade them to go in a Jewish direction; my job is to remain neutral and share with them issues and tools to help them figure out the healthiest choices and decisions for their situation,” she said.

She noted, however, that couples who participate in Genesis tend to be those in which one partner is or has been affiliated with a synagogue or other Jewish organizations.

“The couples who find our program work hard at something two Jews take for granted,” Tivol said.

Hochler said his wife encouraged him to explore Judaism more, even though he’d never been very observant. Now, he considers himself “a thousand times” more involved with Judaism than before he met her.

“I’m an active member of my community. I substitute teach Sunday school. I celebrate the holidays, and (before) I usually didn’t,” he said.

Acceptance

With Genesis, couples don’t only learn how to communicate with each other — they learn how to communicate with each other’s families and how to be part of the community.

Many times, it’s often most difficult for the extended families to accept the idea of the interfaith marriage.

“When I announced that I was marrying Jordan and that he was Jewish, my mother told me at the time, ‘As long as (the children) are raised Christian everything will be OK,’ ” Bryant said. “However, as time as passed, and since she lives so far away, I think she has come to an understanding within herself that I am doing the right thing in my heart and mind for my family.”

Barbara Miksch, who went through the Genesis program with her current husband, Jim, remembered the reaction she got when she married her first husband, also an interfaith union.

“With one of my first husband’s sisters, she had a very difficult time, because she thought we would not be in heaven with her, but it didn’t affect our relationship,” she said. “It was one of those things (in which) once the decision was made, the troops will rally around and be supportive.”

Bryant, Hochler and Miksch all said they’ve found the Jewish community to be accepting of their marriages.

“I think that the reality of the times we live in is that interfaith couples are likely to happen, and there’s an understanding in Jewish community that if you try to exclude them or ostracize them you may lose people who may be vibrant members of the community,” Hochler said.

Several of his friends who are Orthodox attended his wedding.

“While it may not be what they would do themselves, it was a show of respect for my Jewishness and her faith. They weren’t diminished in any way,” Hochler said.

Being involved

Liberal synagogues have tried to make allowances so that non-Jews among their member families can take part in rituals like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Though there are restrictions on non-Jews participating in ritual acts such as reading the Torah blessings, congregations try to include both members of the couple in life-cycle events.

“We expect both parents to participate in the passing down of the Torah — after all, in the majority of families, both parents have determined that the child is receiving Judaism as their faith and culture, so we want both parents to participate in the symbolic passing of Torah to their child,” said Rabbi Vered Harris of Congregation Beth Torah. “This has caused tears for some parents; they have been so moved by the acceptance and validation of their commitment to their child’s Jewish identity, regardless of their own faith or spiritual journey.”

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn also tries to involve both parents in life-cycle events. At The New Reform Temple, he considers the entire family to be members of the congregation — not just the Jewish spouse and children.

“We only accept families as members; both people are members of the temple. When we have a lifecycle event, I go out of my way to find ways to involve not only the Jewish partner but also the non-Jewish partner and even the non-Jewish partner’s family,” he said.

He also acknowledged the religious restrictions on some rituals, but said he finds other ways for the non-Jewish family members to be part of the experience.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t give an aliyah to a non-Jew, just the way I wouldn’t want a wafer if I went to a church,” he said. “(For example), I would invite a mother, her mother and a mother-in-law to light candles. We will try to work to have full inclusion.”

Who will marry you?

Within the Reform movement, each rabbi has his or her own policy on officiating at interfaith marriages. The Rabbinical Assembly, the governing body of the Conservative movement, does not allow its members to officiate at such ceremonies, and certainly the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations frowns on Jews marrying outside the faith.

If you choose to be married by a Reform rabbi or cantor, be prepared for some of them to impose their own requirements. For instance, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff will ask you to participate in an introduction-to-Judaism class. Others, such as Rabbi Neal Schuster, ask that you be committed to having a Jewish home. Also, be aware that some rabbis will co-officiate with clergy of another faith, and some will not. 

In general, they say, it’s important to schedule a meeting with your rabbi to discuss these matters. Such a talk can help clarify where you might be most comfortable holding the wedding, whether or not a rabbi officiates. 

In the Kansas City area, the following rabbis and cantors will officiate at an interfaith wedding:

• Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn

The New Reform Temple

• Rabbi Stuart Davis

• Cantor Sharon Kohn

The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah

• Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff

The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah

• Rabbi Neal Schuster

The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah

• Cantor Paul Silbersher

Congregation Kol Ami

What is Genesis?

For more information on the Genesis program, contact Tamara Schuster, (913) 754-2284 or tamaras@jewishkc.org, or visit www.jcckc.org, under the adult Jewish learning section. Programming for Genesis is on a break for the summer and will resume in September.

Interfaith resources

A variety of other resources are available in the area of interfaith relationships.

Members of Congregation Beth Shalom will soon be able to participate in a new program. Keruv (Hebrew for “outreach”), will address “non-traditional family units, who are committed to maintaining an interfaith relationship and want to maintain a connection with Judaism,” said Stephen Kort, who is co-chairing the program with Tracy McHugh.

The idea for the program, which is just in the planning stages right now, came from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Kort hopes it will provide a forum for families to discuss their problems and concerns.

“The congregation is very eager to establish programs and a plan and make interfaith couples feel as comfortable as possible within the synagogue,” said Rabbi Alan Cohen.

If Internet research is more your style, check out these helpful Web sites:

• Jewish Outreach Institute, www.joi.org

• InterFaith Family, www.interfaithfamily.com

• The Mothers Circle, www.themotherscircle.org

• Judaism 101, www.jewfaq.org

• Mixed Blessings, www.mixedblessingsfilm.com



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