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Interfaith Families: Can You Be Jewish and Christian at the Same Time?

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Can someone identify as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously? Yes. In fact, some people already do. And I'm not talking about Messianic Jews, otherwise known by their catchier and conveniently alliterated title "Jews for Jesus." I'm talking about kids growing up in homes with a Jewish and a Christian parent who do more than celebrate two holidays in December. They learn about the Talmud and the Gospels. They can recite the Sh'ma and the Lord's Prayer. When people ask them what religion they are, they name two. And then whoever is asking them looks completely baffled, or possibly offended, and says, "But how can you be both at once?"

They say, "I just am."

Last year, I taught for an organization called Interfaith Community, based in Manhattan. Interfaith Community, or IFC, aims to educate children of Jewish/Christian interfaith households in both of their traditions. It offers an alternative to the familiar "just pick one" route that most of these families are presented with. The couples who sign their children up for classes with IFC are almost always breathless with relief at having found this resource. Religion is important to them. They love each other because of their differences, not in spite of them, and they aren't willing to sacrifice one tradition for the other.

An illustrative list of three facts, for context:

1. A majority of Jews intermarry (the Jewish Outreach Institute offers more information on this topic)
2. A growing number of people are unwilling to give up their religious tradition just because their partner has a different one
3. There are very, very few formal, organizational options for Jewish/Christian families who want to expose their children to both traditions

That's all very well and good, one might think. But the simple fact of the matter is that religions aren't the sort of thing you can mix and match. They cancel each other out. You either believe that Jesus is the son of God, or you don't. And if you don't, you aren't a Christian. And if you supplement that disbelief in Jesus as the son of God with a lot of chanting in Hebrew, well, then you're probably a Jew.

There are definitely problems with the idea of teaching both Judaism and Christianity in tandem as belief systems as well as just history lessons. For one, there is really no such thing as "Christian tradition" and "Jewish tradition." There are Christian and Jewish traditions. Plural. And they vary dramatically in emphasis, intent, and degree of exclusivity. The black-clad Chasidic men, stomping and singing in a flailing circle and then returning to the careful ritualism of the everyday, may feel worlds apart from the casual, welcoming environment of the neighborhood Reform synagogue. The Jewish Renewal movement, with its tambourines and poetry and spirituality retreats, may leave Conservative Jews shaking their heads and coughing in a cloud of incense. Likewise, Catholics have a totally different theological approach from Protestants, and then there are diverse versions of Catholicism, not to mention the incredibly distinct branches of Protestantism, which includes sects as divergent as Pentecostalism and Presbyterianism.

But here's what makes the situation easier for organizations like IFC: There aren't as many right-wing evangelicals marrying ultra-Orthodox Jews as there are liberal Episcopalians marrying Reform Jews. Actually, there probably aren't ANY of the former set. Because if you believe that your truth is the only truth and if through "marrying out" you risk expulsion from the community that defines every aspect of your existence, then you're probably not going to. It probably won't even occur to you. Sometimes someone from a strictly observant tradition marries someone who doesn't have much formal commitment to a different tradition. And in many of these cases, the less observant partner either converts to the belief system of his/her spouse, or at least consents to raise the children in that tradition. But perhaps in the majority of cases of intermarriage (at least among Jews and Christians), neither partner is stringently dedicated to their respective religious traditions. So maybe they can just flip a coin, then, and decide which holidays to celebrate and which congregation to join (if any). No. Of course not. I imagine a conversation like this one:

"So, honey, how long has it been since you've been to church? You go like once a year."

"Yeah...You know how my mom likes me to take her for Easter. That's, like, the most bored I've been in my life."

"I know. You complained for weeks. So then it's fine with you if the kids get Bar and Bat Mitzvahed instead of all that Sunday school nonsense?"

"Wait. I mean, Easter Mass is boring, but I went to Sunday school as a kid. It'd be weird if they never set foot in a church. That's a part of who I am. And it's not like you go to temple except on Yom Kippur!"

"I eat bagels and lox ALL the time, though!"

OK, so maybe people don't really talk like that. I'm still working on my dialogue writing skills. And maybe that's not how that conversation might occur in real life. But it's definitely true that even when people don't actively participate in religion, it's often still a part of their identity, and they don't want their kids to miss out on something that continues to positively inform who they are.

IFC isn't perfect. It can't possibly cover all of the complexities of both sets of traditions, but it at least provides children with a springboard for more in-depth future exploration. Major similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity are given equal weight. Concepts like salvation, charity, heaven, prayer, and what constitutes being a good person are discussed. Students learn how to identify the basic sacred texts and their divisions as well as how the holidays function and the meaning behind them. No one says, "You must believe this." They say, "We learn from Hillel that..." and "Paul said that..."

When I told people about IFC, their reactions surprised me. They got angry at the idea. They said, "You can't be both at once! They cancel each other out!" They said, "Those parents are confused. They need to just pick one."

It's quite possible that when many of the IFC kids grow up, they'll choose one religion or the other. It certainly makes joining a congregation easier. But maybe they'll participate in a growing trend that pushes the limits of the definition of "religion." I don't know. As I wrote about recently on my blog , I can't really imagine bringing a child into the world (at least not just yet), let alone having to figure out in advance the intricacies of that child's identity. My fiancé is not Jewish. I am. But I tend to come down on the side of "the more options, the better." At least, with some education in both religions, those children will have a better understanding about where they come from, and will be better prepared to make their own choices.

Note:This piece does not address interfaith families that come from traditions other than Judaism and Christianity. I'm not trying to make any broad claims that account for all variations of interfaith households. I'd be interested to learn more about the inter-religious identities of a more diverse range of children!

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