It took only three words for my friend Karen to lose her breath, plunging into serious hyperventilation mode.
"I don't know," said Jeff.
Her extremities began to tingle. "What ... do ... you ... mean ... YOU ... DON'T ... KNOW?"
"I don't think I can go through with the conversion," he said, squarely looking her in the eye. For a flicker of a moment, she thought she heard the word "conversation," but there it was: the weightier C word.
Two years earlier, Karen and Jeff, both in their late 20s, had met through work acquaintances. The attraction was instantaneous, as was their connection. To Karen, who had been raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home, her religion was an absolute. To Jeff, it was a part of Karen, whom he loved. He began to fervently explore her religion and truly became interested in studying the Torah. He began to know many of the laws and texts better than Karen did from her years in religious schools. However, as all who are familiar with Orthodox Jewish conversions can attest to, the process is deliberately a difficult one.
"Becoming part of the Jewish people is a serious matter," says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. Rabbi Slatkin, aka "The Relationship Rabbi," spends his days counseling couples. "Even for those who are born Jewish, it is a life-long endeavor learning how to live as a Jew. The conversion process is deliberately difficult because we need to make sure that the prospective convert is sincere about this complete transformation."
Slatkin explains that a convert is considered like a newborn baby, born anew and with a new soul. "We want to make sure that a prospective convert understands this and realizes that they can remain a non-Jew and still merit the world to come if they live a righteous life. Becoming a Jew is an awesome responsibility and we want to make sure that they are prepared for this."
Jeff sat down to learn several times a week with a rabbi. Several times a week his intentions were questioned by members of Karen's community. And several times a week, Jeff's shell cracked a little, then a little bit more. His work schedule began to be affected and his relationship suddenly seemed to require more effort: He was regularly defending his zeal for Judaism it seemed to Karen's and her parents' acquaintances. Since Karen wasn't one of those girls who regularly raved about her own religious beliefs, a drop of doubt fell for Jeff. The drop became a rivulet.
"Interfaith relationships, as well as relationships in which one is more passionate about the same religion than the other [i.e. one is Orthodox Jewish, the other is Jewish but not at all religious], are extremely complicated," says Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." "[Those types of relationships] need careful exploration and discussion prior to marriage and children. A detailed dialogue about how each one wants to raise their future children should take place early in the relationship. Both individuals need to be close to center, rather than polarized or extreme in their religious practices and beliefs. If one is to the right, then many complex challenges arise that include where the kids will go to school, will they be baptized or bar mitzvahed, how to celebrate holidays, attendance at church or synagogue -- not to mention in-laws and extended family pressures."
Dr. Walfish goes on to say, "All this said, I have treated couples in which both were close to center at the onset of the relationship. After marriage, when a baby was born, one in a couple that I was counseling became more attached to her religion. She enrolled her child in a Catholic school behind her Jewish husband's back and against earlier commitment to public education for their kids. Although the husband could eventually forgive her, no one could sway the wife to return to her earlier, middle-of-the-road commitment. It was a deal-breaker for the marriage that sadly ended in divorce."
Rabbi Slatkin, who sees many Jewish couples in his practice, says that even though these couples are not interfaith, the religious disparity can be enough to cause major tensions. He does not recommend that people initially get involved in a relationship where one person is Orthodox, for example, and the other is not. There are enough religious issues that can arise with Orthodox couples alone, he explains, "especially where one is more 'into it' than the other. To get into a situation that will add another layer of conflict would not be wise. Keeping a kosher home, Shabbos, the laws of family purity, sending to Jewish day schools, at a minimum is a major lifestyle difference. If one person is not interested in these things, it will be very challenging."
Rabbi Slatkin adds that this is not to say it can't be done, but that to enter into a relationship with these types of issues from the start is precarious. "I do not believe in forcing people to change as it only leads to resentment," he says, "If one gets married thinking the other will change or be OK with things, it won't happen. When we fall in love, we say a lot of things. Once we get married and the inevitable power struggle arises, these issues may become a bone of contention." For those already in relationships of this sort, Rabbi Slatkin says that it is possible for the relationships to work if both are committed to open discussions and learning how to understand one another. "I don't advise looking for such a relationship in the first place," he adds.
Jeff and Karen are not together today. After much heartache, a few breakups and attempts to reunite, they both found new partners and moved on. But did they really? When I speak to Karen, who no longer speaks to Jeff, but stayed in touch with him for several years after their breakup, she says that a part of her will always love Jeff...
...and a part of Jeff will always love Judaism.
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