For more than fifteen years now, interfaith families across the country have been inspired by Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage, a groundbreaking joint memoir describing deep religious practice by both partners in a successful interfaith marriage. This week brought tragic news of the sudden loss of Stanley Ned Rosenbaum, 71, who, literally, wrote the book on interfaith marriage, with his Catholic wife, Mary Heléne Pottker Rosenbaum. Many of us feel we have lost a beloved elder of our intermarried tribe: Ned was not only an esteemed professor of religion, but a mensch with an irrepressible wit, and a source of great comfort to interfaith families seeking acceptance in America.
The son of a "highly assimilated" Jewish family when he met Mary, Ned became increasingly connected to his religion, writing "I have been aided, abetted, and encouraged by my Catholic wife," in his return to Judaism, and "Without Mary, I doubt that I'd ever have found my way back." He not only became an engaged and observant Jew, he became chair of the religious studies department at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he developed one of the first Judaic Studies majors at a liberal-arts college, became the college's first Hillel leader, and published two other books: Amos of Israel: A New Interpretation, and Understanding Biblical Israel: A Reexamination of the Origins of Monotheism
After the publication of Celebrating Our Differences in 1994, Ned and Mary became national voices for interfaith families, appearing on television and radio. Simultaneously, they were nurturing a support network for interfaith families, the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources. Dovetail organized five national conferences for interfaith families. At each conference, I eagerly awaited the sessions led by Ned, because he displayed the erudition, sense of humor, and warm heart of the very best sort of rabbi. Ned and Mary also welcomed interfaith couples to their Kentucky farm on weekends, offering a unique opportunity for balanced and experienced coaching and guidance.
For many interfaith couples, reading Celebrating Our Differences, or discovering Dovetail, led to an epiphany about the possibility of maintaining and even deepening two separate religious practices in one family, and educating children about both traditions. For me, the child of another passionate 50-year interfaith marriage, reading Ned and Mary's story affirmed that our happy interfaith family was not a fluke, and documented one pathway to achieving both unity and respectful religious separateness.
Recently, I had been corresponding with Ned about his interfaith writing, my interfaith writing, and interfaith dialogue in general. Referring to the fact that he and Mary had retired from Dovetail, he wrote "our children (you) have grown up and can now speak for the interfaith community as it enters its next generation." I felt both a warm glow at being acknowledged as a metaphorical child of such epic parents, and the daunting challenge of living up to Ned and Mary's lively, intellectual, spiritual, practical writings.
In one of his last notes to me, Ned signed off with his familiar combination of irreverence and affection, "keep the faiths, baby." For all of us determined to keep both faiths in an interfaith family, and for generations of interfaith children who might not be on this earth if it were not for the work and love of Ned and Mary Rosenbaum, his memory will be for a blessing.