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Handling the High Holidays: Strategies Different Interfaith Families Use

It was Yom Kippur, 1992, and Sari McClure was sitting in the back of the sanctuary on one of the folding chairs that had been set up for the day.

“My father had just died,” McClure recalls. McClure, whose husband isn’t Jewish, had gone to services alone. Being a new member of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California, she didn’t know many people and felt very lonely. “It was awful.”

But unlike those who shy away from services and other temple events after an uncomfortable experience at the synagogue, McClure took action. Knowing that Isaiah had a large number of interfaith families, she started an informal group called “September Situations,” the High Holidays’ counterpart to the “December Dilemma.”

“The group dealt with interfaith family issues during the High Holy Days,” says McClure “It gave people a forum to get together and share their feelings of loneliness during the High Holidays.”

The group helped congregants connect with other interfaith families and provided them with the opportunity to talk about what that experience is like. It also helped with the loneliness because people now had others to sit with during High Holiday as well as Friday night services.

“It’s very meaningful to sit with someone,” said McClure. Out of that grew an informal seating arrangement where anyone who came to services alone–whether on Friday night or High Holidays–knew that in a section on the right-hand side of the sanctuary they would find others who were also alone. And it wasn’t limited to interfaith families. Those who were single, widowed, divorced or were just going solo for the night had a home. “People know when they walk into the synagogue they’ll find others to sit with.”

McClure’s husband is a very lapsed Catholic. Although he supported raising their daughters Jewish and participated in their B’Nnot Mitzvah (when a person assumes the responsibilities and privileges of an adult member of the Jewish community), he is not a religious person. Like many Jews in interfaith marriages, McClure finds the High Holidays the most difficult time of the year.

“When you walk into temple and see a man in his tallit (prayer shawl) with his wife and children sitting next to him, you remember you’re not part of that,” she explains.

“We’ve been at this for a long time,” says Ruth Fremes, who is in her late sixties. Her husband is a non-Jewish Egyptian. “At first [my husband] came to services with me because I felt lonely.” And even now her husband sometimes comes to services. “He never feels out of place,” she says. She attributes her husband’s comfort to the fact that the congregation at her synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, California, is warm, welcoming, and small. It only has 100 families, many of whom are interfaith.

But even she agrees it’s not the same as having a Jewish spouse.

“The things that isolate him are that he doesn’t believe and he doesn’t speak Hebrew,” she says, adding that there are Jewish members of the congregation who also don’t speak, understand or read Hebrew, which makes them feel left behind. Although Fremes and her husband raised heir children Jewish, and have successfully negotiated interfaith marriage, she encourages her granddaughter to marry in, reminding her that, “the High Holidays are when you’ll feel lonely.”

Even if they are little things, interfaith couples tend to find ways to accommodate each other’s needs in this High Holiday season. Debbie La Fetra, outreach chair at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California, asks her husband to make sure the car is fully fueled so that she doesn’t have to go to a gas station and spend money on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

La Fetra’s husband Bruce is Episcopalian and very active in his church. He rarely goes to services with her but is very respectful and supportive of her going.

“Bruce doesn’t really get into the services,” she says. “It wouldn’t be a comfort to me to have him there because he’s uncomfortable. He’d have to take off work. The services are too long, and there’s too much Hebrew.”

So La Fetra makes arrangements to meet friends and sit with them at services.

“These days I know who’s going to be there,” says La Fetra who’s very active in her congregation. “There was one year when my parents were able to come. That was wonderful. Sure, I miss my family. I miss [Bruce].”

These families have found different ways to handle the issue of the holiday meal. Beth Hillel hosts a Rosh Hashanah lunch, which the Fremes attend. Sari McClure belongs to an informal havarah (worship and study group) of interfaith families which does an Erev (eve of) Rosh Hashanah dinner and a Yom Kippur break fast together.

And while all this accommodating is going on, it is important for the Jewish partner to remember that the non-Jewish partner also has needs. “It’s important to honor your non-Jewish spouse’s traditions,” McClure says. “You don’t have to do it religiously. Honor their cultural heritage.”

As with every marriage, whether interfaith or not, the key to success is compromise.

“There are always compromises,” says McClure.

Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern California.