Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.
My husband was raised Catholic but hasn’t practiced any religion since he left his parents’ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.
Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids weren’t profound. They went something like this:
Me: “How will we raise our kids with respect to religion?”
Him: “Well, you’re Jewish, so aren’t they Jewish by default?”
Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.
That’s fine and good, but I’ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being “nothing.” Or as my brother’s kids say, they are “half Jewish.” What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kids’ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with them—and unlike him, I practice my religion.
Yet this wasn’t a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.
When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.
As I have previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things I’d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she “graduated” from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.
The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have a bat mitzvah and she said yes. I explained to her she’d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.
Here’s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I don’t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we don’t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isn’t an easy path to choose.
Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they don’t have to.
The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being “different.” When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though I’ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasn’t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who “get me.”
No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.
And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I don’t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community. Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.
Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before us—and it won’t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.
That’s why when other interfaith couples say they’re going to “wing it,” I vehemently tell them not to—but rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.
In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.
I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringing—especially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, “Jewish.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.