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Rationing Minutes: Maintaining a Long-Distance Interfaith Relationship

As New Year’s resolutions go, ours is fairly ambitious: We’re planning our wedding, but without a wedding planner. We’re two full-time students, one in business school (Matt), the other in law school (Erin), and we’re immersed in the endless logistics of photographers, flowers and invitations. We’re even choosing the right Debbie Friedman song to honor our cell phone carrier. After all, it’s one of the many resources we use to kindle our long-distance relationship.

Erin Russ and Matt Scherzer

For almost two years now, we’ve lived apart; Matt in New Haven, Conn., Erin in New York City. Finding adequate “couple time,” fixing travel budgets, rationing cell phone minutes — these are challenges that many long-distance couples face. But as an interfaith couple, we have an extra set of obstacles that make things a bit complex — and at times, quite exciting.

Deciding who makes latkes and who makes holiday cookies — that’s the least of our worries. Our main challenge is twofold: How do we involve ourselves generously with our extended families by respecting their traditions and values, while at the same time laying the foundation for our own explorations of faith?

The answer is: We do it delicately. When it’s time to observe religious holidays, we hunker down and become amateur air traffic controllers. Every Rosh Hashanah dinner, Easter brunch and Passover Seder requires precision planning. Erin will take this train from NYC and Matt will pick her up at 0900 hours. Arrangements are made to care for our darling pet bird. Textbook inventories are mapped out well in advance… and so on, and so on.

At times, this can interfere with our most important religious holidays. It’s hard to prepare for the somber Kol Nidre service, or the Yom Kippur and Good Friday fasts, when you have irritating loudspeaker announcements on the commuter rail wailing in your ear, or bumper-to-bumper traffic to dodge. Miraculously, though, once we sit down with our families or walk into our houses of worship, the chaos and stress seem to disappear, and we can focus on what matters: our family and our religions.

Logistically, the winter holidays pose the biggest challenge, especially now that we’re graduate students. Gift planning begins right around Thanksgiving — well before our final exam crunch. Instead of checking our list to see who has been naughty or nice, we make sure we didn’t forget anyone and haven’t bought items twice! If only we had elves.

And that’s just the presents. Spending time with family and friends over the holidays has become a presidential whistle-stop tour, from New York (a holiday meal with friends) to the Greater Harford area (a large Hanukkah celebration with Matt’s family) to Buffalo (for Christmas services with Erin’s family). Although we have yet to have a sandwich named after us on this campaign tour, we do have priceless family memories and a deeper appreciation for our religious upbringings. We are exhausted afterwards, but we are nevertheless spiritually fulfilled and stuffed with scrumptious food from two different traditions.

For us, religion is much more than seeing family and sharing a meal, however. It is our opportunity to become closer to God and bring His message into our home. We decided early on that our future family would be Jewish. Despite our distance from each other, our commitment has begun now.

As you might expect, this has led to another set of interesting challenges. Sometimes being observant takes a little creativity. For instance, one night this year we lit our Hanukkah candles over speakerphone. Although Matt was away in New Haven, he was able to recite the familiar holiday prayer via cell phone, while Erin lit the color-coordinated candles in her small New York City apartment. Even something as simple as going to temple has been a journey in more ways than one. While the car ride extends our weekly commute by over an hour, we have found that getting closer to God — and being part of a community that values us and our respective traditions — makes it all worthwhile.

Not surprisingly, planning our wedding has provided a great opportunity for us to think about the future. Through the guidance of the rabbi who will officiate at our wedding and our own independent research, we have a better idea of what our Jewish family will be. In fairness to our children, we have thoroughly discussed what will become of Erin’s Christian traditions and how we will function as a Jewish household. Over the past two years, the answers have become clearer and we are excited about our new spiritual journeys together as a family. Thank goodness for solid communication along the way and a good cell phone plan.

Erin Russ

Erin Russ is a graduate student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. She met her fiancé, Matt Scherzer, during her first year at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.


Author: Erin Russ