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What Does Pro-Choice Have to Do with Interfaith Marriage?

Note: This was written in 2019.

I worked in the pro-choice movement for eight years before coming to 18Doors. When I started my job, I joked that I didn’t think that I could find an issue more controversial than abortion, but in some segments of the Jewish community, I had.

As we approach the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the United States, I’ve been thinking about the work I used to do fighting for reproductive rights and how that connects to the work I do now supporting interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. On the surface, you might think these two jobs have very little in common, but for me they’re closely related.

I did pro-choice work because I value and trust women to make the decisions that are right for them. As Chief Program Officer at 18Doors and someone in an interfaith marriage myself, I value and trust parents to make decisions about the religious life of their family, and I believe Judaism can add meaning and beauty to their lives. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t.

The decision about whether or not to have a child is a huge, and deeply personal one. I understand that I will not always agree with every woman’s choice about whether to end a pregnancy, but I never question her right to make that choice for herself. At my old job, I worked hard to make sure that every woman had access to information about her body, and access to quality reproductive health care when she needed it.

When I say that I trust parents to make the decisions that are right for their families when it comes to religion, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the outcome, or that I’m not invested in having Judaism be a meaningful part of their lives. What it means is that I want to take away some of the judgment that parents feel.

I’m not trying to suggest that the choice about whether to have an abortion and the decisions around being in an interfaith family are equivalent. However, I do think it is important to respect when those decisions aren’t ours to make.

At 18Doors, we’re all about helping people gain the knowledge and confidence they need to make informed and authentic choices about how to be Jewish in a diverse world. We ask couples to think about what resonates for them and where they find meaning, whether that is in Judaism, other religious or cultural traditions, nature, social justice or other sources. We offer the chance to meet other interfaith couples, to experience Jewish life and community in a comfortable setting and develop a sense of belonging. When we have this space (and I say “we,” to include myself), and the chance to make the practice our own, the traditions and rituals are more likely to stick.

Does this mean that I will agree with the choices that everyone makes? No, but I’m OK with that. My way of being Jewish doesn’t have to look like your way of being Jewish.

What we need as interfaith parents is a place where we don’t feel shamed for our choices. And where we don’t feel like we have to whisper about this part of our lives. It means approaching everyone with respect, even if our choices are different from yours, and even if you don’t agree.

Finding love in this world is hard enough and we should celebrate whenever two people find that kind of connection. When we hear messages about the importance of marrying Jewish, we’re actually hearing that falling in love with and marrying someone of a different background is second best (or worse yet, not acceptable). That would mean that my marriage is second best.

I don’t want couples to feel ashamed. I want them to feel excited about exploring Jewish life together and I want to invite them on that journey. I want to provide them with tools that help illuminate the beauty and meaning that can be found in Jewish choices. Shame and guilt are likely to push interfaith couples away. Respect provides an opening to be part of the community.

Every family has its own unique story. We all make our own choices about how to incorporate Jewish traditions into our lives and when we weave these stories together, they create a beautiful fabric. I believe that the Jewish community is stronger for it.

Stacie Garnett-Cook