How I Survived My Interfaith Holidays and How You Can Too

A Rabbi and a Pastor walk up to an altar… it sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? Well, with interfaith marriages on the rise, that set-up is a reality.

Roughly 35 million people in the US are in interfaith marriages. That’s 27% -- 37% if you count Protestant denominations as different religions -- of the married population in the US
So, it should come as no surprise that the acceptance of interfaith relationships and marriage (including those with no religious upbringing) has steadily been on the rise. According to David McClendon, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, this is very likely due to an increase in religious tolerance as well as a decrease in religious affiliation and observance.  

So, with all of this acceptance, life should be easy breezy for those involved in interfaith marriages, right? 

Well, things get a bit complicated when you’re a family trying to balance more than one religion. 

How do couples make it work?

You need to know your religious comfort level and set boundaries

Every couple has their own set of boundaries they won’t cross when it comes to religion. I was raised and am a practicing reform Jew, while my husband was raised and is a practicing Protestant. We have a two-year-old daughter who we are raising with both religions. No, not just some traditions from each… both. Yes, BOTH. 

Fairly early on in our relationship, we began discussing religion, and even before we had children we addressed our comfort levels with one another’s religious beliefs and what boundaries we will and will not cross. 

I don’t want my children to have an infant baptism, and my husband doesn’t want his children to suck at sports. (The Jewish people are not necessarily known for their professional athletic prowess.) 

All joking aside, for us, since we have agreed to raise our daughter with both religions, instead of neither, establishing our boundaries is something we openly discuss, the discussion is ever evolving. While I do not feel comfortable saying prayers that use Jesus’ name, I understand that Jesus is going to be a part of my daughter’s life.

For this year’s Chrismukkah celebration, we had a Chanukah dinner with my parents and another interfaith couple in Long Beach, Calif. The evening included lighting the menorah, a white elephant gift exchange, and eating copious amounts of potato latkes along with some traditional toppings (apple sauce and sour cream) and some non-traditional, not necessarily kosher toppings (pastrami and Swiss, lox, and Asian flavored latkes and accompanying sauces). 

And for the nights we were at home? We lit the menorah, we both said the prayers in Hebrew, and there were many presents for our daughter (mostly provided by my parents). 
Finally, we headed to Minnesota for ten days, which included the last five days of Chanukah. So, during our trip, we lit the menorah with our extended family, told the story of Chanukah, met Santa, went to Christmas Eve services, and sat in our pjs all Christmas day opening presents and wrangling the little cousins.

What do these boundaries look like across America?

In speaking with a variety of interfaith couples throughout the country everyone has their own comfort levels when it comes to religion.  

Lea Grover, a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran, for example, won’t cross the line of getting herself baptized or baptizing her kids. Another Jewish woman in Seattle, who married a Catholic man, is uncomfortable with the idea of her one-year-old son going to church until he is old enough to understand religious differences. And when a DC couple -- a reformed Jewish woman and a non-practicing Catholic man -- participated in the Catholic Church’s mandatory pre-marriage counseling with her Catholic husband, she almost left one of the discussions when the group leader mentioned the church not acknowledging same-sex couples because they do not procreate. As for another couple in DC, Jason, who is Jewish, and his wife, who was raised Presbyterian, are planning to raise their children Jewish, but will still celebrate some of the cultural aspects of the Christian holidays without getting into the idea of Jesus being the Messiah.

Naomi Williams, who considers herself an unaffiliated Christian and is married to a Jewish man in Davis, Calif., points out there are often bigger hurdles to overcome than differences in religion. 
“When we married, he was a vegetarian and I wasn't, and that was a LOT harder than the religious differences,” Naomi said. 

When even sharing the same religion can be uncomfortable

Religion as an issue in marriage is not limited interfaith couples. 

For example, most reform and many conservative Jews do not keep Kosher and might find it more difficult to marry a more observant Jew than a member of another faith. Similarly, there are plenty of C&E Christians when it comes to church (only attending on Christmas and Easter), and they would feel more comfortable marrying someone from another religion rather than someone who will push them to attend church services every Sunday.

For Shawn and Jaclyn Novatt, both Jews from Long Island, they describe their religious affiliation as Shawn being Jewish and Jaclyn being JEWISH. While she is far more observant -- enjoying traditions, attending temple services and participating in prayers -- the more religious aspects make Shawn uncomfortable. 

“I am just not religious and don't believe you need to wear things to get into heaven,” Shawn said. “I'm convinced heaven has buffets filled with bacon, ham, sausage, lobsters, and cheese no matter what we are wearing or saying.” 

But they make it work because they compromise. She keeps a kosher kitchen except for the toaster oven and, while the dishes are kosher, anything can be eaten on paper plates.

Making sure interfaith relationships don't blow up

For some, religion is a taboo subject. But if you are considering marrying someone who doesn’t share the exact beliefs and observances that you do, get the conversation started early.

If you’re not ready to discuss your boundaries and comfort levels as far as religion is concerned, maybe you’re not ready to get married. Far too many marriages end in divorce, but most start with the intention of “Till death do us part.” So why not make your chances of making it to the finish line that much greater?

Discuss your expectations for issues like your wedding service, how you’d observe once you’re married, and how you’d raise your kids. 

This conversation can evolve as your relationship evolves. Keep the conversation going. Constantly. Your relationship with your religion may also continue to develop. If you are planning to share your life with a spouse, children, G-d, or anyone else, include everyone in the conversation.

And if you plan to have extended family involved when it comes to those big events in your life, clue them into the discussion as well. Let your family know where you stand when it comes to certain religious boundaries and your family’s involvement in them. If you don’t want your mother-in-law to take your children to church when you’re not present, or you really think it’s special to have your father-in-law read Bible verses to you after dinner, make your feelings clear. You don’t want anyone to feel manipulated or use manipulation when it comes to teaching your family certain values. Best to be up front while remembering that it’s your family and your decision, and your extended family should respect this.

As an interfaith couple in Orange County explains, his family (Catholic) was wary that their grandchildren were going to be raised Jewish (while still observing traditions of Christianity), however they seem to have a better understanding of the family dynamic now and even bought their granddaughter a Star of David for her baby naming and flew out from New York to attend the baby naming of their grandson.

Erik, a Protestant from Wisconsin, married a Jewish woman from New Jersey, is planning to raise their daughter in both religions. 

“I think it starts with understanding how our religions have shaped each other and loving that part of the person,” Erik said. “Using that as a jumping off point, we can build up a foundation of traditions, belief in God, caring for others, humility, boldness and being a complete person that defines both of our religions.” 

Can't we all just get along?

Yes… we can.

There are certainly many religious clergy members who still will not perform interfaith weddings and will not recognize children as members of their respective faiths until they undergo certain religious rituals. There are many religious leaders, however, who happily perform interfaith weddings and life ceremonies.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue of Irvine, Calif. has performed over 100 interfaith marriages including those co-officiated by leaders of another religion. His says he wants to “send a message of welcome and inclusivity to all interfaith couples.” And while he would prefer that these couples raise their children as Jews, he knows he can’t control that outcome and that “being welcoming raises the possibility.”

Similarly, Rev. Skip Lindeman, Senior Pastor of The La Cañada Congregations Church in La Cañada, Calif., believes that “love is of G-d and one’s religion should not keep him or her away from a person of another faith if that person feels the same way.” 

As Jaclyn Novatt points out, “I think the people who look down on interfaith families are the same people who look down on anyone who is not 100% exactly like themselves.”