The Jewish community has a lot to say about interfaith families–no doubt you’ve seen the surveys, statistics, and think pieces aplenty. But what often gets overlooked in these conversations are the people themselves–you know, those living, breathing human beings trying to find the right balance for their family and where they fit within the larger Jewish community.
These people exist, and too often, they are spurned.
In a recent essay titled “Open Letter to Judaism” posted to Medium, Liz Polay-Wettengel chronicles the hardships she and her husband, “a kind mid-western man” raised in a different faith, have faced as they have tried, time and again, to actively participate in the Jewish rituals and life-cycle events that are so essential to the Jewish life they crave. From trying to find a rabbi who would officiate their Jewish wedding, to trying to find a mohel who would simply answer some questions her non-Jewish husband had about the bris, the message received was loud and clear: “… again we were denied access to you.”
When it came time to give their child a foundation in Jewish education, the response became even more depressing:
A third time I sought you out… to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husband’s background, I was told that your community’s children’s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.
And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didn’t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaism… so I gave up trying.
Luckily for Liz, her story has a happy ending, eventually finding an accepting interfaith community (she is now the National Director of Marketing and Communication for InterfaithFamily). But what can be said of so many others, who after trying and trying and failing and failing, give up on Judaism altogether?
I have two brothers, both raised in the same Jewish home as me. Both took to the bimah for their bar mitzvahs and then promptly stopped doing anything Jewish at all. They hated religion. One took quite the liking to Nietzsche and firmly placed himself into the “God is dead” camp.
And then, they got married. One to his high school sweetheart–an undeniably sweet woman who was raised Catholic–and one to a woman he met in China, one of the bubbliest, good-hearted people I know, who was raised without any religion at all. And guess what? Both of my sisters-in-law feel passionately that their kids are raised with Jewish traditions. They seek out books and programs and congregations and other people who are like them. And I feel confident that if it weren’t for these women, my niece and nephews would not be raised Jewishly at all.
But it’s been hard. And they’ve heard their share of “no’s,” of “access denied,” of, “try somewhere else.” My brothers and their wives have persevered and continue to find ways to be involved in the kind of Jewish life they want. But I know soon, my niece and nephews will hear it too, the sounds of doors closing, and this makes me profoundly sad.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from Liz:
So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a “problem” like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask “MOM? What time is Shabbat?”
And then I’ll make my promise to interfaith families: At Kveller, you’re always welcome here.