Interfaith Blazers face religious choices

Feb. 12, 2005, midnight | By Jonah Gold | 15 years, 7 months ago

What should they believe?

With 51 percent of all Jews marrying outside of their faith, interfaith marriage between Jews and Christians is becoming much more common. Couples in this position are forced to make many important decisions, not only about their own religion but about the faith of their children as well. To help with these dilemmas, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) was founded as an organization to encourage the exploration of both Judaism and Christianity. According to past Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis, IFFP is the largest Jewish-Christian Sunday School in the country, with over 80 families in attendance each week.

IFFP, which meets at the nearby Sligo Middle School, is one of only ten interfaith organizations in the country and the only one with a paid Spiritual Director. The group, which started with four founding mothers in 1995, has grown exponentially ever since. Now, members live not only in Takoma Park and Silver Spring but also in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

Religious education

Heather Kirk Davidoff, the current Spiritual Director for IFFP, says that the organization provides an outlet for educating kids in two religions. "If a family wants their children to learn about both religions, IFFP can be an answer," says Davidoff. For some students at Blair, IFFP has been the way to learn more about the Jewish and Christian faiths in order to make a more educated decision about choosing their own faith.

Sophomore Henry Loeb, who attends IFFP, says that the group helped him to understand that he was not alone in having to make a difficult decision. "IFFP definitely helps because you are surrounded by people making the same choices. People understand where you're coming from," he says.

Jarvis, the first Spiritual Director for IFFP, feels there are many advantages children can gain from attending IFFP. "When you join, you gain a sense of community," says Jarvis. She adds that this community can help children feel more comfortable about their position and be more likely to make the decision that is right for them.

IFFP's objective, as written in its mission statement, is to make a "community of interfaith families and others committed to sharing, learning about and celebrating our Jewish and Christian traditions." Jarvis elaborates that children at IFFP "learn through a curriculum of Reform Judaism and Progressive Protestantism so that a child understands more about the commitment and ideals of both religions."

Loeb says that it was the best way to deal with being interfaith but that it still made him uncomfortable when trying to choose between Judaism and Christianity. "I still have not made the decision because IFFP does not force you to. Because of that, I can't really identify with either religion all the way," he explains.

Although IFFP is available, many families still choose alternate routes in determining the religious direction of their children. Some parents allow their kids to decide for themselves what religion to choose, while others may raise their children in one religion from birth.

Letting kids decide

Students, such as junior Josh Gist, feel out of place when they do not automatically fit into a "group." Gist has faced many obstacles while trying to be accepted because he is half black and half white and has Jewish and Christian parents. "Being the child of an interracial and an interfaith marriage, I had to decide what group I wanted to be a part of," he says.

Gist's parents never forced the issue of which religion or race to chose. "I was able to really find out my own niche rather than fitting into someone else's," comments Gist. The main reason for Gist's indecision, however, was his fear of estranging members of his family if he favored one race or religion over another. "I didn't want to show that I identify with one parent or one family more than the other," says Gist. Although he feels neutral about not having a faith, he sees one way of dealing with the conflict of interfaith marriages as not observing either religion.

His freedom ultimately stressed the importance of his decisions since Gist was making choices at a young age that could impact the rest of his life. However, because Gist never felt pressure to choose a religion he ended up "not feeling very religious at all." Even so, Gist is satisfied with his decision. He does not "identify with either religion, but at the same time, I don't feel that I made the wrong choice," he explains.

Choosing one religion over another

Some parents feel more strongly about their religion and ensure that their children choose one at an early age. Junior Rose Feinberg belongs to an interfaith family where her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian, and she feels that her parents had different views about the role of religion in their lives. "My dad definitely felt stronger about being Jewish than my mom about being Christian," says Feinberg.

When Feinberg was around 13, she chose to have a Bat Mitzvah, a ceremony where a Jewish girl is declared a woman after reading from the Torah and Haftorah. However, Feinberg still felt that her parents exerted pressure to go through with the event, even though they offered her a choice. "My sister had a Bat Mitzvah, and we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. It felt instinctive to have a Bat-Mitzvah," she says.

When one religion is given priority over another in an interfaith family, Jarvis feels that there are several conflicts that can emerge. "[By] giving a child an education in only one religion, you are effectively denying that you even married a Christian or a Jew," she explains. "A lot of Jews, for instance, may feel like they are betraying their faith and their family by not continuing educating their children in Judaism."

Junior Jeff Holliday has faced a similar situation since his Jewish mother has made his family go to services every week. Holliday's father is Christian but "does not really strongly believe in anything. It's more of a tradition for him." Thus Holliday has a Christmas tree every year, but the religious aspect has been eliminated; his mother even makes Christmas cookies. Although most of his family is Jewish, Holiday was still given the choice of having a Bar Mitzvah and decided to go through with the process.

Observing only one faith is a suitable solution for some individuals such as Feinberg. "Although families should try to practice both religions, one parent usually is more powerful," she says. Feinberg adds that families should incorporate both religions into daily life but that sometimes, this is not possible.

Holliday feels that structure of his religion and the educational groups it offers have helped to widen his views on other faiths. "Following one religion has actually opened my mind to other religions because I learn about them at Sunday School. If I was atheist, I would not even have the education to decide to follow one religion," he says.

Decisions, decisions

If children do not choose a religion early on in life, they allow themselves the opportunity to change their religious identity as they grow and mature. Even though Holliday felt that he had the opportunity to learn about both religions, Judaism has become a large part of his life. Waiting to make the decision can also have negative consequences; it can become "like a religious barrier that you can't cross because you feel too uncomfortable," says Gist.

In all instances, none of the students regret their choices. Whether they did not pick their faith, had one passed down from a parent or tried learning about both, all have felt that they have turned out for the best. Jarvis, for instance, feels that the most important part of making any choice is feeling "a sense of acceptance right away, which can make people more comfortable about being interfaith."

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