2 parents, 2 faiths, 1 family Religion: Synagogue program helps interfaith couples and their children explore the meaning of being Jewish.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's the holiday season, a time for family gatherings, good food and -- for some parents and their children -- more than a little confusion.

Take this scenario: Daddy is Jewish, Mom is Catholic. There's a tree in the living room, a menorah on the mantel and presents from Santa in a heap on the floor.

No wonder the kids are having a problem figuring out exactly what's going on.

"The holiday season is one of those times of the year when interfaith couples have to directly confront the issues involved in how their different religious traditions are affecting their children," says Beth Land Hecht, who directs the "Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me" program at Temple Oheb Shalom in Northwest Baltimore.

"Our goal is to help them feel comfortable and learn about their different traditions and to feel welcome," Hecht says. Although the program is based in a synagogue, its goal is more to counsel and clarify than to convert.

Interfaith couples with young children face many challenges, from what kind of religious education they want for their children to dealing with difficult in-laws.

Temple Oheb Shalom has been running the Stepping Stones program since 1989 to help interfaith couples interested in exploring Judaism negotiate questions about their religious identity, particularly during the holiday season, says Rabbi Donald Berlin. Three years ago the program was expanded to include children as well as adults.

"We strongly believe a home with children should be raised in one religious tradition, not in two," Berlin says. "It helps provide a spiritual base, a context, a sense of security and home for the child as he or she is growing up."

But for an increasing number of families there are no pat answers to questions about religious identity.

For example, more than half of American Jews today are marrying non-Jews, a significant increase since the 1960s, Hecht says. Jewish women are as likely as men to intermarry, and nine out of 10 children of such unions also will marry outside the Jewish faith, she says.

That means a lot more children are being raised by interfaith couples who have to make a decision about passing on their families' religious traditions -- or not passing them on.

"Most do nothing, or a little of this and a little of that," Hecht says. "It's really a minority of interfaith couples who are making a conscious decision to raise their children Jewishly."

That's where Stepping Stones comes in. The nine-month program begins in September and runs through May, during which parents meet for group discussions, while children learn about Jewish holy days and ceremonies through singing, arts and crafts, and storytelling.

Currently, 16 families are enrolled in the program.

Among its recent graduates are Marianne and Ron Flax of Owings Mills. The couple, both of whom are 37, have two children, Jordan, 5, and Alexandra, 3.

Knowledge for all ages

"Religion wasn't an issue when we were dating," says Marianne, who was raised in a Catholic family in Philadelphia. "Before we got married [in 1987], we had already decided to raise our children Jewish, because Ron wanted it."

Marianne says she had no problem with that, although after Jordan was born her husband didn't always have the answers she needed to raise a Jewish son.

"He didn't know a lot of the traditions," she says. "So when we attended Stepping Stones, the program took us from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur through Passover and we learned about each holiday -- how to follow tradition, how to set a Seder table and have Shabbat dinner Friday night."

The experience also rekindled Ron's connection to the faith he had grown up in as a child.

"I was raised Jewish, but we weren't very religious," he says. "Now we want to instill some tradition in our children, so absolutely I've have to delve more into the religion."

The Flaxes believe they have struck a balance -- for now -- between the different traditions each of them brings to their marriage. This season they have both a Christmas tree and a menorah in the house. But they emphasize that, for their family, the tree is a festive symbol, not a religious one.

"Jordan knows he's Jewish, but the older he gets I guess I'll have to take a little of [the Christmas decorations] away," Marianne says. "You have to do the best you can to make traditions special, but do it in a very non-religious way."

Dina and John Sarbanes of Riderwood, who went through the program last year, have chosen what is in some ways a more difficult path in raising their two children, Stephanie, 5, and Nico, 3.

The Sarbaneses celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas in an effort to instill understanding and respect in their children for the traditions each parent grew up in.

"Before we were married, we decided to raise our children with knowledge and appreciation for both their identities," says Dina. "So they're being exposed to both religions and we've found a personal way of educating them that doesn't produce any great confusion, but makes them feel both sides of their family have value and are worth celebrating."

Dina is Jewish. John, the son of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, was raised in an interfaith household in which his father was Greek Orthodox and his mother Episcopalian. He and his parents attended both the Greek Orthodox and Episcopal churches as a family when he was growing up.

"Our hope is that our children will grow up able to have a meaningful relationship with both the synagogue and the church," he says. "If we can pass that on, then how they want to exercise their religious traditions down the road will be their decision."

The Sarbaneses celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas in what they describe as more or less the traditional way.

"But obviously we don't celebrate each one in a vacuum," Dina says. "We feel that in order for our children to have a good sense of self esteem and identity, they need to participate in and feel connected to both religious traditions. And we hope that as a result they will grow up to become people who are more tolerant of others and more sensitive to other people's religious traditions."

John and Dina say it would be simplistic to describe what they are doing as raising their children as both Christians and Jews -- though outsiders might view it that way.

"It's a very sensitive issue," Dina concedes, "and we feel it's very personal. Our daughter attends Sunday school at Oheb Shalom. We celebrate Hanukkah and we have a Christmas tree and celebrate the birth of Jesus. We think that those two celebrations can be reconciled, can work together in harmony."

Festive symbols

Richard Weitzner and his wife Vickie, both 35, attended the 1994 session of Stepping Stones. Both are lawyers with the Maryland state attorney general's office and they have two children, Aaron, 3, and Claire, 4 months.

Like the Flaxes and the Sarbaneses, the Weitzners have a menorah and a Christmas tree in their house. But unlike the Sarbaneses, they have chosen to raise their children only as Jews.

"I felt that it was important to raise them as Jews to honor my parents, both of whom are deceased," says Richard, "and to connect my children with my family, since my children won't have the opportunity to interact with my parents."

For the Weitzners, the Christmas tree represents "the sense of family and togetherness during the holiday season that Vicki recalled from her Catholic childhood," Richard says. The couple has a festive wreath on their front door. But they stop short of decorations such as angels or Nativity scenes that refer directly to Christianity.

At the Stepping Stones program, Hecht says she tries to emphasize that no matter how innocuous some holiday symbols may seem, they are freighted with powerful historical and religious significance.

The danger of the mix-and-match approach, explains Rabbi Berlin, is that it risks blurring the real differences between Christianity and Judaism as well as the line between sacred and secular.

"We find there is a kind of tug of war, if not between the parents, between the grandparents and extended families," he says. "So the children can still be confused, with an attitude of 'I don't believe either of you.' "

On the other hand, Hecht says, there simply are no hard and fast rules couples must follow in all situations.

"I don't tell people what to do, that's not my role," she says. "I just encourage people to learn and to understand. Each family has to do what they're comfortable doing."

Information about the Stepping Stones program can be obtained by calling Temple Oheb Shalom at (410) 358-0108.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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