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Chelsea and Marc: Celebrating Interfaith Families

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Dr. Michelle Golland: The mixed marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has highlighted a very real relationship issue. I see it in my office often, and it goes like this: "I thought it wouldn't matter how we raised our children, but now it does." This line can come from either the Jewish or Christian spouse (or Muslim, or whatever). Interfaith marriage is a challenge even across Christian lines of denomination.

Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky

Couples don't discuss spirituality and religion enough prior to marriage. They just believe that they will be fine and that the kids will be OK because they love each other. It really is just a case of denial. It's something that needs to be addressed, and it will matter to you and your children. I have run hundreds of interfaith-couples groups, and one thing that has become clear to me from talking to my clients is that those raised with a mishmash of beliefs and holidays found religion confusing as children. This confusion seemed to impact how they felt about their own spiritual identity.

In retrospect, they believed their parents were trying to be helpful and loving in doing either a little Christianity and a little Judaism or nothing at all. But they felt it was way too much responsibility for them, as children, to take the lead as to what was celebrated within the home. It also made them feel as if they were literally choosing between their parents. If they liked Christmas, they felt guilty toward the Jewish parent; if they were really connected with the Jewish side of the family, they worried they were hurting their Christian parent.

When working with interfaith couples, my advice is simple: You need to choose one religion that you are going to fully invest in, and teach your kids that that is their identity. I don't care what you choose; I am not invested in having more Jews or more Christians or more Buddhists. But I am invested in the idea of children having a sense of identity and enjoying the strength that comes from having a sense of community and belonging to something larger than themselves or their family.

I do not think the spouse whose religion is not chosen to be the primary experience within the home needs to convert, but he or she must support and get behind the idea that the kids will solidly identify with that particular faith. The children can participate in all kinds of holidays with the extended family, and the extended family should participate in your "chosen" holiday context as well. All holidays should be a celebration of diversity and love and finding the common ground.

I was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism, and we are raising our children Jewish. In our home, we celebrate the Jewish holidays, and my family -- all the aunts and uncles and cousins -- are included. We also celebrate holidays such as Christmas and Easter with my family. My kids know that I chose to become Jewish and that Nana and Papa are Catholic and celebrate their own holidays.

It took effort and dialogue between the families, but in the end, it has made for a smooth and deeply connected holiday season for all of us. The ability to feel grounded in one's own sense of spirituality and be able to honestly celebrate another's is what I believe we are instilling in our children.

next: Can 'Negotiated Fidelity' Save Marriages?
20 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anya August 16, 2010, 5:38 AM

Agree 100%!!! I converted to Judaism before my husband and I were even engaged because I KNEW it was of the utmost importance for the the family to be of one religion - even if nonpracticing since most of religion is just traditions - holidays and such - but it’s confusing for children to do both. My children are exposed to Catholicsim since grandmom, pop-pop and some of their aunts/uncles/cousins are Catholic and we visit them on some holidays but they KNOW what their holidays are since we actually celebrate them.

Also, you CANNOT be half Jewish and half Christian - their basic tenets oppose one another. My bro-in-law married a Catholic woman, which is fine of course, but their kids are completely confused since they never made a choice and just say “the kids will choose” and all they care about is getting tons of gifts in December for both Hanukkah & Christmas :)

MartiniMama August 16, 2010, 7:28 AM

I don’t agree at all!

I was raised in an interfaith home (Jewish-Christian) and am raising my child in an interfaith home (Jewish-Christian-Muslim). It depends on how religion is presented and the respect that is shown towards the other religion.

My son is growing up knowing all three faiths and I have noticed that he is much more open to new ideas and much more considerate towards others re:their differences than most of his peers.

Leah August 16, 2010, 8:15 AM

Totally agree!! My husband converted to Judaism because we knew it was important to raise our children in one faith. Our kids are naturally exposed to Christianity through their grandparents/uncles/cousins on their dad’s side but they understand that Judaism is what we practice. I think having the exposure definitely makes them well-rounded but it’s not as important as having mom/dad/kids all on the same page when it comes to practicing.

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