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Questions arise in interfaith marriage

By Diwata Fonte Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday May 10, 2001

Eric and Erica Bachman’s three children seem to represent the indecision of their interfaith marriage. One child had a baptism. One had a bris. And for one child they held no ceremony at all.  

The problem is that both members of the Oakland couple know they should decide what their in-house religious policy should be – and quickly, because their oldest daughter is almost 6 years old. 

A totally Christian lifestyle is out of the question, but so is a totally Jewish one. “If the parents are confused, the kids are confused,” said Erica Bachman.  

“You want the kids to have a religious identity.” 

To help them decide, they attended an intimate outreach program called “Religious Identity for Interfaith Families” sponsored by the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center on Tuesday. About 20 Jews and non-Jews participated.  

The Bachmans are just one couple out of hundreds of thousands that must deal with this dilemma. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported that 52 percent of Jews who married between 1985 and 1990 married outside of the Jewish faith. Of all married Jews, 28 percent are married to a non-Jew.  

Program facilitator, Dawn Kepler, said that interfaith marriages have been rapidly increasing in the last few decades. Kepler said it’s easier to resolve religious differences between a husband and a wife, but when you add kids, the question becomes: “What do you want to give to our child?” 

Outreach programs like this are designed to support couples with these decisions, she said. 

Rabbi Jane Litman of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El and Dave Sauer, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in San Leandro, came to offer their perspectives. 

“The greatest danger is if the couple does not do anything,” Sauer said to the group. “The child has no spiritual roots and they’re not going to get it from the culture.” 

Both Litman and Sauer agreed that parents should actively form religious guidelines for their families. Allowing indecision and uncertainty to prevail may do the most damage of all.  

“Adult children of interfaith families who did not choose, often come to me in a great deal of distress,” says Litman, who has been working with interfaith issues for over 20 years.  

She said that in most cases, it’s better to choose a tradition and have respect for the other faith. “It’s generally better to have clarity.” 

However, clarity is difficult to achieve, especially when couples don’t exactly know what they believe or why.  

“Most people have a 13 or 16 year old’s understanding of their faith,” said Kepler. It’s important that the couples discover what makes their faith special in order to pass that down to their children, she said. Kepler suggested that couples take introductory courses in their partner’s faith so that they can appreciate the significance of each belief. 

One worry for partners is that their faith can be so dogmatic that it is difficult to explain to their husband or wife, why retaining customs is important and why their children should be exposed to them.  

“I believe what I believe because I was told to believe it,” said Erica Bachman, who was raised in a Presbyterian household. “Sometimes I think we can do Jewish, but part of me doesn’t want to give up what was so important to me.” 

But at the same time, a family cannot practice Christianity and Judaism equally. On the other extreme, partners don’t want to convert one way or the other. Couples don’t know how much they are willing to sacrifice.  

Litman said she always emphasizes the same standards for interfaith couples. She said that for these relationships to work, the couples must stress open communication, have mutual respect and always put the children first and let go of “ego concerns.” 

For Jews she advised, “Build a Sukkah instead of arguing about a Christmas tree. Don’t get caught up about not having a good time at Christmas.” 

Because as Pastor Sauer reminded them, “Who’s well-being are we looking out for?”  

Answer: the children.  

Lisa Fernandez and her husband, Bob Gammon, wanted to know what elements of religious compromise works with kids, and “What are the elements that totally screw the kids up so they write a book ‘How my parents screwed me up?’” 

For the most part, said Litman, the relationship can work as long as religion does not become a battlefield where holidays and customs are “chalked up and counted.” Or else, the child ends up hating both faiths, she said.  

Interfaith families must be flexible, creative and understanding. For some, that means raising the children Jewish, but with a few concessions like a Christmas tree or wreath. For others, that means practicing Christianity, but visiting grandparents to celebrate a proper Passover.  

Before they finally decide, the Bachmans, like many families stuck in the middle, have been celebrating both. They’ve been taking classes and talking with each other. There’s no real answer. In the meantime, their kids know that they’re “half and half.”  

Kepler will be leading a workshop on “Grandparenting in an interfaith world,” at 7:30 p.m. May 29 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St. For information, call 208-5554.