Jewish Journal

Interfaith Dating

by Helen Mintz Belitsky

Posted on Dec. 23, 1999 at 7:00 pm

Heather Levy, l9, a merry, self-confident young woman from Silver Spring, Maryland, has dated primarily non-Jewish boys, and believes that religion should not get in the way of falling in love. She acknowledges that when children come along in an interfaith marriage "it gets really hard," but sees herself many years away from marriage.

Heather, who a year ago broke up with a non-Jew she dated for two-and-a-half years, says, "I find dating only Jews too limiting." Her mother, Bev, sees the handwriting on the wall.

Bev's older daughter, Laura, is married to Pat, who is not Jewish. Bev struggles with conflicting emotions, each of which have a strong claim on her actions. She is balancing the desire to keep peace in the family with a commitment to perpetuate the Judaism that was at the heart of her own upbringing. Having Jewish grandchildren is an assumption she has not relinquished.

"As long as Pat (Laura's husband) respects our religion and allows and encourages Laura and their future children to practice Judaism, that's all I ask," says Bev. She admits that her assumption that her daughters would marry Jewish men was implicit and not articulated.

With intermarriage in the Jewish community at the 50 percent mark and rising, it's obvious that the message "I expect you to marry a Jew" is being short-circuited in Jewish homes around the United States. In the overwhelming majority of these intermarriages, the non-Jewish partner does not convert to Judaism, and in nearly three-quarters of these interfaith homes, the children are not being raised as Jews.

Through the years, the Levy house on Huckleberry Lane was warmed by Passover and High Holiday Day celebrations, and by the girls' childish bat mitzvah chants learned at their Hebrew schools.

Still, a generation and a world of divergent values separate Heather and her mother. Heather is growing up in an open society which extols individuality, perplexes young people with choices, and offers the freedom to adopt new belief systems. She springs from parents who belong to a generation which assumed from the givens of their own upbringing that their children would make the same choices regarding dating and marriage that they did.

Bev Levy's father was Orthodox, and plain speaking characterized his message to her about marriage. "The bottom line was that intermarriage was unacceptable," she recalls.

"My sister and I grew up knowing our parents would love us and support us in our choices. They did and it has made a lot of difference to us," said Laura, now 27. When I told Pat I wanted him to meet my family, I said, 'If you meet my family, you'll know what I want out of life.'" Pat and Laura respect each other's traditions. They make a Seder, and light Chanukah candles. They celebrate Easter and have a small Christmas tree. "Pat has learned that my identification with Judaism is less with the ritual and more with the traditions we celebrate as a family," said Laura.

Jewish memories, Bev believes, are part of what makes a person who they are, and Pat and Laura are trying to create their own Jewish memories.

When Laura didn't get home in time to light the Chanukah candles last winter, Pat did it himself, reading the blessings on the box as best he could, Bev says proudly.

"I expect you to marry someone Jewish" is one of the l0 things Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, believes parents should say more often to their children. Say it before they begin dating, Moline urges in "Tomorrow's Harvest: Planting Seeds of Jewish Renewal. After that, it comes out like a judgment. "

"What do you say after you've said no," asks Dr. Egon Mayer, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and author of numerous studies on Jewish intermarriage, outreach and conversion. "Because the no expresses a wish more than a powerful affirmation of 'you must not or else.' Once it becomes an issue, saying no is a weak response," says Mayer.

For parents anxious about the future Judaism of their grandchildren, the wisdom inherent in all parenting advice applies: consistent articulation of values without apology.

Parents heed this advice when it comes to teaching children about hard work, honesty, compassion and loyalty. Yet somehow, plain talk about religion seems awkward to some parents, a contradiction of American values of tolerance and equality.

Yet psychologists, educators and rabbis underscore the value of religion in guaranteeing a child's security, sense of well-being and rootedness.

For Ellen and Roy Rosenthal, of Potomac, Md., Reform Jews who gave their three girls a Hebrew school education but sent them to secular schools, Jewish identity is a matter of pride, the comfort and self-esteem they feel in being Jewish. Their oldest daughter, Dayna, is married to a Jew, and Roy believes that a young man's religion places high on his daughters' list of priorities.

Says Ellen, "I've always been proud to be Jewish, without apologies. We opted for public schools, but I always thought of my kids as little ambassadors, good examples for people who didn't know much about Judaism." Adds Roy, "We told our kids from the beginning -- marriage is tough. Choosing a non-Jewish mate simply adds problems down the road. "

Asking young people to look down the road often brings such answers as, "It's just a date." "I won't be getting married for years." "We'll bring up our children with no religion/both religions." Parents who engage their children in discussions about interdating often confuse a frank and clear articulation of their values with seeking to win an argument, says Rabbi Alan Silverstein. "The absence of immediate victory," he cautions, "should not be mistaken for failure. "

For Aileen Cooper of Washington, D.C., such discussions challenge parents to guide their children respectfully, to articulate values without angry prescriptions. "Judaism was always a strong underpinning for me and for Dave, who had a strong religious education. There was never a question about whether I would marry a Jew. It was never an issue."

Cooper raised her children, Mitch and Amy, in Minnesota, where they were the only Jews in their elementary school class. She and her former husband, Dave, were active in the Reform synagogue, and the children went to Hebrew school at different stages of their lives. The family later moved to Alexandria, where the schools had a larger population of Jewish children.

"I never explicitly told my children not to marry a non-Jew, Cooper says. "I've tried not to undermine my kids' ability to make their own decisions, especially by the time they reached college." When her daughter's relationship with a non-Jew was getting serious, she sat down with her and turned the discussion to consequences. "Believe it or not," she says, surprise still lingering in her voice, "Amy and Carter had not talked about children. When they did, it turned out he didn't want his children to be Jewish. The relationship ended." The imponderables of Jewish identity and parent-child relations raise questions about the future of every young person. The story is hardly over for young people who interdate, says Aileen Cooper, reminding herself and others that teenagers need to stretch their wings, to experiment. "Interdating need not be a predictor for lifelong patterns of living.

Heather Levy, who dated primarily non-Jewish boys, and dropped out of B'nai B'rith Girls with the first press of high school activities, is a case in point. Powerful emotional connections link her to her early traditions. The satisfactions of working toward her bat mitzvah, and the flickering yahrzeit candle her mother has lit annually for her grandmother are among her cherished Jewish memories.

When she looked toward the time that she would leave the warm embrace of her home on Huckleberry Lane and depart for the University of Delaware, she pictured herself going to temple, "this time by her own choice." Now that she is out on her own for the first time in her life, she is dating a Jewish boy. She also attends Hillel -- a place where everyone has a common history, values, traditions, yes, even stories and jokes. There she has found the community she all but deserted after her bat mitzvah.

Five Steps to Better Ensure a Jewish Marriage

1. Tell your children you expect them to marry someone Jewish. Explain why.

2. Let them know that this standard applies even to dating.

3. Start talking to them about this when they are very young. Don't wait until their first date.

4. Create a strong, positive Jewish environment at home. Cook Jewish foods, practice Jewish rituals (especially child-oriented ones), participate in Jewish communal experiences, sing Jewish songs, use Jewish ritual objects, engage in Judaica arts and crafts, play with Jewish educational games and toys and create a Jewish family tree.

5. Enroll your children in Jewish activities, such as youth groups and summer camps, so that they have the opportunity to meet Jewish peers.

Excerpted from "It All Begins With a Date" by Alan Silverstein

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