When Kelly Smith and Brian Bloch met at a convention in Long Beach in 1999, sparks flew. As they developed their long-distance relationship via e-mail -- Brian at his computer in Houston, Kelly at hers in the Valley -- they were astounded to find out how much they had in common.
But when Brian moved to Los Angeles, became part of Kelly's household and joined a synagogue, he and Kelly, a nonpracticing Catholic, realized that for all they shared, they had work to do in melding their lives as Jew and Christian.
In November, they became part of the first group of couples to participate in Reaching Out, a new program sponsored by Jewish Family Service and Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, and funded by The Jewish Federation's Valley Alliance.
Created, according to its literature, "to enhance the communication of interfaith couples with one Jewish partner," Reaching Out gives couples a nonjudgmental place to discuss the issues that crop up for many couples who bring different religious identities to their unions.
It joins two well-established programs, the Reform movement's Times and Seasons and the nondenominational Making Marriage Work series, which operates a strand for interfaith couples.
All three programs attract mixed couples who are thinking about marriage, engaged or recently married and need to work out issues such as how to handle religious holidays, how to deal with extended family and how children will be reared, along with less tangible but important factors such as personal spiritual needs. By allowing couples to air these issues and hear from others in the same situation, these programs seek to get participants to acknowledge their feelings about religion and begin to work out their issues constructively.
Reaching Out "has helped me get a better understanding of what other people thought and helps me think through what I wanted, because I didn't even know what I wanted," Bloch said.
A recent American Jewish Committee survey may have determined that a majority of American Jews no longer oppose intermarriage, but the reality of intermarriage is that when Jewish and gentile partners bring disparate religious identities to their relationships, the potential for conflict is high -- and a lot of couples don't know how to discuss those conflicts, let alone resolve them.
"Interfaith couples don't do a lot of talking about interfaith issues," said Arlene Chernow, longtime director of outreach programs for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).
"They're very conflicted. They know they have issues, they know they have problems," added Rabbi Allen Maller, who leads the three sessions devoted to interfaith issues for the mixed couples in Making Marriage Work. "I congratulate them; it's the ones who don't come who are in denial."
"The fear of exploring it is the fear of breaking up," said Barney Rosen, a psychologist who has led Times and Seasons sessions for the UAHC. "I really try to create a paradigm where they realize that examining the issues won't damage the relationship."
Tensions often arise because many Jews and gentiles have very different ideas about what it means to be religiously affiliated. "When people come from different cultures, they think they speak the same language, and they don't," Rosen said.
For the Christian, he explained, religion means going to church; for a Jew, ethnic identity may be the important component and religious expression irrelevant. "They think being a Jew is all there is to being a Jew," he said.
"There's nothing that makes me crazier than when the non-Jewish partner says, 'You don't go to synagogue or light candles or do any Jewish rituals, but you say you want a Jewish home and Jewish kids,'" said Karen Wagener, who has facilitated many Times and Seasons groups.
When the Jewish partners begin to explore their feelings about Judaism and look at their spiritual lives through their partners' eyes, Wagener indicated, many of them become more connected to Judaism as a religion.
"Sometimes the Jewish partners are surprised to find out where they are in their lives now in relation to how they grew up. They wonder, 'How did I get here?'" said Jonathan Fass, a Jewish educator who runs Reaching Out and leads its sessions with a social worker. "There are many 'aha!' moments, when people say, 'Not only did I not know my partner felt that way, I didn't know I felt that way.' "
Many couples want to talk about child-rearing right away, but facilitators want them to look inward before they look ahead. "The first thing is for people to look at the life they're living," Wagener said. "They always want to talk right away about how we're gonna raise our children, and we actually put that off for a number of weeks. We get them to talk about their own religious lives, where they're coming from, who they are as individuals and as a couple."
Although many interfaith couples come into counseling programs with thoughts of representing both partners' traditions in their households, the Reform movement takes a strong stand in favor of choosing one religion as the "house faith," and Times and Seasons facilitators try to steer couples toward making a choice.
They're often successful, and when the choice is made, the couple is more likely to choose Judaism than the non-Jewish partner's faith. Wagener said a decision to opt for a Christian-only household is "rare," though some couples choose not to rear children in either partner's religion.
And in the sessions she's led, she added, usually one couple breaks up. "The issues are insurmountable," she said. "They can't find a path."
Maller, in Making Marriage Work, is a bit less directive, advising couples that it's best to choose one household faith but telling them that "they have to decide what to do for themselves."
The facilitators in Reaching Out take a hands-off approach. "We don't advocate any choices," Fass said. "This program is all about the dialogue, not the solutions."
The program leaders promote discussion outside the sessions -- between partners and among couples, encouraging participants to form friendships -- and use the group dynamic to uncover conflict and common ground, allowing group members to challenge individuals' assumptions or fears.
"We encourage 'car talk' -- discussing what went on in a session outside the session -- and we ask about what they talk about," Wagener said. "Car talk can take up the first hour of a session." Both Times and Seasons and Reaching Out include information on the fundamentals of Jewish beliefs, and series culminate in Shabbat dinners.
"I wanted to let Kelly see other people's experiences, which have mirrored ours to a great extent," Bloch said of the five couples in their Reaching Out program. "Even with the limited number, it's helped a hell of a lot."
By the time Smith and Bloch signed up for Reaching Out, Bloch, a native of South Africa raised "casual Orthodox," had joined Adat Ari El in North Hollywood and had told Smith that he wanted to attend synagogue regularly and include Jewish rituals in their home.
Smith said the flyer for Reaching Out sat on Bloch's desk for two weeks before he said anything about it. "I was curious as to what was taking him so long, because I hadn't balked at anything he wanted to do," said Smith, who shares custody of a young daughter with an ex-husband.
"I didn't want him to be overwhelmed with Christmas, so I sort of got the ball rolling," she added.
December marked Bloch's first Christmas in his own home and Smith's first Chanukah. "Obviously, it was a little strange, but I was happy to do it, just as she's happy to go to synagogue with me," Bloch said.
"Having the dialogue between Brian and myself was what was helpful; we hadn't addressed any of it before," Smith said. "My hope is that we won't be afraid to bring up these issues, to step on the other's toes."
That ability to discuss tough issues will be helpful if the couple decides to marry, program facilitators say. "Couples that are willing to go the extra mile and can discuss issues beyond colors for the wedding have a much stronger basis for marriage," said the yeshiva-educated Rosen, whose interest in interfaith counseling arose from his own experience; he married a gentile who later converted to Judaism.
And Jewish institutions such as synagogues, they add, can do their part by being supportive. "They have to be patient and embracing and not frightened," Rosen said.
"It's not halachic," Wagener acknowledged, "but the truth is, it's pragmatic."
For more information about Reaching Out, call (323) 938-2531, ext. 2280; about Times and Seasons and other Reform Jewish Outreach programs, (323) 653-9962; and about Making Marriage Work, (310) 440-1566.