Lisa and Richard Fleury of Northvale, married in an interfaith service in 1997, have three children, ages 9 months to 7 years, whom they’re raising in two religions: the Jewish faith Lisa grew up with in Closter and Richard’s Catholicism.
"It’s not confusing," Lisa said in an interview. "There’s a lot of people like us. "
Lisa, who had her bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Tenafly, said the family belongs to no church or synagogue, but she’s hoping this week to take their eldest, Alek, to a Christmas church service for the first time. "We both want our kids to have a sense of belonging to something" and to learn about both religions so they could choose at some point "if it comes down to choosing."
"I think it’s a good thing, what we’re doing," she said.
Alek recently began asking questions Lisa couldn’t answer, so she started to Web-surf and found the Interfaith Community, a Manhattan-based organization with an Orange/Rockland chapter, which she joined.
Much of Alek’s questioning grew out of the reality that most of his friends are now old enough to be attending Catholic religious school once week and he’s not joining them. Asked why, if he’s being raised in two religions, he is not going to both Catholic and Jewish religious supplemental schools, his mother said, "I’d rather him be around kids who are like him, so he can see that he’s not alone." Her Interfaith Community chapter offers classes for children and for adults.
With Christmas and the first day of Chanukah coinciding this year, Lisa’s family and Richard’s will join together to mark both holidays with them, lighting a menorah before Christmas dinner, she said. Though her involvement with the interfaith group, she’s been learning about Christmas.
"There’s more to a Christmas tree than just the pretty decorations," Lisa said. For example, the star atop the tree "has to do with the Three Wise Men, which I never knew before. "
Chanukah today is different from the Chanukah Lisa remembers growing up with. "It’s all commercialized now," she said. "It’s a competition with Christmas." In hopes of teaching her children this holiday season’s "gift of giving," they’re going to give some of their old toys to underprivileged children.
Sheila Gordon, president of the Interfaith Community, told The Jewish Standard that, according to the ‘001 American Religious Identification Survey by Barry Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariella Kesar, ” percent of American households are religiously mixed — that is, "’8 million American married or otherwise ‘coupled’ adults live in a mixed religious household." That figure includes 1′ percent of Mormons; 4′ percent of Episcopalians; ‘7 percent of Presbyterians; ‘1 percent of Muslims; ‘3 percent of Catholics; ‘7 percent of Jews; ‘8 percent of Lutherans; and 39 percent of Buddhists.
Gordon said the Interfaith Community, which works solely with Jews and Christians, was founded in 1987 by a group of intermarried parents whose children attended the same school in New York. Those families couldn’t find a place for themselves in the organized community, so they realized they would have to develop their own infrastructure and donor base.
She herself remembers being told by a Reconstructionist rabbi, "You made your bed, now lie in it" when she, a Jew, and her husband, an Episcopalian, were looking for a community to join with their two daughters. This "unfriendly" reaction was typical, she said.
Still, "a sea change started to happen in the ’70s," she said, not just in the number of Jews marrying Christians, but more marriages between Protestants and Catholics. "Today we have a very different world. [But] the paradigm [of in-marriage] is still in people’s minds."
Received wisdom has been that, when a family observes more than one religion, the situation is confusing, not productive, too complicated, said Gordon, but that’s not necessarily the case, though achieving the goal is hard work. In our complicated global world, all kinds of differences are accommodated. "Judaism is quite robust enough to endure a little education about other religions."
Gordon, who co-chairs the interfaith committee at Cong. B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, involved in both intermarriage issues and interfaith dialogue, says she understands why the Jewish community worries about intermarriage.
"I believe very strongly in Jewish continuity," she said, but "the reality is that Jews are marrying out in huge numbers." No one is advocating for interfaith families, "to help make this path more successful," so they form their own organizations while also trying to build bridges to synagogues and churches. Her group is one example; Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources, "a kind of national clearing house," existing mainly as a cyberspace resource, is another. Both are on the conservative end of the spectrum, said Gordon, with neither "trying to create some kind of New Age mush. We aren’t big fans of Chrismukkah."