By Deb Silverthorn
When Tevye told his daughter Chava, “As the good book says, ‘Each shall seek his own kind.’ In other words, a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?” Chava responded, “The world is changing, Papa.”
Tevye may not have felt so in that moment, but last month at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center, a panel shared how the world is changing on the issue of intermarriage during the program “Modern Love, Interfaith Relationships: The Heart of the Matter.”
“The moral is our lives must be balanced. The fiddler could have fallen and so too can a family without balance,” said JCC Performing Arts Director Alise Robinson, who is preparing for the March 8-25 production of Fiddler on the Roof Jr., which inspired the program.
Joining Robinson were Josh and Charlotte Kahn, Jane Larkin, Jaynie Schultz, Joy Schwartz, Rabbi Dan Utley and Rabbi Shira Wallach. All agreed there isn’t one model of intermarriage, or of any marriage. For each of the panelists, having the conversation is critical to helping those involved build Jewish homes.
“The more this conversation is part of society, the more programs, education and support will be introduced,” said Schwartz, the moderator of the event. She earned a master’s degree in management and organizational behavior and counseling. She is also a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern. “These issues aren’t different from others of conflict, but they add another layer.”
Schwartz, who leads the Navigating the Religion Decision program, which is open to the community and hosted at Temple Emanu-El with a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, says there’s no real answer but for couples to work together.
So has been the reality for the Kahns, who for nearly 30 years have shared lifecycle, milestone, and holiday discussions as they wrestle with their interfaith marriage. The two have raised their family, with four children, to respect and honor both sides of their family tree.
“When we married, there were few interfaith couples. We’ve had a very interesting journey but we’re fortunate,” said Josh. “No marriage can coast. Not one of two Jews and not intermarriage. Marriage isn’t easy, and you never know until you’re in the moment.”
What can be a charged topic lies within our own limbic systems and isn’t realized until the conversation is opened, said Larkin, director of small groups and community engagement at Temple Emanu-El.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of sharing resources in our community, and we want to change that,” said Larkin, author of From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity. “Working with interfaith couples is my passion, and we’re here as the ‘big C’ in Community.”
All of the panelists noted the importance of the conversation and involvement of both partners. Everyone’s Jewish journey evolves. and someone finding a partner that isn’t Jewish doesn’t mean a Jewish home is lost or unimportant. “We’re one way growing up, another after we have children, another as empty nesters into our senior years. We grow and so do our voices,” said Larkin.
“Our job as a Jewish community is to welcome our non-Jewish families and we want to share the beauty of who and what we are,” said Jaynie Schultz, who teaches the Interfaith Grandparents Discovering Judaism class, a partnership between InterfaithFamily and the Schultz Family Foundation, for non-Jewish relatives of converts or those in interfaith relationship families raising Jewish children. “We’re not here to proselytize but to let them know we want them in our lives.
“It’s interesting to think about where Tevye and Golde’s family could be if Chava and Fyedka had their voices heard, not lost,” said Schultz. “It’s our obligation to welcome families of those raising Jewish families, all Jewish families.”
Temple Emanu-El’s Utley noted that the role of faith and religion, even if they are different religions, is important. “You have to make a faith decision for your family because children are too young,” he said. “You can learn and appreciate and respect the similarities and differences, and still celebrate holidays with the non-dominant (religiously speaking) family, but choosing — there must be a choice.”
Utley said almost always a Jew choosing to marry a non-Jew should not be considered a reflection on how he or she was raised. It isn’t that someone went to day school or didn’t, or kept Shabbat or didn’t; not turning those couples away is a resounding refrain and is key. “We’re a peoplehood, we’re Israel, we’re a lifestyle,” he said.
Congregation Shearith Israel’s Wallach spoke to what used to be a black-and-white issue: Interfaith marriage can’t be condoned.
“Now I’ve experienced an important paradigm shift that we live in shades of gray,” she said. “There are interfaith families who are present at every event, keep a kosher home, and teach their children how to live Jewishly. There are plenty of endogamous couples who coast through their Jewish journeys, rarely engaging deeply.”
Recognizing the conversation is important and exciting, Wallach said; it’s also painful when “a Conservative rabbi who a couple loves and trusts can’t marry them, and it’s painful when Jewish parents assume that their kid’s choice to marry a non-Jew is about rejection of their upbringing. It’s not.”
The Conservative movement has spent years discussing the issue. While its clergy doesn’t perform interfaith marriages, they are always asking themselves: How can families who make the choice to bring Judaism into their homes be honored? How can values of welcoming be demonstrated so these families feel comfortable in the community? How can families be given safe spaces to have these conversations and explore what Judaism offers?
“Boundaries create holiness; we separate milk and meat, Shabbat and the rest of the week. Even God created the universe by separating light from darkness. Boundaries are how we know who we are but sometimes, these boundaries shift,” Wallach said. “It’s painful when truths we expect to be eternal begin shifting and we have to accept and celebrate a new reality. The truth is we’ll all be better for it. Judaism is meant to challenge us so we can make thoughtful choices every day.”