Dear Dawn: I’m the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who raised me with no religion. Finding my way into Judaism has been difficult and, at times, painful. My partner, Tom, was raised Christian and is now an atheist. While he has warm feelings for his church, he no longer belongs. When discussing how we would raise children, I mentioned enrolling them in Sunday school and their having b’nai mitzvah. To my surprise, he was resistant to this idea. It turns out the experience of being raised in a religion and subsequently separating himself from it was a lot more of a struggle than I realized. In the end, both of us want to protect our hypothetical children from pain that we suffered as children — mine from feeling like an outsider and his from forging his own path away from family-community-identity. — Now What?
Dear Now What: This is a very important subject, as some interfaith relationships are with “faith-free” partners; your partner doesn’t want a faith at all.
In your case, you are struggling (as an adult) to become a participating, accepted Jew. It took you a great deal of effort and a significant amount of pain, and you don’t want your children to experience this. Tom left his church, which impacted his relationship with his family and community, but what he had (and still has) that you did not is a tradition to leave.
Since he describes it as painful to separate, I am guessing that it was a warm and comfortable, family-based identity as he was growing up. Now he has left it based on different beliefs as an adult: not believing in God any longer.
He is correct that anyone raised with a belief in God risks losing that faith. But anyone raising their child without a belief in God risks their child eventually taking on a belief.
I don’t think Tom’s fear is one that you can guard against. Your children may very well not agree with you on some of your fundamental beliefs. Additionally, since they will have a Jewish mother and an atheist father, they are guaranteed to be presented with opposing belief systems from the very start. Without question, the two of you will have to find a balanced and shared approach in explaining things to your kids.
What Tom enjoyed growing up — a community that embraced him, an identity that was clear to him, a shared family belief system — is certainly a positive for a child. Ask him: Would he really prefer that he had not experienced that?
Conversely, what you had was not to be envied — no faith community, no shared family tradition, no identity that opened doors and arms to you. And when you decided to seek out Judaism, you encountered the rebuffs that befall the child of a Jewish father. (Frankly, though, even if your mom was Jewish, you would have experienced a different set of challenges.)
Let me give you the bad news first. There is no way that you and Tom will protect your children from painful experiences. All you can do is try not duplicate the ones that you experienced. In the great adventure of life, I believe a child is much better off when equipped with a religious tradition, a spiritual community and a clear identity. All three can be rejected if they so choose. But having a childhood of security and belonging can never be granted retroactively.
The good news is that all parents want just what you want: to save their child from pain. But our child’s challenges are rarely what we suffered. That’s what we really have to be ready to accept. What you and Tom must do is give your child a strong, secure foundation and then pay attention to their emotions and sensitivities, and be ready to respond.
Here is the irony of your situation: You want to give your children what Tom got (a secure religious identity). Tom may think he wants to give them what you got (some knowledge of many traditions without the expectation that they will accept any of them). Tom is best prepared to communicate the warmth and security; he lived it! But you are ready to give them a sense that, while all traditions have values, including a belief in God, having one that belongs to you is worth making choices for.