Is Being Raised “Both” Truly Freeing?

(This article originally appeared in the J-weekly and was titled: Seeking acceptance in one faith after being raised with two)

The idea of a child of interfaith parents being educated in both Judaism and Christianity and then being “allowed to choose” sounds very New Age to many ears. The book “Being Both” by Susan Katz Miller casts this path as one offering freedom of choice. But the idea leaves many people struggling to reconcile their liberal convictions that choice is the ultimate good with a gut feeling that this doesn’t seem right.

Let’s undress this vision of American religious freedom at its presumed best. The young people interviewed for the book self-selected by responding to emails sent to their interfaith school. They have been educated in a particular religious view. Just as a Catholic church would teach a Catholic view and a synagogue a Jewish one, these interfaith communities teach their view.

Were these young people given a choice? Not really. Their parents had determined that they wanted to raise their children in dual-faith homes. They were so committed that they created and maintained these interfaith communities. Naturally, their children were taught their parents’ views of religion. They are, in fact, following the path their parents chose and guided them on, just as a Catholic, Protestant or Jew does using traditional religious institutions.

Are these children exercising choice? No. They are proudly following the practices they were taught.

Are they confused? David, who identifies as both Jewish and Christian, says, “I can’t say I was ever confused about what I was, because I always just kind of understood I was both.” Children accept the world that their parents present to them. Even children raised in bizarre settings accept their experience as normative. Additionally, the resistance they experience from the larger community serves to reinforce their determination to uphold and preserve their way of life.

So what’s wrong with a different way of life for this group of Christians and Jews? Don’t we as Americans get to choose, especially when it comes to religion?

Certainly these little clusters of Jewish-Christian community have a right to exist and to be self-perpetuating. However, they face a few challenges. They exist as a subset of one of the smallest populations on the planet: Jews. Chances are that they will marry a Jew or Christian, which means another negotiation regarding how the children will be raised. With each generation of blended traditions, it is most likely that the less common tradition, Judaism, will be reduced out of existence in that family. While this is a mathematical likelihood, it does not mean the end of Judaism as a whole.

The triumphs described by Miller don’t sound terribly triumphant when looked at closely. Michaela sees herself as able to “go in any direction — Episcopalian or Jewish …” But she doesn’t belong anywhere.

Miller suggests that students from the interfaith schools tend to end up identifying with Judaism. Why bother to make this argument? Why don’t Miller and her fellow “bothies” simply turn on their heels and walk away? Many of the adults now writing about the “both experience” grew up feeling marginalized by one or both religions. Many who grew up as patrilineal Jews suffered significantly in Jewish environments.

In my work with interfaith families, I can’t tell you how many patrilineal Jews have said that “the wrong parent is Jewish.” Despite decades of interfaith work, this core rejection has not been overcome. The voices that advocate for those from Jewish-Christian homes are often angry and shrill. They revel in their interpretation of Jewish studies that show increasing numbers of interfaith families and shout, “You’d better change your attitude toward us! We are growing in numbers and will soon be more of the Jewish population than Jewish-Jewish families.”

Anger is the first response to pain. After being rejected and marked as not mattering, they want to show that they do matter. The Jewish community in turn is angered and frightened, and reacts by building stronger, bigger walls against the assault.

May I suggest that we stop hitting the repeat button and try doing something to advance the conversation and the situation? Here is a four-step process I propose:

First, when a person is in pain, the first thing to do is to hear them out. So we should listen.

Second, we should express compassion for their pain — not pity, compassion. Here’s what I say: “What was said to you is completely unacceptable and unkind. Nowhere does the Torah say it is permissible to be cruel to another person. You have been wronged, and I am so sorry.”

Third, move to empowerment. This may require multiple conversations because the goal is to help the sufferer determine what it is that they want and of that, what is possible to get.

Fourth, time for action. Suffering has ended, seeking can begin. Help the seeker determine where he or she will be most comfortable. Time to explore Jewish organizations, make friends, take classes and, yes, for some people, time to go to the mikvah.

I invite my fellow Jews to let go of your personal prejudices and to simply nurture the journey of our seekers. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t accept patrilineal descent — this isn’t about you. On the other side, if you do accept patrilineal descent and your seeker wants to go to the mikvah, your job is to support that individual in finding a rabbi for the job.

If we stop hurting each other, we will be able to have honest conversations that can include disagreement without rancor. Let’s give it at try.