For families and couples who are interfaith, particularly those who are in a Jewish and Christian relationship, December can be a balancing beam—multiple traditions, holidays, and rituals demand equal attention. For interfaith couples of all faiths, holidays shine a spotlight on what makes being in an interfaith relationship so challenging…and so potentially rewarding.
As someone in an interfaith relationship, I actually enjoy December. There’s not much of a dilemma for me—but I know how incredibly lucky I am.
Although I’m the Jewish half of the couple, I’m the one who pulls the Christmas decorations out of the attic each year. And, as I’ve written in the past, I was raised in an interfaith family. Growing up, there was no great December holiday crisis. Hanukkah and Christmas made sense as a pair, and melted into one super month-long celebration of family, goodwill, and warm and fuzzy feelings. Perhaps some of my fondest holiday memories included the overlap of the two holidays. While it might not be featured in any Norman Rockwell, I relished the scene of a crackling fire, a fully lit menorah, and potato latkes enjoyed in front of the well decorated tree.
In my relationship, there has never been much tension around holidays and differences of faith. Perhaps it’s because if you had to narrow my partner and I down to one shared value it would probably be our mutual and never-ending curiosity for life. Having different traditions doesn’t actually separate us; it gives us more to talk about. And, as long as the respect for each other—and for each other’s families, tradition, and faiths—remains, we don’t experience any pushback from our respective families.
When I sat down to write this piece, I was already aware of how lucky my partner and I were. But when I started speaking with other couples, I was struck by how unprepared I was to offer advice on how to navigate December as an interfaith couple. Every situation is so different, and often quite delicate.
For Ilana and her partner, for instance, the best way to observe Hanukkah and Christmas as an interfaith couple has simply been to be there for each other. Ilana shared that before bringing her partner home, “there were a lot of hard conversations. First, many in my family had to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t bringing home a man. There has been some real fear and sadness, even though my family loves [my partner] as a person.” Common ground was found in looking at what Christmas and Hanukkah traditions Ilana and her partner shared, like discussing where they would be donating money and why. Observing the holidays together meant being open, listening, and being ready to say, “It would be really meaningful for me if you would be at this or did this with me.” Ilana’s advice for an interfaith couple? “Explore, have fun, ask questions.”
Another couple shared that the stress of the holidays wasn’t really a reality until they had kids. Now the holidays have a new meaning. Each year December is a little different for them, as they take the time to discuss with their daughter what each of her dads believe, and how and why they observe different holidays as a family. Their advice? Take each year—and each holiday—as it comes, and be ready for the questions your kids ask to evolve as they grow up. I recommend taking a look at the materials that InterfaithFamily has for parents navigating Hanukkah and the December dilemma.
I’ll leave you with one last resource: holiday cards that help create a safe space for all relationships and families. Alexis Gewertz founded the holiday greeting card line HappyChalladays after spending years looking for the perfect way for her and her partner to celebrate in an inclusive and interfaith way. Alexis and her artistic partner Chelsea Scudder launched their own line of interfaith holiday cards, perfect for anyone looking to send out holiday greetings.
After speaking to many about navigating holidays as an interfaith couple, a clear theme emerged: the importance of asking questions and simply being there for one another. I can’t think of a better piece of advice, for December and beyond.
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Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Abi Weissman examines Parashat Bamidbar and asks who is counted while reflecting on her own interfaith relationship.
In Parashat Bamidbar, the different tribes take a census of their members. They counted the men who are over the age of 20. This portion also describes where Tribes should position themselves in relation to the Tabernacle. The idea of the first census resonates with me. I wonder what it feels like to be counted and to be left out.
Who is counted? And who is not? In the Parshah, all 603,550 men over the age of 20 who can fight are counted. In The Five Books of Miriam: A Women’s Commentary on the Torah, Ellen Frankel reminds her readers that the women and children are left out of this counting; the Levites are counted, but in a separate census. The “mixed multitude” that went with the Israelites out of Egypt are also not counted (Frankel 1996, p. 107). All told, Frankel counts about two million Israelites who left Egypt at the Exodus (1996, p. 107). Only a small portion of the total population counted in this census. This categorizing and organizing and numbering reminded me that I sometimes feel not counted because I am an integral part of a multifaith couple.
In the past and in the present in some synagogues, queer members are not fully accepted into their Jewish communities. We were or are invisible or linked with the what-not-to-do’s of the previous book, Leviticus. Currently, the Reform movement is comfortable naming the queer in our midst and granting us the rights once limited to heterosexuals. Queer Jews can be married to each other at most Reform and other shuls. We can be Rabbis. We can have liturgy that speaks to us. (For example, the new Siddur Sha’ar Zahav is an entirely LGBT-normative book). But as a Queer Jew in a multifaith relationship, I often do not feel the same respect or membership that other Queer Jews have been granted.
I fell in love with Melissa shortly after I met her, almost three years ago. I was drawn to her and yet, I felt that loving a non-Jew meant that I was, in a way, betraying my parents and the ways of my people. After all, as a child, I grew up knowing that I would “marry a nice Jewish boy,” and after I came out as a lesbian that I would surely “marry a nice Jewish girl.” Instead, I am troubled that I am engaged to marry a nice Shiksa, who is not only not Jewish but is a minister in a Christian faith and a Christian scholar.
I grew up with the idea that I will marry and that my partner and I will both be members of our synagogue. Instead, I am in love with a woman who cannot be a member of my synagogue as she is “actively practicing another religion.” She can attend services, and she does occasionally, but she can never be a true member. Whereas I can attend “for members only” events, she will never be invited. Melissa is listed as my partner in the membership directory. Melissa and I sit up late at night talking about religion and worship and the ins and outs of how religion plays a part in our lives. It is Melissa with whom I talk about my desire to have Jewish children and it is Melissa who daily encourages me to fully embrace my Jewish identity. Yet Melissa remains an outsider; and despite my active participation in synagogue life, I too have sometimes become an outsider in my own community.
I struggle with being counted. Being counted as a Jew can be reminiscent of the Holocaust where being recognized and numbered as Jewish was a prerequisite to being rounded up and slaughtered. To me, however, being counted has a different connotation. It is about being made visible – recognized. Melissa is a Christian and I am a Jew. Neither one of us wishes to convert, for we have each found a religion that speaks to us, in which we struggle to find our place, and with which we feel connected.
I long to stay connected to Judaism and to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco). When interfaith events happen, I often become excited and then, upon reading further into their text, realize that these events involve Jewish ritual and only Jewish ritual. I long for more multi-faith events where both Melissa and I can mingle our rituals and be around people who recognize the ways we are a stronger couple when both of our traditions are practiced and honored.
I am not perfect. After three years, I am still learning about how to be in a multi-faith relationship. While Melissa and I speak often about the future, I wish that there were a guide on how to be Jewish and connected to my community as a Queer Jew in a multi-faith relationship.
I wish that there were a place that I could go to talk about the situations I’ve encountered both at my shul and away from it. I would love to talk with others about how to respond to insensitive people who, when they learn that I’m dating a minister, ask when I am converting to Christianity or when she will convert to Judaism. I’ve also been berated for dating outside the Tribe. Fellow congregants invite me, in front of Melissa, to a “members only” event but they don’t invite her and they don’t explain why. At times like these, I feel pulled away from Judaism and from wanting to partake in congregational life. I feel a rush of sadness. I wonder what it will be like to have children with my beloved. I want them to feel like our family is welcomed into a Jewish congregation (and in addition, as a part of a Lutheran church).
And then, I’ve had some wonderful moments when I have felt dedicated to being a strong participant at my synagogue. I’ve felt known here and loved and supported by my community when I’ve had long meaningful conversations or experienced our religious rituals. I’ve felt challenged and encouraged and most of all, at times, I’ve felt seen and counted.
I am curious if you saw me at shul, how you would approach me? Would you welcome me to the bimah? Would you have my partner and I light the Shabbat candles like you do with other engaged couples? Would you welcome my future children? How would you treat my partner? And finally, I wonder (in a similar was as to how the tribes moved to where they stood in relation to the tabernacle) where I stand in relation to my Jewish faith and my community?
May there be a time when all those who identify as Jewish and ALL the ones who love them, feel welcomed and honored in Jewish communities near and far. Cain Yeherazon. May this be so.
What does it mean to be Jewish and queer? What about dating queer and Jewish? Does it make a difference?
I am Shaily Hakimian from Lincolnshire, Illinois studying elementary education at Indiana University. I have been working in the LGBT movement since I was 14 – so about 8 years. I grew up going to Solomon Schechter Day School where I received a Conservative Jewish education as a Sephardic Jew living in America. My dad is from Iran and my mom is from Morocco, though she spent part of her life in Israel. My mom has always had a strong connection to Judaism. Though we have slipped slightly in our observance of kashrut among other things, she still pushes me on a regular basis to marry Jewish. G-d forbid I don’t meet someone Jewish.
I always think of what it would be like bringing someone who was not Jewish to Israel to meet my family. What would my cousins think? In Israel, the chances of a Jewish person not marrying another Jew are slim. But in the U.S., the chances of that happening are far greater. Over the years I have tried to understand why my mom and other relatives always pushed this so hard on me. Why is it so important for me to date Jewish? Continue reading
The High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.
Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for Interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season – and all year long.
Here are four easy steps your organization can take right now.
1. Update your website.
- State explicitly on your homepage that your community includes and welcomes both LGBTQ and interfaith families and looks forward to engaging them in all activities;
- Use photos that reflect your community’s diversity.
2. Create a Welcoming Policy Document.
- Start the policy with a statement of inclusion;
- Let interfaith LGBTQ families know what their membership status will be;
- Let partners and spouses who are not Jewish know if there are restrictions for leadership positions.
3. Make your inclusion visible.
- Add an Organizational Affiliate Badge from InterfaithFamily.com to your homepage, in your links section, or on your about us page.
- Put a Safe Zone sticker on your door or your website.
- Mention the “I” Word: when creating publicity materials for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, events, and programming. Don’t forget to explicitly invite “interfaith families,” and “LGBT families.” (InterfaithFamily’s studies have found that 72% of our users find it “important” that a synagogue say its programming is “for interfaith families” in marketing material.)
4. Don’t assume.
- We all have different levels of Jewish knowledge and hurdles that match, so:
- Translate all Hebrew/Yiddish language;
- Avoid terms like “non-Jew” to describe a partner who isn’t Jewish (I can only speak for myself, but I do not identify as a “non-Christian”);
- Provide easy access material (like our booklets), for visitors and others who might want a refresher; locate them near main doors as well as in low traffic areas.
For more information on making your synagogue welcoming and inclusive to all types of interfaith families, check out InterfaithFamily’s Resource Center for Program Providers.