Interfaith Outreach: A Rabbi's Personal Account

By Rabbi Sarah Wolf on
February 5, 2010

When I walk into my grandparents’ house and my granddad says, “Merry Christmas, Rabbi,” I am reminded, once again, how unusual my family is. I’m one of only a few rabbis who have to take time off work in order to be home for Christmas. The funny thing is, I never realized how weird my upbringing was until just a few years ago, when I entered rabbinical school. Then I was made aware that my background is not only different from most rabbis but I am, in fact, the product of what many Jews see as a major threat to the Jewish people: I am the product of an interfaith marriage.

My dad grew up in a Conservative synagogue in the San Fernando Valley and was, by his own account, at least, a Hebrew school prodigy. He tutored kids for their Bar Mitzvahs when he was barely older than thirteen himself and went on to Hebrew High before actually reaching high school. Even when he was a wandering hippie, sleeping on friends’ floors and protesting the war, he made time to teach religious school. My mom was equally committed to her Southern Baptist faith. She went to church every week, from the time she was a little girl, all through college and beyond. It is a wonder that my proper Baptist mother and my hippie father ever fell in love, but that’s a story for another time. When my parents married, they saw themselves as more alike than different when it came to religion: they both had strong beliefs in God and saw the importance of belonging to a religious community. They decided to raise their children in both traditions. So my sister and I went to both Sunday school at the Baptist church and religious school at the temple, dividing our time between them.

People often ask me if I was ever confused or uncomfortable growing up in two religions. With only a couple of exceptions, I never was. My favorite interfaith memory is sitting at services for High Holidays and noticing the machzor’s red type, which is used for liturgical insertions when the holidays fall on Shabbat. Remembering that in my Christian Bible at home all of Jesus’ words are in red, I thought, what is Jesus doing in here?! Other than that, it seemed perfectly normal to be both Christian and Jewish.

Eventually, for a variety of reasons ranging from the political leanings of the church to my parents’ evolving religious views, my parents recognized that a choice had to be made for our family, and my mom converted to Judaism when my sister and I were 11. From then on, we stopped going to church and considered ourselves solely Jewish. It seemed like a natural shift to me and I don’t remember having any doubts about my own faith. But it was a painful decision for my mom and even more for her parents. When I had to tell my grandparents that I’d decided to go to rabbinical school, I felt like to them, I was hammering the nail in our family’s not-going-to-heaven coffin.

Once I got to seminary, I was surprised to learn that I was the embodiment of some of my classmates’ worst fears. In one colleague’s memorable words, “Why should we bother educating children of interfaith couples at all? They’re not going to end up Jewish anyway.” It’s true that according to the statistics, only about one-third of children raised by interfaith parents are raised Jewish, compared to over ninety-five percent of children born to in-married Jews. And since I was raised for at least part of my childhood in two religions, I was even more threatening to Jewish survival. At best, I come from a family that a professor at HUC who does demographic studies describes as “religiously inefficient.” From the perspective of those of us who want the Jewish community to flourish and grow, I’m more of a close call than poster child.

Nevertheless, I know full well that my family is more than a statistic and that I am more than an anomaly. When we talk about the “problem” of interfaith marriages, I think of the people who foolishly married and brought me into existence. When we talk about whether and how much to include non-Jews in the life of our community, I see my mom sitting in the back row. And when I meet with couples who are getting married or having children and have to decide whether a rabbi or minister will perform the wedding, or whether the baby will have a bris or a baptism, I don’t see statistics, I see people. People who, like my parents, struggle to figure out how best to honor both of their backgrounds, how best to raise their children, how best to serve God. I am not naive. I know that not all of them, or even most of them, will end up like my parents, choosing to be and to raise active, committed Jews. But the more we as a community can be open to interfaith families, the more we can respect and support their process of making these decisions, the stronger we all will be. Our congregation will be strengthened by all of the people who are drawn closer to the Jewish community because of our inclusiveness. And these families will be strengthened by having the support of the community around them as they strive to figure out how to build their lives together. Deciding how to welcome and integrate all of our families into the community is an ongoing process. Tonight, we’ll continue the conversation about interfaith families’ experiences after our service at dinner and then with a panel discussion with Beth Am members. I hope you’ll all join us.

I once asked the educator at my hometown synagogue why she’d let me and my sister go to religious school even though she knew that we were also going to church. She said, “We just knew it was something your family had to work out.” While I would completely understand if her policy had been not to let us attend religious school, I am forever grateful for her patience and tolerance. I never felt anything but fully accepted and fully part of the community, even as my parents were still working some things out. I am proof positive that with a congregation’s help, our struggles, like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, can be for a blessing.