How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating: For Those Married to Jews or in Interfaith Marriages


February 2000

There’s a book written by a leading Conservative Rabbi, Alan Silverstein, titled It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Intermarriage. The goal of the book, as I understood it, is to promote an approach to preventing intermarriage. I don’t think that intermarriage can be prevented, and I think that trying to do so can be very counter-productive. If the message communicated is that intermarriage is wrong, you shouldn’t intermarry, though if you do we’ll welcome you — then the last part of the message is likely not to be heard.

If intermarriage can’t be prevented, then being totally inclusive and welcoming of intermarrieds from the outset is a much wiser approach for the Jewish community, in my opinion. But there certainly is an element of truth to the book’s title, because it — intermarriage — does all begin with a date. So how do we talk to kids about interdating?

In theory, I don’t believe that it should be all that complicated. At least, that should be the case if the parents have raised their children as Jews and conveyed to them through their own actions the value that they place on living Jewishly. Because the message then seems pretty clear to me, and it goes like this:

  • We, your parents, would like to see you live a Jewish life because we have found it to be a source of meaning and purpose in our own lives, although we recognize that you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to live Jewishly.
  • If you want to have a Jewish family and a Jewish life, we want you to know that your chances of doing so are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish. You may know and see intermarried parents who are living Jewishly and think that that could happen to you, too, if you intermarry, but the statistics clearly show, for example, that a relatively small percentage of intermarried parents raise their children as Jews, and if you ask intermarried parents about it, they’ll tell you that although it is possible, it isn’t so easy to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage.
  • If you want to marry someone who is Jewish, your chances of doing so are far greater if you date Jews. You may think that dating is only dating, but we don’t think you can control who you fall in love with, and if you think about it, your first experience with the person you end up marrying is highly likely to be — a date.

In practice, I’ve tried this approach with my own children. My daughter, who’s now twenty-one, has had three serious boyfriends. She met the first one on a bicycle trip on the West Coast, and he happened to be Jewish; the second was a classmate in high school, the third a classmate in college, and neither was Jewish. Right now she’s not involved with anyone in particular. My son, who’s seventeen, is involved right now with a Jewish girl he met on a trip to Israel. To be honest, I haven’t talked about this with my daughter recently. I suspect that her primary value would be finding someone to love, and whether he was Jewish or not would be of only secondary concern.

When I look at the approach I’ve outlined, it occurs to me that although I would very much like my children to marry Jews, for the reasons stated above, it’s not my primary value either — it’s more important to me that they find a good mate than that they find a Jewish mate. After all, while it may be difficult and statistically unlikely to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage, it’s still possible. I’m intermarried myself, and my children know that they were raised with strong Jewish identities in an intermarriage.

But I don’t think the way to talk about interfaith dating should be that much different if the parents are both Jewish, or if they are intermarried. The approach I’ve outlined could be used equally by either type of parents. If the parents are intermarried, the statement that it isn’t easy for intermarried parents to raise Jewish children will probably be more credible, although the children may also be more likely to think that if their parents did it, they could, too.

I suppose one difference between intermarried parents and two Jewish parents is that it would be pretty hypocritical for intermarried parents to tell their children that it would be wrong for them to intermarry. But I don’t think it’s effective to tell teenagers and young adults that interfaith dating is wrong — that message won’t take hold in the vast majority of young American Jews who are living in a very open society, are mixing constantly with others who are not Jewish, and are likely to find the message exclusive or discriminatory. I also don’t think it’s effective to tell teenagers and young adults that they should do something because it’s important to you as their parents — I think they have to make their own decisions.

Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community


October 1999

Review of Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, by Gary A.Tobin (Jossey-Bass Publishers, $25).

Gary Tobin, a leading researcher of the Jewish community, has written a provocative book in which he calls for organized, systematic efforts by the Jewish community to seek converts. Tobin defines “proactive conversion” simply as welcoming non-Jews to become Jews. He says he doesn’t advocate proselytizing–he wants to just open the gates, not charge out of them. He doesn’t want to abandon standards for conversion as set by the religious movements. He just wants the Jewish community to have a positive attitude towards conversion and to take advantage of the American phenomenon of denomination switching.

Tobin addresses and disagrees with the standard arguments against seeking conversion: that it is traditional to discourage conversion, not to encourage it; that it will produce a backlash in the Christian community; that it shouldn’t be a priority for use of the community’s limited funds; that it only produces one generation of Jews (because their children do not remain Jewish); that converts are religious but not communal or people oriented; and that it would be preferable to have a smaller number of core, committed Jews than a larger number of uninvolved ones.

Among the benefits Tobin anticipates for the Jewish community if it follows his advice, beyond increasing the numbers of Jews, are that reaching out forces a re-examination of the structure of the Jewish community; converts add a richness to Jewish life and inspire born Jews to participate; and having more racially and ethnically diverse Jews will help Jews bridge gaps with other groups.

Potential targets identified by Tobin for these conversionary efforts include non-Jewish spouses of Jews; children of intermarrieds; individuals with some Jewish heritage; the “unchurched;” and those who are unsatisfied with their current religion.

A lot of what Tobin says rings true. He argues that it is important for Jews not to regard converts as lesser than born Jews (interestingly, Tobin’s wife is a convert). He has an excellent discussion of conversion as a transformation of identity through experience and understanding–a process of becoming that begins prior to a formal conversion ceremony, and continues thereafter, and shouldn’t be expected to occur prior to marriage (interestingly, Tobin’s wife converted after three of their six children were born).

What is missing from Tobin’s book is a convincing presentation of why conversion is necessary or preferable to non-Jews making Jewish choices without formally converting. Why couldn’t Tobin call for “proactive inclusion” instead of proactive conversion? The motivations he cites for converting–selecting a Jewish spouse, searching for spiritual well being, and desiring to be part of a vibrant community–can be had without conversion. He says that unambiguously Jewish families are necessary to transmit Jewish traditions, but that can happen in intermarriages too; then he assumes that conversion turns a family into an unambiguously Jewish family, but the spouses in such a family could be very minimally involved, while the spouses in an intermarried family could be very involved. Instead of promoting conversion, the community could encourage intermarried spouses to make Jewish choices, including possibly conversion.

Tobin also avoids any serious discussion of the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. He says that the first contact an interested non-Jew has with the official Jewish community can determine if the person decides to proceed with or withdraw from the process of becoming a Jew–but despite the fact that that first contact in many cases is with a rabbi asked to officiate, Tobin does not advocate strongly for such officiation.

Opening the Gates is not a “how to convert” book. It is an interesting extended policy argument in favor of promoting conversion. Those considering conversion may find it useful in explaining the kinds of attitudes that converts can encounter in the Jewish community, but it is not meant to address what it feels like to undergo the conversion process.

Parenting My Jewish Children in Our Interfaith Family: A Jewish Parent’s Point of View


November 1998

When my daughter Emily was sixteen, she started to date an observant Conservative Jew. One night she was invited for Shabbat dinner. By that point she knew all about our Reform movement’s policy on patrilineal descent, under which she is recognized as a Jew. However, I thought I should remind her that in the eyes of some other Jews, because her mother is not Jewish she would not be considered Jewish at all. When I did point that out, Emily very defiantly stated, “No one is going to tell me that I’m not Jewish!” This was a bittersweet moment for me. I was happy and proud of how strongly she felt. But I was, and still am, pained about this–why would any Jew want to reject, to exclude from the Jewish people, my caring, intelligent, beautiful, and very Jewishly committed daughter?

I’ve talked quite a bit recently with Emily, who is now twenty, about how her Jewish identity was formed. She remembers feeling, when she was little, that she was “half and half.” She also remembers that while she and I were walking hand in hand one day, I told her that she wasn’t half and half, that her Mom and I had decided that she was all Jewish. She says that from that point on, that’s what she felt. It’s hard to believe it was that simple, but I guess our children do pay attention to what we say, and at least some of the time it has a real impact.

I do think it’s important for parents to make sure to communicate their thoughts on religious identity to their children. When Emily’s Bat Mitzvah approached, she asked, “Why is it so important to you, anyway?” (By then she had stopped accepting everything I said). I remember being really taken aback, because I assumed that she knew why it was so important to me. But I hadn’t told her. So I ended up writing a long letter to her, about how I loved my immigrant grandparents, how I experienced some anti-Semitism growing up, how I was one of the rare people who enjoyed Hebrew school and Jewish learning, how I felt about Israel, and more. I learned that we can’t expect our children to know what’s in our heads if we don’t express it to them explicitly.

I’m pretty confident that both Emily and my son Adam, who is sixteen, have strong Jewish identities. Emily was the co-leader of the Yale Hillel Reform Chavurah last year. Adam has read most of the novels of Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, and every once in a while, when he hears a positive story in the media about Jews, he says, “There’s another one for us.” He loved Israel when we went as a family five years ago, and is looking forward to returning next summer on a NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) trip.

I’m very fortunate in that my wife does not practice another religious faith and that she fully participates in our family’s Jewish experiences, even though she has not converted to Judaism. Of course, we’re as close to my wife’s parents as we are to mine, and our children clearly know that their mother and her parents come from a different tradition. They’re certainly reminded of this every Christmas, which we have always spent at my in-laws. Yet they aren’t confused about being Jewish themselves.

If you had looked at our behavior early in our marriage, you might have wondered whether our children would have a Jewish identity. I think I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted the children to be Jewish, but in their earliest years I didn’t do much about it. For example, when my daughter was born, I didn’t even think about giving her a Hebrew name, and my parents didn’t raise the subject either. She got her Hebrew name, Tirzah, one day at the Boston Children’s Museum, which was having a multicultural festival. One of the activities involved learning the Hebrew name that had the same meaning as your English name.  The person at the booth looked up the meaning of the name Emily, found out that it means industrious, then looked up the Hebrew name that means industrious, and found Tirzah. She then calligraphed Tirzah in Hebrew, and we still have the paper that Emily was handed that day. (When she was ten, we had our rabbi over and he did a somewhat more official naming ceremony for her and Adam.

As another example, I was never comfortable with the idea of having a Christmas tree in our house, but when the kids were pre-school age, we did have a Norfolk pine all year long, and at Christmas time we did put a few ornaments on it. By the time the children started school, though, they also started at Jewish religious school. By then, I think all of us were uncomfortable even with that degree of “decorating” a tree, and we stopped. Looking back now, our Norfolk pine with ornaments seems a little foolish. But my point is that our attitudes and our practices evolved. When our children were younger my wife and I were still negotiating how we would adjust our individual traditions, and that takes time. I think that my agreeing to put some ornaments on the Norfolk pine showed my wife that I respected her tradition and helped to enable us to reach a mutual decision later on.

Although my children have strong Jewish identities now, my confidence is qualified because one can never know what the future will bring, and I suppose the real test of their Jewish identity will be whether they will want to raise their own children as Jews. But our experience to date is one example of many that show that it is very possible, and very rewarding, to raise Jewish children in an interfaith family.