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US Religious Diversity Prompts Increase In Interfaith Marriage

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This weekend, a congregation of intermarried Jews and Christians in suburban Washington will observe Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Interfaith Families Project is one of a small but growing number of communities that are trying to be true to both Christian and Jewish traditions.

During the rest of the year, they meet on Sunday mornings in a high school in Kensington, Maryland.

A rabbi and a pastor, backed up by a group of musicians, lead them in the the "Shema" - the Jewish statement of faith in one God - and the Christian Lord's Prayer. On a recent Sunday, they interspersed that prayer mix with Beatles songs.

Religion researchers estimate that one third to one half of all marriages in the United States are between members of different faiths. Some say that is a sign of increased religious flexibility and tolerance in the United States, while others warn that Americans' religiosity is being diluted. The debate is particularly strong among Jews, who are intermarrying faster than other faiths.

After the prayer service, the children go into classrooms, to learn about both Christianity and Judaism.

Cindy Porhoryles teaches the third class class. She is a Roman Catholic whose husband is Jewish.

"We really try to honor both traditions - both sets of rituals, if you want to call it that - and the foundation of both religions," she said.

Critics say Judaism and Christianity cannot be coherently combined because of their fundamental disagreement over the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God. Many parents here are devoted to their own faiths, and worried their children would not be accepted by either of their religions.

Angela Whitehead Quigley was also raised Catholic and fell in love with a Jewish man while in university.

"Neither one of us was going to convert," she said. "We both felt very strongly about our own faiths, and so we were really trying to find a place where we felt home and that's what we found here."

"Part of what I loved about her from day one was her Christianity," said her now-husband, David Quigley. "I assume part of what she loved about me from Day One was the faith I had, the Jewish background."

Universities are one of the most common places for interfaith dating.

Chester Gillis is dean of Georgetown University's divinity school and a professor of theology. He is writing a book that he hopes will show interfaith couples how to harmonize their belief in God, to help them face the other obstacles.

"If you marry someone from your own community, there's a common sympathy and understanding, tradition, a culture, social events, family events, that you're just familiar with," he said. "When you marry outside of that you may not be familiar with those at all. It may be your first time celebrating Easter, or your first time celebrating Passover, or your first time celebrating Eid.'"

A study published last year by religion scholars David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame and Robert Putnam of Harvard University found that one third to one half of all marriages in the United States are interfaith.

Gillis says religion is more diverse in the U.S. than any other country in the world. People are increasingly socializing outside their own faith circles. And recent waves of immigration have brought new groups of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others.

Religious leaders are under pressure to accept intermarried couples into their churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Gillis says the biggest challenge so far has been for Jews.

"There's a fierce debate within Judaism as to whether this is a good phenomenon or not," the theology professor said. "Some, like the Harvard Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, argue that, 'This is the end of anti-Semitism. This is acceptance in the common culture. This is very good for Jews.' And others argue - particularly in the Orthodox community and sometimes in the conservative Jewish community - 'No, this is the demise of Judaism.'"

After school, 7-year-old Hannah Quigley shows her father how she wrote the words Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year - in Hebrew letters. 

"This is shin," she said.
"Right. Good. Good!" David Quigley answered.
"And this is hey," said Hannah.

Then she shows her mother her artwork.

"So this is Santa Claus. And this is what?" Angela Whitehead Quigley asked.
"A Christmas tree."

Eli Kane, a 17-year old graduate of the school, works as a volunteer to help with the younger children.

He says dual-faith education taught him to appreciate both religions.  

"I like the open-mindedness of Judaism," he said, "but I guess I respect the deep belief of Christianity."

Asked what he considers himself, he said: "To me interfaith is its own thing, and I identify with interfaith."


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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