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Holiday Season is Special for Interfaith American Families - 2003-12-24

The Jewish celebration of Chanukah began on Friday evening, December 19. Every night for the next eight, another candle is added to the menorah. This year, one of those lights overlaps with Christmas Eve. That's more than a symbolic coincidence for the thousands of interfaith couples in the United States, including reporter Kathryn Baron. As she tells us, this is the season that both inspires and tests their faith. The women at Peninsula Temple Beth El outside San Francisco, California, have started a new tradition. Shortly before the winter holidays begin, they hold a women's Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. The themes vary each year, but the overriding message is one of peace.

"Tonight, let's enjoy an evening of inspiration and celebration, an evening about great Jewish women here in America in the 20th century," said Liz Bauer, one of the organizers of this year's service, as she welcomed the participants and the congregation. She is one of the most active and thoughtful members of the temple women's group. She is not Jewish.

"I was born and raised Catholic. We went to church every Sunday. During Holy Week, we were there almost every day. That was my life. Same thing for Christmas."

Liz is also Mexican-American, and thus has a history with another richly textured culture. So it wasn't easy when she met her future husband, Dave.

"One of the first things he did say to me when we first started going out was that he was Jewish and that if we were to go any further that his kids were going to be raised in the Jewish faith," she recalled. "I was not able to conceive of living in another way," he said.

The Bauers are one of the 250 or so interfaith or inter-racial families in Temple Beth El. My family is another one. My husband was raised Protestant, although he left the church many years ago. We chose to join Beth El because it embodies our values - inclusiveness, community service and tzedakah, or charity. There is a sense of comfort here for me. It is also a place where families like ours can work through our misconceptions, family pressures, and conflicts over our religious and cultural differences. These are especially accentuated this time of year. Therapists who work with interfaith couples say Christmas trees always trigger some anxiety. To Jews, they are not just benign holiday decorations. Like the Crucifix, they are powerful symbols of deeply rooted beliefs. The same holds true for Jewish symbols - the Star of David, the mezuzah the menorah. Behind these images are centuries of fundamental conflict.

These are the kinds of issues that are explored at Interfaith Connection - a discussion series run through the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, where Rosanne Levitt leads seven young couples through an exercise designed to get each partner focusing on their most treasured religious memories.

"I remember Passover as a kid," recalls one participant. "I always liked Passover because it wasn't just my family, it was usually a bigger holiday. It was less to me about going through the prayers and the religious part. The part I liked really was the social part, seeing other people."

These couples find plenty of common ground in this discussion. They agree that what passes for religion is often more social and cultural - food, music, family. They also begin to realize how little they know about each other's faiths, such as when one Jewish participant asked about the traditional Christmas nativity scenes, "Do you keep them out all year long or just for the holidays?"

"No," was the answer, "just for the holidays. It's not like a shrine.…"

It's been almost a year since Charlene Garland and Bart Schachter went through the Interfaith Connection program. They became engaged four weeks ago. Sipping tea in the dining room of their San Francisco apartment, Bart, who is Jewish, and Charlene, who is Catholic, say religion came up from the very start.

Like many American Jews, Bart was raised with a very strong sense of Jewish identity, but no clear definition of what it means to be Jewish. When he and Charlene started dating, he told her he had to have a Jewish home when he married, but couldn't really explain to her what that would look like.

"Is it the food, is it the language, is it the comedy, is it the Gefilte fish?" he asked. "What is it that you really like and couldn't live without? And that's not an intuitive question people can answer readily."

I completely understand his confusion. My identity is inextricably linked to my Jewish upbringing. Yet my knowledge of doctrine is limited. So I also completely understand when Charlene says now that they have decided to have a Jewish home, she feels somewhat daunted by that choice. "The most challenging aspect of it is that I don't feel like it will ever become second nature," admitted Charlene. "I don't have that intuitive sense of what it means to be Jewish. Do you want me to read the Bible, do you want me to know the top five Jewish comedians of the time? Do you want me to read the Kabala? So, where does one start?"

These are questions that more and more couples are facing. The intermarriage rate for American Jews has grown from 28 percent in the 1970s to nearly 50 percent today. Alan Berg, my Rabbi at Temple Beth El, says there's been a monumental change in attitude during that time. As recently as 1973, when he was ordained, he says Jews still tended to speak of intermarriage in hushed tones. When I was growing up, my parents' generation viewed intermarriage as a personal failure. A child who married out of the faith was a child lost to the faith.

While there are many Jews who still feel this way, Rabbi Berg says he is not fearful about the future of Judaism. What does trouble him is the belief some couples have that they can accommodate more than one faith within one family.

"I had an experience once of being invited to a home to perform a baby naming," he said. "And to my surprise as I left and pulled away, a priest pulled up and they followed it with a baptism. I wondered about that experience at length. And sometimes I'm concerned, that couples project their unresolved issues and force their children to sometimes carry them on and work them through."

Liz and Dave Bauer didn't want to put their children through that. But Liz does make sure they get a taste of her Mexican heritage. On Chanukah, they make a pinata shaped like a dreidel, the four-sided spinning toy symbolic of the holiday. But Liz says in the end, her hope is to raise nice Jewish children.