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Raising Children in an Interfaith Household

Raising Children in an Interfaith Household
Five ways to compromise (and keep the faith) when marriage causes two religions to collide.

Raising Children in an Interfaith HouseholdWhen I met and fell in love with my Catholic husband, I knew my Jewish family would be grief-stricken. Both my parents were born in Europe during the Holocaust, and while I’m not a strict observer, my faith had always been—and remains to this day—an integral part of who I am. It was always a foregone conclusion that my sisters and I would marry within the faith.

But my then boyfriend brought me the kind of joy I never thought I would experience. Our romance played out like a 90s-era Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks film. We knew early on that we would need to tackle some very heavy issues—issues that perhaps could have torn apart even Ryan and Hanks!

The big question, one that no couple should have to broach after a few dates, came up very early: how would we raise our children? We’d only just started dating but we knew we’ve have to have discussions, make decisions, reach consensus, and feel confident in our plans before we’d present ourselves as a couple to anyone in my family.

We’ve been married for fourteen incredible years now, and we have four beautiful, spiritual children. The decisions we made eighteen years ago shaped roadmap we follow. Each family’s situation is unique, but I imagine many interfaith couples can learn from our experience.

God made so many different kinds of people. Why would he allow only one way to serve him?
—Martin Buber

Choose a side

It was of vital importance to my husband and me that our children have religion in their lives. While I’d loved the family-oriented traditions of my youth, I’d always wanted more knowledge and structure. I knew that I wanted more direction for my kids than I’d had.

My husband, a devout Catholic, also wanted to pass on cherished traditions. After lengthy spirited and emotional conversations, we agreed that my husband had a greater breadth of knowledge and a greater sense of religious duty than I did. We reasoned that if we were to choose one religion to formally practice in our home, it would be Catholicism. We also agreed to teach our children everything we could about my (and their) Jewish faith by continuing all of my family’s traditions. 

Embrace similarities

Did you know that Jesus was Jewish, and that his Last Supper was a Passover Seder? My kids do. We’ve made a point of showcasing how similar our religions can be.

Both Judaism and Catholicism follow the Ten Commandments. Both prescribe specific methods to atone for sins. One of my family’s traditions involved throwing our sins (in the form of bread) into the sea prior to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to atone for wrongs throughout the year. My husband and I maintain this tradition with our children. When we walk to our neighborhood lake to cast our sins into the water, at least one of my children will be inspired to speak of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation, which involves confessing one’s sins to seek forgiveness from God.

Let your traditions cross over and serve as a learning experience for both you and your children. Embrace the similarities.

Make your own traditions

We all have treasured childhood memories of holiday celebrations. Now that you have your own family, you can forge your own traditions and create lasting memories. Family ate seven varieties of fish every Christmas Eve but your kids don’t like fish? Make paella, a dish that incorporates seafood, chicken, and sausage. Having a Passover Seder but no one can read Hebrew? Have fun with the phonetic guides in the Haggadah, or take turns reading the English passages—you might learn something new. In short, you don’t have to do things exactly as they were done when you were growing up to ensure your holidays are special and meaningful.

Answer questions honestly

Small children will enjoy whatever religious ceremonies, traditions and teachings to which they are exposed. As they get older, they often have questions. Tough questions. Why doesn’t Mommy believe in Jesus? Why didn’t Daddy have a bar mitzvah if Jesus did? Don’t dance around these sincere moments of wonder. Answer your children openly and honestly and in age appropriate ways.

Mommy believes Jesus lived and was an amazingly kind and smart leader; she just isn’t sure that he was the son of God. Daddy didn’t have a bar mitzvah because when Christianity was born, Catholic people followed a new religion. It might seem like a lot to take in, but by engaging honestly, your children will be able to form their own conclusions. One day they’ll forge their own traditions.

Do what works for you

You and your spouse have to find the balance that works for you. Sometimes it’s best for a couple to choose only one religion to honor and practice. Other couples might find it easier to celebrate multiple holidays but not follow either religion in a structured way.

It’s all good. If it works for you and your spouse, and if you are both truly happy with the path you choose, your children will find joy in your family’s traditions. Don’t let anyone else tell you what is best for you and your family.

About the author

Tammy Spodek

Tammy Spodek

Tammy Spodek is a frazzled, but ever-grateful mom of four. Fleeting moments away from her husband and children are spent conducting freelance public relations out of her home office for clients running the gamut from mobile apps to corporate floor coverings, while devoting countless volunteer hours to her community. Each and every day, she learns from her children as she aspires to - but tends to fall short of - Supermom status.

  • Katie Hale

    We too live in a multi-religious home and it works beautifully for us. Although we don’t always see eye to eye, our son is being raised in an environment of tolerance and acceptance. We are encouraging him to make his own decisions and to seek God in his own way.

  • Nichole G

    I think it is best to mix them as you have,and then let the kids choose what to do when they are older. I liked the quote you used early on to your post to… because I don’t think there is only one right religion.

  • Tatanisha Worthey

    Interesting topic. I think doing what works for you and your family is the best way to go– however, it is definitely a topic that should be discussed while dating. Especially if that person doesn’t believe in Faith/God and you do. Great topic!!

  • I definitely agree that whatever works for your family is the best. As long as your child has some kind of faith, that is what is important!

  • Krystle Kouture

    I think its easier to deal with 2 religons and than a religion vs a person who is not religious. Great tips!

  • Sadie

    This is a great article, with great tips. I always find it interesting that mixing faiths is accepted but when someone says they’re not religious, people go bat shit crazy. It seems to me, though, that things are evolving. It’s great that our children are growing up in a more accepting world than what we grew up in.

  • notageek4u

    Really well written and thought out article. I know in growing up that my father was not religious at all…and my mom was barely religious at the time. She wound up being pagan now lol, but she did instill in us to decide on our faith and even sent us to church and had us Christened. I stuck with my faith and love it. However, my boyfriend comes from a hard core Catholic family upbringing, and only has a little bit of faith…yet, we both decided that when we adopt…we will instill faith and hope, and give a structure of what religion is about by planting the seeds (mostly by me) and still allow free will to come and let them decide, but I do believe in having Faith is important.

  • Christine T

    Great article! I think it is very important to expose our kids to other faiths.

  • Tammy Spodek

    Love all the great feedback. This is obviously a topic that is of extreme importance to my family and I, and I am so thrilled to have been given the opportunity to share our experience.

  • audreydawn84

    I love your topic – it is such an over-looked part of our clumpy & bumpy society – but very relate-able. My mom is a smart, powerful, Irish Catholic nurse from a “weller-to-do” society and my dad a soulful motorcycle man from the “other side of the tracks” (i dunno – quotes seemed appropriate). Mother insisted on Christmas, drug a 12ft tree from out of the woods because my dad just wasn’t gonna go there (trees are special organisms, why must we insist on death?). It didn’t fit in our cabin…she insisted…
    Um, not to be ungrateful, but a .3 gram $1 store barbie who’s head falls off when you’re brushing her hair is not the kind of thing the worlds needs…stop the violence..
    I have such a hard time with trying to live with the double-guilt trip I was born with an how nothing is ever even right. For mental stability of the life(ves) you have grown, be as peaceful as you can with the innocence of your babies.

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