Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids
In December, Patty Lombard and her husband, Bill Simon, took their two daughters to Florida to celebrate Christmas with her family, as they do every year. The children received presents, strung popcorn and decorated the tree — a Yuletide tradition they would never allow in their Los Angeles home.
That’s because the girls are Jewish, just like their father. When Lombard, a Catholic, and Simon married 18 years ago, they decided to raise their children in one faith: Judaism.
Such arrangements reflect a growing trend among interfaith families that feature a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner who isn’t planning to convert. And despite the Jewish community’s decades-long panic that shrinking population figures are a direct result of intermarriage, recent studies and anecdotal evidence are finding that interfaith families could be more of an asset than an enemy.
Many interfaith couples are raising their children to be Jews, even without conversion of the non-Jewish parent.
One reason for this radical shift in understanding: the release late last year of a new, groundbreaking study.
In Boston, the majority of children among interfaith households — almost 60 percent, far above the national average — are being raised as Jews, according to the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community. The study was carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.
Many observers say that the results of this study are due in large part to the Boston federation’s intense outreach efforts to interfaith families — more so than to independent decisions within the families themselves. Some suggest that communities that replicate the Boston federation’s efforts can bring about similar results.
Another study about the “December Dilemma” by online magazine InterfaithFamily.com showed that 75 percent of interfaith couples with children say they are raising them Jewish, as compared to 33 percent reported in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. The InterfaithFamily.com survey covered a small, self-selecting sampling. The Web site reports that 759 people responded to the survey in 2006, nearly twice as many as had the previous year. The survey also explores how interfaith families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, as well as what exactly those celebrations mean.
For example, while 44 percent of respondents said they planned to decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, only about 5 percent planned to tell their children the Christmas story. By contrast, among those same families, 99 percent of those said they were also lighting menorahs, and 63 percent of those were going to tell the Chanukah story. In other words, most of these families considered their Christmas celebrations to be secular (79 percent, according to the survey), while only 23 percent said that their Chanukah celebrations are secular).
These studies do not offer not hard evidence with any single conclusion, but the results do indicate that intermarriage will not destroy the Jewish community, as once was thought. What emerges from speaking to interfaith families is how committed many non-Jewish parents are to raising their child or children Jewish, even when they themselves have no intentions of converting.
Lombard was raised Catholic. She went to parochial schools through high school and attended Mass regularly.
“I’m not a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I still identify myself as a Catholic.”
But Lombard and her husband did not want to make religion a deal-breaker.
“I didn’t want to say I can’t marry you because you’re not the same religion as me, because that seemed crazy,” she said.
So they agreed to raise the children Jewish — although she admitted that at the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into: “Initially you think, ‘I really love this person, and I want to make it work,’ and then you think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?'”
Lombard began taking classes at Temple Israel of Hollywood to learn about Judaism, but in general she said she lets her husband lead the family in matters of Jewish identity. On Christmas, Simon doesn’t want a Christmas tree in their house.
“I don’t care at all, it’s one less thing to put away,” Lombard said.
For her, Christmas is about spending time with her parents.
“As long as my parents are around, that’s all that matters. I feel in some ways that Christmas has very little meaning,” she said.
Lombard believes celebrating Christmas and attending church with their grandparents doesn’t make her daughters any less Jewish.
“They feel like they’re very much part of that holiday,” she said. “Just like my sister’s family would participate in Passover — it’s a kind of acceptance of where everyone is at.”
Neither does having a non-Jewish mother change the reality. When her older daughter, Emily, was younger, she said, “Oh mommy aren’t you sorry you aren’t one of us?”
But now, at 13, having just celebrated her bat mitzvah with all sides of her family, Emily understands more.
Lombard said she never felt the need to convert: “I felt like I was doing enough; the agreement to raise them Jewish was enough.”
She said it helps that about one-third of the families in her congregation are interfaith and that Rabbi John Rosove, the senior rabbi, is very accepting. “He’s always done his best to make me feel like I was a part of this place … he never made me feel like I had to convert.”
The Lombard-Simon family is evidence that a positive atmosphere toward interfaith couples can help bring the children into the fold, as the Boston study indicates. This year, Boston’s Jewish community invested $321,000 — 1.5 percent of its annual budget — into outreach for interfaith families and individuals, for programs run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.
“If you make the effort to be welcoming then it pays off,” said Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com. “Why is that happening in Boston? What could Los Angeles do to emulate Boston’s success?”