Nix Judeo-Christian lite, interfaith couples told

So, a Catholic pastor and a rabbi walk into a library. Sitting around on chairs are more than a dozen young couples who begin to ask questions about interfaith marriage.

There's no punch line, though, because there are no simple answers.

Rather, this was the scene Sunday morning at the Reutlinger Center in Berkeley during Lehrhaus Judaica's conference, "Building Jewish Bridges." The event attracted interfaith couples of all ages to talk about the challenges of marriage across religious divides.

In the library, Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and the Rev. Richard Sparks, a Paulist priest from Berkeley's Catholic Newman Hall, led a session titled "We are Planning to Have Children: What about Religion?" The seminar drew about 30 participants, mostly Jewish/Christian couples in their 20s and 30s, who conversed with Barenbaum and Sparks on how to raise children in dual-faith marriages.

"I would feel very isolated sometimes, and it's good to be around other people who are going through some of the same things that we are going through," said Meredith Gilston, 28, of Oakland. She and husband Dan Goldsmith, a self-proclaimed "Santa Cruzian relativist," were also seeking some guidance.

She wanted "to find out from people like Rabbi Barenbaum, what has worked and has not worked in his experience with other couples."

Though the two theologians had differing opinions and styles, their mutual points were clear: Interfaith marriage is an unavoidable reality in a pluralistic American society and those couples face great challenges when deciding how to raise children with some semblance of religious tradition.

"We both agree that it's important to pass on faith and a faith tradition [to children,]" Sparks said, starting the discussion. "If I believe deeply…and I don't tell my child, what am I passing on? We both agree that if you teach them to brush their teeth, and not cross the street without looking both ways, and you make them go to school, then [saying], 'Well, let's not teach them anything about faith, and let them decide when they're 16,' is saying [that] something that's very important in life, I'm not going to share with my child."

Sparks said when one partner is more strongly steeped in religious tradition than the other, the couple tends to have greater ease choosing one faith. The decision seems to be more difficult, he added, when both partners are strongly religious or when neither has much religious tradition.

The red-bearded pastor warned against "Judeo-Christian lite," wherein couples teach their children a "mishmash" of Jewish and Christian traditions, excluding the core spiritual understandings of both religions.

One participant asked about raising different siblings in disparate religious traditions. Barenbaum answered by referring to King Solomon's response to two women who were arguing over possession of the same child.

"It's cutting your family in two, and you're eliminating the bond…that the two of you want for your family," he said. "The boys get to be Jewish and the girls get to be Catholic, and the family is nothing."

Barenbaum also addressed a common Jewish argument against intermarriage. One of the greatest challenges facing Jewish life "is to cease getting our identity from tragedies that have befallen us in our history," he said. "When someone says to me, 'Your interfaith marriage policy is finishing what Hitler didn't do,' that person is a dumb ignoramus, if she or he is a rabbi."

Barenbaum later added that "intermarriage doesn't lead to assimilation — assimilation leads to intermarriage."

When asked for three solutions that work for couples, Sparks and Barenbaum offered different approaches.

Among Sparks' suggestions: that the less passionately religious partner convert; that the "less dominant" religion — if it is more ecumenical — be chosen; or that a common ground be found, such as Unitarianism, which may represent the family's current values.

Barenbaum related his experience through stories.

A Catholic man raised Jewish children with a Jewish mother and eventually converted to Judaism. A young Jewish man became a Baptist for his new family, yet he still attends High Holy Day services.

In choosing which religion to follow, Barenbaum stressed, couples should examine the core values of each religion, "not just Chanukah."

Barenbaum also told of a couple who had chosen the husband's Judaism, forswearing anything Christian, only later to put up a Christmas tree.

"Allowances were made for what the other partner needed in order to be comfortable," Barenbaum said. "You just can't make a decision when you're 20 or 30 and expect it to be the same when you're 50."