Counselor helps interfaith couples grapple with Jewishness

Are interfaith marriages the new norm? According to Karen Erlichman, licensed clinical social worker, it is estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of all Jews in the Bay Area are involved in mixed-faith relationships. You might say it falls into the category of earthquakes and outrageous housing prices — it's just what's so in California.

Erlichman, the interfaith program coordinator for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children Services, spends her days counseling Jews who are involved with partners of another faith. Her clients are heterosexual as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Most are in their 20s and 30s.

"Each couple has its own personality," said Erlichman. "They'll each have different ways that they deal with issues like communication, money, family loyalty, tradition, holidays." Helping people be able to talk to each other about these issues is the aim of interfaith counseling.

Some of the issues that interfaith couples face are similar to those of their same-faith peers; but then there are the added stressors. One is the winter holidays. Should they celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas? "If this is a couple that doesn't really have good verbal communication in their relationship in general then they probably won't have it in this area either," she said.

Family loyalty is another big crisis area for many couples, particular those who are interfaith. Erlichman pointed out that partners have expectations that their significant other will advocate for them in family situations. She offers an example: "Like when that Jewish person brings their non-Jewish partner home for Passover and people make goy jokes, what happens? It causes stress for the couple, and the Jewish person has to make a decision about where their loyalty is…which is hard to do."

Of course there are also parenting and child-rearing matters. "So a couple is dating…and the Jewish partner might say, 'It's really important for me to raise my kids Jewish' and the other person says, 'Oh, that's fine' but never really talking about what that means…they get pregnant and all of a sudden the questions come up around baptism, christening, a bris."

What about the big question, "How will we raise the kids?" Often the answer is a dual-religion household. "Practicing two religions," said Erlichman, "is a model that's often criticized by Jews as being potentially damaging to the children. I've never seen any data that shows this."

One of the more difficult issues for the mixed-faith couple is defining and explaining what it means to be a Jew. In many interfaith couples, the Jewish partner is not religious but has a very strong cultural identity as a Jew that might make them want to practice certain rituals. Their non-Jewish partner may find this confusing.

"It's a hard thing to explain to other people," Erlichman acknowledged.

Anticipating problems early on while dating can prevent a lot of grief down the line. Erlichman tries to help her clients prepare. "With every couple, each partner is going to grow and change over the course of the relationship. So if one or the other is observant or practices their faith in the beginning of a relationship, that could change at some point. Depending on how long a couple has been together and how early into the relationship I see them, I try to help them anticipate what things come up in different stages in the relationship."

And what of Erlichman's own religion? How might that affect the counseling sessions? Erlichman said that her clients do know that she's Jewish. The Jewish person might have the expectation that there will be some kind of immediate bond with her. But, she cautions, that's not necessarily so. "That would assume that their way of being Jewish is like mine."

On the other hand, she said, "When people come to Jewish Family and Children's Services, it is important to me that the non-Jewish person feels like they're going to be heard and respected."

Once therapy is under way, much of what's discussed will come down to the question, 'How much of the problem is about being interfaith, and how much of it is about the two people as individuals?' In the end, it may not really matter, Erlichman said. "The trick is that they need to be talking to each other about their feelings."