Interfaith couples get help navigating sticky situations

Years ago, when the children of Susan Rothstein and John Koeppel were asked their religion, they'd say, "Half and half."

Now — with one in high school and the other in college — they're still giving the same answer.

Rothstein and Koeppel were among three sets of couples who participated in a panel discussion May 21 hosted by the Interfaith Connection at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The couples had gone to Interfaith Connection classes between 10 and 15 years ago, and came to last week's event to share their experiences with other couples just starting to face the same issues.

The program, which drew an audience of about 50 people, was intended to expose interfaith couples to various approaches and help them select a direction that works well for them, according to Rosanne Levitt, director of Interfaith Connection.

"What's helpful for people is that they hear different ideas and say, 'That will never work for me,' or 'Yes, this will work for me,'" said Levitt, whose program offers discussions and classes on interfaith issues.

One couple described how the non-Jewish partner converted to Judaism. In another, a Catholic woman kept her faith while agreeing to raise the couple's child Jewish; in the third, the two raised their children what they call "half and half," integrating the father's Catholic background with the mother's Jewish upbringing.

Rothstein and Koeppel have two children; one is 16 and the other is a 19-year-old in his first year at Tufts University. The couple began attending Interfaith Connection classes only after they had children.

They found it was sometimes difficult to balance the "scale" between her Judaism and his Catholicism. When he first met with the rabbi from Renewal Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco to discuss raising their kids with an "interfaith flavor," Koeppel told the rabbi he felt uncomfortable with the setup, that it might be "too Jewish."

"I feel like I'm in France; I don't speak French, and I don't particularly like French cooking," said Koeppel.

Originally the two wanted to find a religious leader of each faith to educate their children. They found that Or Shalom would accommodate them, but despite extensive searching, Koeppel was unable to find a local member of the Catholic clergy who would help him.

As a result, he created his own Sunday school curriculum for his kids and taught them about Catholicism and the Christian Bible. His 15 years of Catholic education and Notre Dame background gave him the framework he needed to educate his kids himself. Koeppel took his religion's traditions into his own hands when the priests wouldn't help.

"I baptized my son myself, and I'm about to baptize my daughter myself," said Koeppel. "The pope may not like it, but too bad."

Veronica Sanchez and Jeffrey Bornstein started coming to the Interfaith Connection while they were dating. From the beginning, Sanchez said, her husband insisted their kids would have to be raised Jewish.

Sanchez grew to accept his decision only after traveling to Israel, by herself, as a Koret Fellow.

"That helped me understand," said Sanchez, whose husband was not at the recent event. "It's the whole thing about the continuity of the Jewish people."

Sanchez has not left her faith, and describes herself as a practicing Catholic. She said that once she and her husband decided that their child, David, now 9 years old, would be raised Jewish, she wanted to go into it all the way. They decided to send David to Brandeis Hillel Day School.

"He's not going to be 'Jew-lite,'" she said. "He's going to do the rituals and get the education."

Cuisine is one place where cultures overlap in her family, said Sanchez. Her husband loves cooking the Nicaraguan dishes traditional to her family, while Sanchez has learned to cook a variety of traditional Jewish foods. Still, she said, keeping her faith while raising her child Jewish can be trying sometimes, especially during Christmas and Easter. Sanchez celebrates those holidays, but not at home with her husband and child.

"I really have to think carefully about not hurting my kid and my husband," she said.

Max Perr and Holly Christman also started coming to Interfaith Connection while they were dating. Now they're married with two children — Juliana, 6, and Luca, 3. Christman converted to Judaism with a Conservative rabbi after they married.

"He never pressured me to convert," she said. "Judaism was a real gift he brought into my life."

While they admire Koeppel and Rothstein's "half and half" child-raising philosophy, the couple said Christman's conversion to Judaism has made certain elements of child-rearing easier.

It's easier to answer some of the "big questions" that kids bring up when you don't have to explain that Mom believes one thing and Dad another. "Kids are little philosophers," said Christman, always raising existential questions about religion and life.

The speakers all had praise for Interfaith Connection classes and Levitt's leadership of the group.