The same Dovetail conference

Dovetail only encourages the ‘inter’ among interfaith families

While Anna Marx and I ostensibly attended the same Dovetail Institute conference Aug. 6-8 in Berkeley, we apparently didn’t attend the same conference.

The conference I attended had no agenda, hidden or otherwise, to convince interfaith couples “to practice two faiths concurrently” or that “there is no place for them in synagogues.” What it did provide was an opportunity for interfaith couples and families at all stages of life to share their concerns and experiences with one another, and to hear from a variety of professionals and lay people who are interested in the issues that matter to them.

This was the fourth conference Dovetail has sponsored, and I have spoken at each of them. If Dovetail were not trying to present the widest possible range of opinions on various topics, why would they have invited me to speak and even, this past year, asked me to be a member of the Dovetail board of directors?

I have worked in the field of Jewish education and communal life for the past 40 years in positions ranging from camp counselor to teacher, from director of education and executive director of Bethesda Jewish Congregation to interviewer of survivors for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. At present, I am president of Jewish Educational Consulting,

While studying for my master’s in education at George Washington University, my main project focused on what interfaith families want from the Jewish educational setting. Make no mistake — almost every Reform, liberal, independent and even some Conservative congregations find that their classrooms are populated more and more by the children of interfaith families.

What Anna Marx’s article reflects is the typical Jewish institutional view that the only proper Jewish response to interfaith families’ decision-making is to advocate the “Jewish route,” irrespective of the circumstances faced by the particular family and the personalities of its members.

I am convinced, and say clearly at every opportunity, that one cannot be both a Christian and a Jew. If one comes to believe that Jesus is one’s personal savior or the path to God regardless of the question of his divinity, one is a Christian. Even the most liberal or secular Jew does not accept as Jewish a Hebrew Christian or Jew for Jesus.

Acceptance of or belief in Jesus is a line one cannot cross and still call oneself a Jew. For me, the more important reason is not theological but historical. By so doing, one spits on the memory of the thousands of Jews who, over the centuries, died rather than accept that premise under coercion. However, the point at which any individual comes to that understanding is the result of a personal journey of indeterminate length.

As Jewish institutions, it is not to our advantage to close the doors in peoples’ faces, forcing them to make promises and/or decisions before they are ready to do so. If they feel welcome in our institutions, they will better be able to hear our arguments — philosophical, historical and demographic — for choosing to identify with the minority and not blending by default into the majority.

Whether the Jewish institutional world likes it or not, each interfaith couple and family will take that journey of identity and faith exploration in its own time and at its own pace. What Dovetail provides is a community independent of ties to any one religious group, where people can come together to consider the various questions posed by that journey and learn from the experiences of others who are on the same journey.

It censors neither my point of view nor that of the child raised in an interfaith marriage who honestly feels himself to be both Christian and Jewish. It allows a Christian parent to express her surprise at finding how joyful she felt when her child committed himself to the Jewish path, knowing how right that choice was for that child. It permits the Jewish grandparent to express his unease about not knowing how to deal with his interfaith in-laws while remaining true to and transmitting his own heritage to his grandchild.

It is, in fact, a nonjudgmental environment where people can explore where they have come from, where they are and where they are heading on their own journeys as well as hear a variety of institutional viewpoints about how various decisions are perceived by the outside world. No one is more aware of or sensitive to the complexities of interfaith family life than people living it. They deserve all the support any institution or organization can give them.

As a Jewish educator, I realized early on that in America, we are all Jews by choice. I had no control over the decision that my students would ultimately make regarding their identities, including those born Jewish. I hoped that by treating every individual with respect and honesty, whatever decision each made would come from a place of shalom — completeness and peace for the individual. I remain convinced that, regardless of the outcome of any individual’s journey, that person will never hear an anti-Semitic remark or joke in the same way again and will be a force for good in the world. If people of disparate backgrounds can live together in families, maybe there is hope for the world at large.

Maran Beth Gluckstein is a Jewish educational consultant living in Rockville, Md.