Couples meet up for insightful interfaith discussions

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To tree or not to tree?

That was the question for many of the young couples sitting around a coffee table in a private home in San Francisco recently, discussing how to navigate interfaith relationship issues such as holidays, in-laws, weddings, children, conversion and, yes, Christmas trees.

“I didn’t get the fuss about it,” said Laurie Beijen, recapping conversations about having a Christmas tree she had with her Jewish husband in the early days of their relationship. “It smells good! You put stuff on it!” Beijen, who was raised in a secular home celebrating Christian holidays, eventually converted to Judaism a year ago — 15 years and two children into their relationship.

”My main goal is to help families navigate two different backgrounds,” explained Rabbi Mychal Copeland, director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area and the leader of the recent chat session. Copeland has been bringing together interfaith couples in homes and coffee shops in San Francisco and the South Bay since last fall, giving them the opportunity — in noninstitutional settings — to connect with other couples going through similar experiences.

“I think it is helpful, especially because so many couples are exploring these issues and are very far from Jewish institutional life,” said Copeland, who worked at Hillels at UCLA and Stanford before joining InterfaithFamily, a national organization. “There’s an openness in the conversation in terms of what people are struggling with.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland (holding glass) leads an interfaith relationship meetup group. photo/drew himmelstein

Though most of the eight attendees at the San Francisco meetup were young adults, they represented different stages in life and in their interfaith journeys. In contrast to Beijen, whose children, ages 3 and 5, stayed home with their father, another couple brought their infant son. They said they used to jokingly refer to themselves as a “Jewtheran” (Jewish-Lutheran) family but have decided to raise their son Jewish; other couples present were engaged or dating.

Some people attend the monthly meetups regularly, while others pop in and out. During one recent meeting, members of the group shared personal stories and challenges over wine and snacks; the format of the evening was loose, with Copeland occasionally stepping in to steer the conversation or offer her own insights.

“What does it mean to be a fellow traveler?” Copeland asked rhetorically, citing the biblical story of Ruth joining the Jewish people as an outsider. Copeland was herself in an interfaith relationship; her partner of 20 years converted to Judaism in 2000 but still teaches Christian texts at Stanford, where she is an administrator. They met in divinity school, where they were studying different faith traditions.

“We were enticed by the different ideas we were studying at that time,” Copeland said.

InterfaithFamily is a Jewish organization, and Copeland leads many different outreach efforts, including holding classes for parents about raising Jewish children. Though she said her job is to try to connect people to Jewish life, she comes across as anything but doctrinaire in the interfaith couple meetup, not pushing a single view on conversion or holiday celebrations. Rather, attendees felt comfortable sharing some of the trickier issues of interfaith relationships.

For example, non-Jewish partners said they had trouble making sense of certain Jewish beliefs, such as Judaism’s fuzzy view on one of the most important concepts in Christianity — the afterlife — and the wide variance of practices within the Jewish community when it comes to kashrut, Shabbat, holidays, etc.

Myles Borins, who hosted the gathering at the Potrero Hill home he shares with his Protestant-raised girlfriend, felt comfortable enough to talk openly about “one of the biggest challenges” of their relationship: Why having a Jewish family is important to him even though he is, by choice, not an “incredibly practicing” Jew.

Even as he’s still working on that question, Borins is eager to explore the issue with his partner of more than six years — and he’s not waiting for some prescribed moment when  they start planning a wedding. Though Borins’ partner isn’t yet ready to convert, the couple attended Reform conversion classes together in Toronto, where they lived until recently, and were the only pair that wasn’t engaged. “Most of the couples in the class, they were bubbe pleasers,” he said.

Beijen said interfaith groups have been invaluable to her and her husband. She helps organize interfaith events at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where her family belongs, and she and her family recently celebrated Passover with families from an interfaith class they took 10 years ago at the JCC of San Francisco.

“We felt very alone” before connecting with other interfaith families, Beijen said. “Either our friends were Jewish or they weren’t Jewish, but none of them had these same issues we were facing.”

Even though Beijen is now Jewish, she said her family is always working through interfaith issues. Though she and her husband ultimately agreed not to have a Christmas tree, her kids get Easter cards from their grandmother.

InterfaithFamily will hold couple meetups in May. Email Rabbi Mychal Copeland at [email protected] or join the Facebook group InterfaithFamilySanFranciscoBayArea.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.