Brenda Wolper is a dedicated Jewish mother.
She works as a preschool teacher at Temple David in Monroeville, helps run the congregation’s youth group and sits on its school board.
She and her husband Mark, who have been married for 17 years, are instilling Jewish traditions in their two children, and traveled as a family last summer to Israel to celebrate the bat mitzva of their daughter.
Brenda Wolper, however, is Catholic. And, at this time of year, the Wolpers embrace the holiday traditions of both Mark and Brenda.
“We do both holidays,” she said. “We only do the Jewish religion, but we do the Christian traditions.”
Those traditions include having a Christmas tree and Christmas stockings in their Murrysville home, and a traditional Christmas dinner with Brenda’s family.
“But we’re not doing Santa Claus this year,” she said. “The kids know they’re Jewish, so we’re not doing Santa anymore.”
As the Jewish intermarriage rate hovers around 50 percent, more families must decide how to navigate the December holidays in ways that are respectful to both parents, yet impart the values they want to pass on to their children.
Lilia and Jim Pries of Upper St. Clair, seem to have found a balance that works for them.
Lilia is Jewish, and Jim, Lutheran. They are raising their three children Jewish.
“In our home, we celebrate Chanuka and the Jewish holidays,” Lilia Pries said. “We don’t do anything for Christmas in our home. But we go to my in-laws and celebrate with them.”
“In our household, there really haven’t been any issues,” Pries said, noting that her husband is on board with raising the kids as Jews. “He’s never wanted to confuse the kids. We observe his traditions with his parents. We’ve made it work. Our families have been very supportive.”
Familial support helps ease conflicts in intermarried households during the holidays. And, as intermarriages become more common, Jewish community support of those marriages has risen as well. The Reform movement has embraced interfaith families for decades, and the Conservative movement — though still halachically opposed to intermarriage — is also becoming more supportive of intermarried families.
Programs to help interfaith families deal with the “December dilemma” abound this time of year. Rabbis Amy and Alex Greenbaum held a “Pre-Christmas/Chanuka Conversation” last month at the South Hills Jewish Community Center. An organization called the Jewish Outreach Institute offered a free webinar Dec. 3 designed to inform non-Jewish mothers on Chanuka traditions. And, Dec. 4, the JOI held a free webinar for the grandparents of “interfaith grandkids,” discussing “strategies and talking points to help grandparents ‘lighten up’ the conversation about celebrating the winter holidays.”
Programs like these are designed to help intermarried families hold on to Jewish traditions in a landscape where statistics show that children of intermarriage are less likely to identify as Jewish.
“In the Jewish community, we’re still trying to figure it out,” said Wendy Levin-Shaw, a licensed clinical social worker, who is on staff at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service. “In individual families, it still brings up issues.”
Levin-Shaw recently conducted a seminar at Temple David for supplemental religious school teachers, and interested lay leaders, about how to respond with sensitivity to interfaith families.
“I addressed the holidays as well as sensitivity to couples and families where the family is not practicing only according to the Jewish tradition,” she added.
“I would say that people are probably a little more accepting in themselves in being an interfaith family, because they are finding reception in Jewish institutions,” she said.
Still, in raising their children as Jews, the Wolpers and the Pries are in the minority when it comes to interfaith couples.
In-married and intermarried Jews differ dramatically in the extent to which they raise their children as Jews, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, a $6 million study undertaken by The United Jewish Communities, which is commonly cited as giving the most comprehensive, reliable picture of American Jewry to date.
The NJPS study shows that while nearly all children (96 percent) in households with two Jewish spouses are being raised Jewish, only a third (33 percent) of the children in households with one non-Jewish spouse are being raised as Jews.
Levin-Shaw advises interfaith couples to listen to each other with sensitivity and to makes decisions in line with desired outcomes when deciding what is best for their children.
“I think it’s good for parents to be clear, to make decisions together, and not to leave it up to their children,” said Levin-Shaw. “I think it’s really important to decide what’s important to you as parents, and to have a good dialogue. I would advise them to talk to each other and listen carefully to the other person.”
Sometimes, issues such as how to celebrate holidays don’t arise until the birth of children, according to Levin-Shaw.
“You think it’s going to be really easy, then you realize there are consequences to your decisions,” she said. “But if you’re married to a good problem solver, you can figure it out.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)