When Rabbis Alex and Amy Greenbaum held a class this month at the South Hill Jewish Community Center on issues facing interfaith couples at Passover, they met two women they won’t soon forget.
One was Jewish, the other, not. Both are in interfaith relationships and both wanted to make a Passover seder for their extended families — something neither had done before. They both expected to be the only member of their faith at their respective dinners.
Needless to say, they both had plenty of questions — and anxiety.
“They really wanted to focus on how to run a seder with Christians at the table or vice versa,” Alex Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills said.
The seder, and how to approach it, is just one of several questions interfaith couples face at Passover and Easter. Like Christmas and Chanuka comprise the so-called “December Dilemma,” Passover and Easter are the “Spring Dilemma.”
But the two dilemmas are hardly the same.
Not nearly as much has been written about the Spring Dilemma. In fact, if you Google it, you’re more likely to get hits about the Arab Spring.
There’s a reason for that, said Amy Greenbaum, education director of Beth El: The commercialization of Chanuka and Christmas has driven the media attention to the December Dilemma.
“The spring holidays, that’s more of a religious [time] and Chanuka and Christmas is more a commercialization [period] and that’s where you see it, and it’s so big.”
At first blush, the Spring Dilemma may seem to have extremely emotional problems for interfaith couples.
For instance, Christians believe the Last Supper was a Passover seder, though many rabbis refute that.
More critically, though, Christians believe Easter marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Jews, whom Christians of old held responsible for their savior’s death, Easter was a time of great danger.
“In the Middle Ages, Jews were not allowed to leave their homes on Easter; you had to stay in your homes because a Jew was not allowed to be seen on the streets on Easter,” Alex Greenbaum said. “That’s how connected it was; it was a time that really reminded us of our position in Christian history.”
He added that that wasn’t the case everywhere.
But Amy Greenbaum said the history of Jews at Easter has apparently waned and apparently doesn’t pose so great an issue for interfaith families.
“I don’t think today it has anywhere near that significance, she said. “I don’t know that most Jews feel that baggage.”
Indeed, the ninth annual Passover/Easter Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, shows that interfaith families raising their children Jewish address the “Spring Dilemma,” by continuing to participate in secular Easter activities while believing that doing so does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity.
InterfaithFamily, a nonprofit organization, empowers people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and strongly encourages Jewish communities to welcome them.
According to the survey, interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Easter celebrations “are giving clear priority to Passover over Easter, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday.”
According to its findings:
• Virtually all the respondents plan on hosting or attending a seder; 40 percent will host or attend Easter dinner, an increase from 31 percent in 2012.
• Small minorities engage in “religious” Easter activities such as attending church (9 percent) or telling the Easter story (1 percent).
• Sixty percent see their Easter celebrations as entirely secular, down from 70 percent in 2012, while 4 percent see Passover celebrations as entirely secular.
• Finally, 86 percent of the respondents believe that their participation in Easter celebrations does not affect their children’s Jewish identity.
For the Greenbaums, who see many interfaith families in their congregation, such findings come as no surprise. According to them, there is a difference between “celebrating” religious holiday and “observing” it.
As a boy, Alex Greenbaum said, he helped a Christian friend next door paint Easter eggs. “It wasn’t my holiday, I was helping them celebrate it, he said, “and that’s different than observing their holiday.”
For the Greenbaums, dilemmas such as Passover/Easter and Chanuka/Christmas merely point up how important it is for Jews to “embrace” the whole Jewish family, not just its Jewish members.
“We have many interfaith families [today]; more and more the numbers are increasing,” Alex Greenbaum said. “When there’s another religion in the home, we’re only starting to be able to answer [these questions]. They weren’t talked about 20 years ago. We like to embrace the interfaith family; we don’t just believe in tolerating.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)