Adventures in navigating an interfaith marriage

Data from Pew Research Center shows interfaith marriages are becoming more common

In mid-September my husband agreed to help me build a hut on our patio to prepare for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which celebrates the ancient Hebrews’ sojourn through the desert after they escaped Egypt.

Observant Jews build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that symbolizes that journey. I drew some rough sketches and my husband ran down to Home Depot to buy lumber.

“Do you think it will work?” I asked as I described my plan for the simple frame, using my arms — fingers to elbow to make a 90-degree angle — to illustrate. 

He assured me it would. 

“Maybe I should have gotten some braces for the corners?” I fretted.

“No, no. The screws will be enough,” he reassured me, holding up a power drill. “It’ll hold.” 

While this scene might seem unremarkable at first glance — oh, a nice Jewish couple trying to make their first sukkah together; that’s cute — it’s not at all what it seems. 

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I’m Jewish but my husband is not. He’s Muslim. And not only is he Muslim but we met and fell in love in a conflict zone that pits our two people — Israeli and Palestinian — against each another and, by extension, our cultural and religious backgrounds. 

Our interfaith home wasn’t always this picture of happy cooperation and cultural exchange.

I recall our first Eid al-Fitr, the celebratory day marking the end of Ramadan, as a young family: My husband got up, washed his face, got dressed and informed me he was going to the mosque with his brother for the holiday. Without me or our young daughter. The room was dark, the crib was next to me, and I was devastated that I — we — were being excluded from this important day in the Muslim calendar. I felt like we weren’t a real family.

And then there was the period where I was so scared of upsetting him by honoring Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, with candles and prayers that I did it in secret, rushing the kids to the table for hurried Hebrew and sips of kosher juice before my husband came home from work. By the time he walked in, the kids were in front of the TV, and I’d washed the ritual goblet. The candles flickering on the kitchen counter were the only clue of my betrayal. 

That we are building a sukkah together this year is nothing short of revolutionary. 

Many Americans will make journeys like ours, wending their way through the wilds of interfaith marriages in the decades to come.

Of couples who have married since 2010, almost 40% married someone outside of their faith, according to Pew Research Center. Compare that to the percentage of Americans who married before 1960: Only 19% entered interfaith unions.

In other words, interfaith marriages are becoming a new normal.

Jewish Americans, like myself, are big intermarriers — just over 40% of us have non-Jewish spouses, Pew found. Of the Jewish people who married before 1980, only 18% married non-Jews; of Jews who have married since 2010, 61% said “I do” to a non-Jewish partner, according to Pew. Jewish Americans with two Jewish parents are less likely to marry out; those who are the product of an interfaith marriage themselves are more likely to marry a non-Jew.

When cohabitating is taken into account, Pew reports that Jews are the most likely to be involved in an interfaith relationship, behind mainline Protestants and religiously unaffiliated people. In America, the groups that are least likely to marry (or cohabitate) with someone of a different faith are Hindus (91% report marrying or living with someone of the same religion, Pew reported in 2015), Muslims (79%), and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (82%). 

In previous decades, the folk wisdom surrounding mixed unions was to privilege one faith over the other so the children had a firm sense of their identity. (That’s what my husband’s father told him when he initially rejected our plans to marry — that marrying a non-Muslim would leave our hypothetical children “confused” about who they are).

That sort of thinking — that you have to choose one or the other — is baked into the Abrahamic religions, explains Susan Katz Miller, author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” and “The Interfaith Family Journal.” But the prevailing idea nowadays among interfaith family advocates like Miller is that children — and adults — can be both. 

And while there’s no one right way to do it — every family has to work all this out on their own, according to Miller — there are some basic steps to take to make sure everyone feels that their background is being respected in the home. 

“It’s really important that you don’t see it as a competition between the religions,” says Miller. “It’s really important to listen deeply to your partner to understand why they feel the way they do, to listen to their ideas about how the children should be raised and to cultivate empathy for them. And it is equally important for you to feel heard to feel that your partner really understands what it is that you want to pass on, what are the experiences you want your children to have and why.”  

Couples need to make sure that the decisions they make about how to raise their children are made together, Miller says. And they also must “realize that those decisions may change over time based on life events, on new interests, on the evolving agency of children who may start verbalizing what they want at a younger age than you expected — all of that has to be factored in.” 

Though when we were dating, I committed to raising Muslim children, my husband has to be willing to understand and accept that my thinking about these issues changed when we moved to America and had actual, real, live children. I have to show my husband the same grace. Ditto for our kids.

My husband and I both have to accept that, as adults, they will make their own decisions. Even if we were both Muslim or both Jewish, they might not end up identifying as either. 

“The third step, I would say, is to make sure you and your partner stand together — especially if your decisions are being challenged by society or extended family, whatever those decisions are,” says Miller. 

Repeating the advice of one of her mentors, the Rev. Julia Jarvis, Miller says that families should draw a “sacred circle” around their interfaith family and that they stand together inside of that circle when they face challenges from the outside. 

Miller also recommends that parents help children of interfaith marriages become as fluent as possible in both religions and cultures. 

“No matter what choice you make — one religion, the other, both, none — I think it is really helpful to the children … to give them those sensory experiences: the tastes, the songs and the art of both cultures and religions, and to cultivate in them bonds of affection for all of the religions in their heritage and all of their extended family members,” she says.

These sensory experiences are the foundation upon which they can learn more about holidays and rituals as they grow older. This literacy, adds Miller, is vital so interfaith children “can be confident in their inevitable role as interfaith ambassadors, translators and bridge builders.” 

Miller adds that, to some extent, even couples from the same background are “interfaith.” 

“All relationships are interfaith relationships because no two people have identical beliefs and practices and formative experiences. So I’m often approached by people who say, ‘I’m a Reform Jew and my husband is Orthodox and everything you’re saying speaks to me. Our problems are much worse than a Reform Jew dating a Presbyterian,’” Miller says. “Even if you’re two Presbyterians you can find yourself in conflict over what hymns and when to get a Christmas tree and what type of Christmas tree.” 

Geography, Miller points out, also plays a role in how couples negotiate the family’s relationship with their religions and cultures. My husband and I offer a perfect example: We met in the West Bank and our courtship took place in Israel and the Palestinian territories — places too contested, perhaps, for both religions to thrive in the same house.

But, here, in America, there’s space for everyone. There’s room for imagination. There’s room on our tiny concrete patio in South Florida to take some lumber and an electric drill and put up something new. Something that, hopefully, will hold.

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.