7 In Faith

When Your Partner Struggles With Religious Identity

Someone once asked me if J was religious. I said, not particularly, probably is more culturally Jewish. This person (who is against interfaith relationships) immediately went on a tirade about my in-laws as parents raising a Jew.

If only they had been more involved in the synagogue.

If only they had made him go to a Jewish day school or a Jewish summer camp.

They should have fostered more of a Jewish identity in their home.

If they had been clear intermarriage was not accepted in their home he would be “More Jewish.”

For the first time, the blame wasn’t on the non-Jewish partner for destroying Judaism — it was on the parents!

That blame is misplaced.

My in-laws have always been involved in their Jewish community, no matter their situation. My father-in-law served on the board at one point. J went through religious education through his confirmation.

For them, Jewish Day School weren’t an option and their camp was a family tradition. Mostly Jewish in attendance, but not associated only with Judaism.

They were a household that celebrated every holiday, had Judaica all around and hosted many a Shabbat dinner.

While they never envisioned their child marrying outside of Judaism, I’m positive forbidding his marriage would have only pushed J further away from themselves and Judaism.

J is one of three children. One of his siblings has a firm, religious based Jewish identity. He and his wife are consistent in celebrating Shabbat, celebrate all holidays, are regulars at services and study with their Rabbi often. It’s likely that they’ll send their children to a Jewish Day School.

His other sibling is firm in her religious identity, too. She and her husband celebrate major holidays, attend services frequently and have strong ties to their area’s Jewish community. Most likely they won’t send their children to a Jewish Day School.

On the hand, J doesn’t really believe in any organized religion. He struggles with believing the stories in the Torah. He enjoys meeting with our Rabbi but doesn’t see a reason to go to services. This has been the case long before he met me. J has no want to have ties to our local Jewish community.

It’s not his parent’s fault he’s not religious. It’s not my fault either. You see, J isn’t wired for traditional education or learning. Hebrew school didn’t have a profound effect on him, but March of the Living did.

Regardless of his ties to organized religion, J’s ties to the culture are strong. We had to have Jewish cultural traditions at our wedding. We have to celebrate all holidays; at least with dinner if we don’t make it to services. J is tied to the traditions of his ancestors and is passionate about carrying them on while being respectful, and embracing, my traditions.

I cannot tell you why J doesn’t believe in going to services or having a strong religious identity like I do. For him, no matter what his parents did, Judaism as a religion was never a priority for him the way it was for his siblings. If you ask him he’ll tell you about how his parents tried, he tried, it just wasn’t for him.

It’s not my job to make him religious. But it does create a struggle for me.

Because J doesn’t make Judaism a priority, it makes it hard for me to turn it into a priority. When I was converting it was easy. When I decided not to convert, even though I still felt that it should be a part of our lives, it became a lot harder.

Judaism stopped being a thing I was part of because I was becoming Jewish and became something I’m a part of because someone I love is Jewish. But that means I’m no longer the leader of our Jewish household. I defer a lot more than I used to. Because of my religious upbringing, I really see a religious identity with more structure. Since Judaism functions well beyond a religious identity and also as an ethnic identity J sees Judaism in a lot looser terms.

This has lead to some deeper discussions about the role Judaism has in our lives. If Judaism is so important to J that he wants to raise children with a Jewish identity and we had to have Jewish elements in our wedding why isn’t it a priority any other time of year? As the Jewish parent, how will you foster an identity in your children if you don’t have that for yourself?

While J has strong ties to the cultural traditions, they are all rooted in religion. It can be hard to observe Yom Kippur if you don’t believe there’s a bigger reason for your atonement. It can be even harder to observe Yom Kippur if your Jewish partner has decided he’s not observing it anymore.

For now, J’s personal struggle with Judaism is just that: personal. I love learning and being a part of the community that we built. Our synagogue has afforded me the opportunity to volunteer, meet wonderful people and do interfaith outreach that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. But down the line, when G-d willing we do have children, J will have to figure out how Judaism works into his own life and our family’s life. As the non-Jewish partner, I’ll be supportive as I can be and as involved as I can be. But at some point, these are J’s traditions and he has to take the lead.

If it’s hard to observe holidays because J isn’t I can only imagine it will be even harder to foster a Jewish identity in children when their Jewish parent doesn’t engage in Judaism.

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