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Interfaith Couple Chooses Judaism

Here is an interview that should have been part of a larger piece tracking three interfaith couples and their religious choices.

Batya keeps kosher but her husband isn’t Jewish. She paints a different picture of the statistics of intermarriage. We’ve heard them all by now: “Intermarriage threatens Jewish survival. Over 70% of the children of intermarried couples are not raised within any religious faith. We ‘lose’ approximately 100 Jews everyday to intermarriage and assimilation.” But as Batya tells it, though her husband was raised Christian, her marriage is very much a Jewish one.

Batya, 21, always assumed she’d marry someone Jewish. She didn’t meet her husband until after breaking up with an Israeli Jew. “I never in a million years would have guessed that I’d marry a man who had been raised as a southern Baptist,” she confesses. But growing up and living in a Central Florida town where there is very little Jewish life made it difficult to marry Jewish. She met her husband Robert, 25, through a “matchmaker,” after a friend set them up. They have been married for 8 months and known each other for over two years.

Her father wasn’t Jewish but soon after her parents divorced, Batya’s mother became more religious and Batya followed suit. In Batya’s early teens, the family started attending Chabad services, keeping kosher and keeping Shabbos. But by age 17, it became harder to balance observance in a community that was primarily secular. “If I had been in a religious community, I would have been able to keep it up.” A lonely Batya slowly gave up observances until by age 19, she was “not doing anything very religious at all.”

She looks back on the time with sadness but admits that the one bright spot in temporarily losing her faith was finding her husband. Robert (who was unavailable to be interviewed) was raised by devout Christian parents who turned him off to the faith. They told him most indiscretions would result in “going to hell,” Batya confides. When Batya and Robert met, they were both going through a secular period in their lives. But this period would end soon after their marriage.

“It was a slow evolution. I started dressing more conservatively…lighting Shabbos candles…three weeks of the month…cooking Shabbos-style dinners. I wanted to become more religious again but I knew I would have to do it slow[ly] because when you go about making all these changes so fast, it’s a lot harder to maintain,” Batya says. When I ask her how Robert responded, she stammers softly. Robert isn’t “super crazy” about “tznius” (modest dress) and the conservative way his wife now dresses. He’s even less crazy about her covering her hair. “I try to remind myself that for him, it’s really weird.”

But when I prod and probe for more about the friction Batya’s new observance level has created in the marriage, I come up empty-handed. Robert is excited about keeping a kosher kitchen, something he’s researched extensively. The two already separate between meat and dairy meals. “He’s more supportive than not. We’ve set a goal to be completely kosher at home in 6 months. He thinks lighting Shabbos candles is really cool,” Batya offers with excitement.

Batya picks and chooses the holidays they observe. She didn’t go to school on Rosh Hashanah but attended one class on Yom Kippur and didn’t fast for health reasons. The couple doesn’t observe Christmas but Robert wants a Christmas tree. Batya is willing to compromise. She says, “I let him have it. It is just a pretty tree—with no religious ornaments or anything. We don’t do anything (aside from the tree) to celebrate the holidays he was raised with, and he doesn’t go to church ever.” Robert, instead, chooses to attend shul with his wife. “He likes going to shul with me, and loves learning about holidays and celebrating with me.”

If it sounds like the transition towards observance has been mostly smooth for Batya and Robert, then you haven’t met the mother-in-law. Though Robert’s mother move to another state has helped eased tensions, Batya and her mother-in-law have a very strained relationship. They pray to God at every meal, Batya tells me, “I struggle with more when his parents come over, which thankfully is rare. They insist on praying to Jesus before we eat. I do not know how to be polite but also insist on being respected in my own home.” Her voice fills with emotion as she explains that early on, Robert’s mother refused to meet Batya. Batya observes sadly that she believes her mother-in-law doesn’t like her because she’s Jewish.

I veer the conversation towards happier topics when I ask how Batya and Robert plan to raise their children. “We’re going to raise them Jewish. It’s something that I’m not willing to compromise.” Batya notes that she didn’t learn about Judaism until she was 6 or 7 and thinks it’s sad to be raised without a religion. She adds that as a doula, some of her patients have told her that they are against circumcision. But Batya is firm that her sons will be circumcised “for religious reasons.” She laughs as she admits that Robert is supportive because “he wants his sons to look like him.”

I do not ask the question that looms in my mind throughout our conversation. Batya surprises me by bringing the subject up herself. No, she hasn’t discussed conversion with her husband. “He never said he was interested. I never asked. Of course, I would be happy [if he converted] but it’s not a huge deal.” I quickly ask her if the Jewish community she’s loosely affiliated with has been welcoming to her family. Batya says, “Nobody [at Chabad] said anything negative. No one’s been anything but supportive.”

The most unsupportive comment Batya has experienced thus far came from an online group of observant women where one member posted an unpleasant response to Batya’s questions about going to the mikvah. Batya was considering observing taharat ha’mishpacha (the laws of family purity) and wanted to get some feedback on it. “That really hurt my feelings,” Batya says and for now she has tabled the idea of going to the mikvah until she recovers her confidence.

As I listen the pain in Batya’s voice, I wonder about my own biases towards intermarried couples. Have my hurtful comments stopped someone from deepening their commitment to Judaism? It’s certainly not easy being an intermarried-not interfaith-Jewish couple but Batya’s story seems to indicate that one spouse’s strong Jewish identity can bring both spouses closer to the fold. Perhaps then it’s the Jewish community’s role to accept the realities of intermarriage and respond with utmost sensitively.

“I’ve been letting my heart guide me on this whole process,” Batya says. In her heart, Batya wants to be a good Jew. Who are we to stop her?

9 thoughts on “Interfaith Couple Chooses Judaism

  1. Judaism really needs to stop blaming interfaith couples for all that’s wrong in the world.For a long time, we were the interfaith couple, and you know what? I made the trip the the mikvah many years into our relationship. realistically, it changed nothing. I still go to shul more than he does, I’m still working on picking up more observances daily, just like I did back when we first got together. I find that most interfaith couples I met are happy to raise Jewish children if the community around them supports them. Really supports them. You know, invites them to shul, doesn’t treat the non jewish spouse like crap (especially when said spouse is a POC), doesn’t hound the non jewish spouse to convert, invites them to holiday meals.You know, welcomes them.Because, what made my husband want to toss his faith was the way I, the non jewish spouse, got treated while we were shul shopping. How un welcome we were made to feel. Because in the end, the non jewish mama was the one taking baby to shul, KWIM? Ultimately, those wonderful afternoon lunches at the homes of my friends, Shabbats spent in song and prayer and laughter, feeling welcomed, were what said to me “you’re home”. Their pulling books off the shelf so we could learn together after dinner. their patience with my slow hebrew.And never once treating me like the “other”.

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  2. “Interfaith Couple Chooses Judaism” doesn’t seem to be an accurate title. The husband has not chosen Judaism. Without him, there wouldn’t be a Christmas tree in the house. Also, the husband doesn’t seem to be putting his foot down when his mother prays to Jesus during meals. The wife is being intellectually dishonest with herself.She’s covering her hair and wants to go to the mikvah!? Why? He husband isn’t Jewish! The only reason to do those things are for a jewish husband. Her actions are especially meaningless, since her huband has no intention of convertiong.I like reading your material Aliza, but this article is beneath your incredible journey into Orthodox Judaism.

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  3. I am amused by the anonymous poster bashing the woman’s attempts at observance, instead of being constructive and supportive of her. And maybe said support will encourage her husband to convert some day. Just because it’s not the life that you live does not make it beneath yours, or any less worthy. Life is a journey. It’s like watching roses bloom. Lovely article, Aliza. Personally, I like a broad focus. It’s healthy to examine the world around you.

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  4. RubyV,you said: “I am amused by the anonymous poster bashing the woman’s attempts at observance, instead of being constructive and supportive of her.”The wife’s attempt at observance of Jewish marriage laws is a fraud. If she wishes to personally keep shabbos and kosher that’s one thing but to observe laws of tznius and taharas mishpacha that are bound to Jewish marriage denigrate the concept of a jewish marriage when her spouse is a non-converting non-Jew.To use an example, a non-Jew is not allowed to observe shabbos according to halacha. Even a converting non-Jew is not permitted to fully observe shabbos.I would say even more so the Jew who is an intermarriage should not be adhering to halachos in a way are an affront to the sanctity of a sanctioned Jewish marriage.Aliza, whether she likes it or not, is a representative of Orthodox Judaism. The article may have been written with good intentions, but is unacceptably compassionate to a value system that is antithetical to Orthodox Judaism.Is it any wonder that “The most unsupportive comment Batya has experienced thus far came from an online group of observant women where one member posted an unpleasant response to Batya’s questions about going to the mikvah.”Shabbos and kashrus observance should be praised, but perverting an intermarriage into the sanctity of a Jewish marriage…should be condemned, especially when batya states, Her husband was never interested in converting and if he doesn’t “it’s not a huge deal.” I might be more receptive to Aliza’s conclusion (“I wonder about my own biases towards intermarried couples. Have my hurtful comments stopped someone from deepening their commitment to Judaism?…) if she were a little more critical and a little more objective.

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  5. Oh, I am quite objective, just not in the way you’d expect. I meet so many intermarried couples who based on positive interactions with Jews make the decision to become a totally Jewish couple. I think it is very likely that if Batya continues to observe Jewish laws, her husband will follow along with her. But this will not happen if our disgust and judgment is all we offer them. I do not agree with her decision to marry a non-Jew but I cannot disagree with her attempts, however half-hearted and confused they may seem to us, to observe her faith.

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  6. I cannot imagine that it is better to be uncompassionate to those attempting to find their way, than to be helpful and supportive, so that their family can make better choices. I pray that they continue to learn and grow together. With a little help, and a supportive community, it sounds like he’ll change his mind. But that’s between him and G-d. Of course, we could try the “your observances are a waste of time, and your marriage is a fraud” but I’m not so sure that you’ll get a fully and truly Jewish family out of it. You usually get the Batyas of the world running from their faith altogether. Unless you consider her a lost cause and you don’t care about her, because of who she married. (insert shrug here)

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  7. As an adult child of a similar situation, I see huge problems arising as they have children. The mother in law will not stop prozyletizing, the children will see the confusion between the holidays. I see huge red flags.

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  8. All that matters is halacha. Ask your rov. Does he have a problem with the covering of the hair and mikvak charade? Would he encourage the woman to do those things? I am curious.

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