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?