Though she was on the panel, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim (TBEMC) Rabbi Rachel Schwartz said little. It was mainly left to the several other panelists, who represented a diverse spectrum of families, to discuss the challenges surrounding the observances of Christmas and Chanukah — a quandary often referred to as the December Dilemma.
The questions focused on how to navigate a fraught holiday season when celebrations involve the comingling of different faiths for holidays not all family members observe.
“Trying to find the balance is very complicated,” said Patty Werschultz, a TBEMC member whose two sons intermarried. She herself is a convert who married a Jew in the 1960s.
Most N.J. congregations no longer hold these types of events, though when they do occur they are usually led by rabbis. But when TBEMC, a Conservative congregation in Cranford, held its first-ever December Dilemma conversation, it was member-driven. What emerged from the Dec. 19 discussion was an acknowledgement from interfaith families that they have struggled with the issue for decades, but ultimately they expressed a common message of embracing relatives from outside the Jewish faith instead of shunning them.
“My mother, a Holocaust survivor, said you have to love them,” said Gail Salomon, copresident of TBEMC. “You don’t want to lose them.”
At the Sisterhood-sponsored event, which drew about 35 people, congregants responded to two basic assumptions: that there is no right answer, and that this is an issue that affects most families, not just a select few. As Sandy Springer, co-president of the synagogue, explained, “More and more of the young families joining are not Jewish now or were not born Jewish.”
Panelists included older members of the temple who either married out or married in when it was less acceptable to do so; parents who have made a range of decisions when their children married out, including those who chose not to attend the wedding, as well as those who offered a full embrace; and millennials in interfaith marriages, some still struggling with the fallout.
Susan Harris was among those who paved the way for interfaith families in Cranford. The granddaughter of a founder of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden on one side, and of longtime members of Temple Mekor Chayim in Linden on the other, she fell in love with an observant member of the Russian Orthodox Church whose faith ran so deep his family expected he would become a priest. Instead, he married Susan.
Although Susan said she knew she “would keep a Jewish household and raise Jewish children,” she wouldn’t allow her husband to convert to Judaism until it was right for him. Over time, her in-laws accepted the match, and at some point the holiday cards she sent to her now-grown children morphed into Chanukah cards, and the presents under the grandparents’ tree were wrapped in Chanukah paper. DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS
“They were able to accept it when it was comfortable for them,” she said.
Jessica Mallo, who is in her 30s, described the pushback she received from friends and family when she married her Christian boyfriend — she said her friends expected her to marry an Israeli because of her cultural attachment to Judaism and Israel. “My friends thought I wasn’t being true to myself,” she said, and noted that the disapproval comes from the other side, as well. “My mother-in-law to this day feels she failed.”
Mallo’s three children attend Hebrew school, but they have also adopted customs that she views as culturally, rather than religiously, Christian. She has a Christmas tree and they will do traditional, though not necessarily religious practices associated with the holiday, such as placing Santa Claus Minions on their lawn and letting the children have Santa coloring pages. Still, she said that’s not enough for her mother-in-law who tries to insert religion into her children’s lives. “She held my first baby and took communion,” she said. “She would take the kids to five o’clock mass. It’s still an issue.”
On the other hand, her grandparents have evolved from ignoring her dates with then-boyfriend Chris to “showering him with gifts and praise” and financially supporting the children’s Jewish education. So far it’s been effective, she said. Recently, in response to a request to lower his voice while she was on a work call, her son said, “I’ll be silent like an aleph.”
Hana Cofsky’s grandfather founded an Orthodox synagogue, and she said her grandparents even ripped toilet paper before Shabbat because of a prohibition of tearing on Saturdays. It came as a shock when her son brought home a Catholic girl, her father so devout that he attended mass every morning and sang in his church choir.
“I was trying to be opposed,” Cofsky said. “But she was an incredible, wonderful person. They are the happiest two people I know.” So she took a different approach.
“My advice to them was, ‘Don’t marry until you decide how you’re going to raise your kids. And then don’t tell anyone,’” she said, so as to avoid pressure from either family. It worked out. “My daughter-in-law is the best thing that has happened in my life.”
It didn’t go as smoothly for Werschultz when her two sons announced they were marrying out. “We told them we couldn’t go to their weddings if they marry non-Jews,” she said. “And we didn’t.”
Hearing the different experiences was comforting to at least one person in the audience. Debbie Carthan, now studying to convert to Judaism from her Baptist faith, was so moved that she stood up and used the microphone to thank the speakers. “I’m so emotional hearing your stories,” she said. “This is the warmest, most inviting environment I’ve ever been in.”
Later, in an interview with NJJN, she said, “I need to understand other journeys and feel like I’m not alone.” She said some of the stories moved her to tears. In part, that’s because this year she had to tell her family that she wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas with them. While it was the first time she didn’t have a Christmas tree, she said she found a way to transform the tradition. “I put up a white tree with a Star of David on top and dreidel ornaments.”
Carthan, like the others, is navigating her own path.