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Easter ham with a side of matzoh? How interfaith families make it work

As interfaith marriages steadily increase, so has the number of couples opting to raise their children with more than one religion.
/ Source: TODAY

This weekend, will your children be hunting for Easter eggs... or for the afikomen?

In many families, the answer is both. As interfaith marriages steadily increase, so has the number of couples opting to raise their children with more than one religion. That means Easter services may follow a traditional Jewish Seder for Passover (which includes the tradition of children searching for a hidden piece of broken matzoh called the afikomen).

In 2010, 42 percent of U.S. marriages identified as interfaith, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America.” Mormons were the least likely to marry outside the faith, Jews were the most, and Muslims fell somewhere in the middle. 2013 Pew Research Center data shows that for Jews, intermarriage rates have risen substantially over the last five decades. For those married since 2000, nearly six in 10 have wed a non-Jewish spouse.

Easter eggs and Passover matzoh
Many interfaith families embrace such traditions as Passover matzoh and Easter eggs simultaneously.Shutterstock

Mixing religions may not seem like a big deal when you get married. But once you have children, questions of faith grow more pressing. Can a family really do both? Can you raise a child to be Christian and Jewish at the same time?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to Susan Katz Miller, author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.” As an interfaith child — her father is Jewish, her mother Episcopalian — and mother of two interfaith children of her own, she argues that Americans are leaving behind single-faith identities. Families like hers, she said, want to feel connected to both parents’ ancestry and educate their children from two religious viewpoints. There are over 100 children in the Washington, D.C.-area Interfaith Families Project’s education program, Miller noted, in which a Jewish and Christian educator are paired in each classroom, “modeling respectful interaction” and “helping kids feel comfortable with their interfaith roots.”

Miller acknowledges that religious customs can collide, as they may this weekend. She describes in her blog: “Say, for instance, your in-laws are expecting you for a raucous Passover Seder featuring four glasses of wine and glazed brisket. This could be an alienating experience if you are also commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and avoiding meat on the solemn Friday of Holy Week.”

She advises making respectful accommodations for both religions: Serve salmon at Seder instead of meat, for example, so everyone can partake in the Passover ritual and Good Friday. (And maybe skip the ham in favor of lamb for Easter Sunday supper.)

Practical difficulties aside, Miller says that a survey of 256 interfaith parents for her book found 90 percent of respondents, given the chance to “do it again,” would make the same interfaith choice for their families. Dual-faith parenting, she believes, is “an exercise in letting go.”

Washington, D.C. couples therapist and interfaith parent Jennifer Kogan regularly counsels interfaith families and says they can “make it work” as long as one partner’s beliefs don’t prevent them from acting as a united team. Kogan explained: If parents’ fundamental religious principles conflict — say one person feels they have to “pray for the soul of the other because they are going to hell” — that’s tough to overcome.

“One thing that works for [our family] is that we don’t feel the need to say that one religion is right,” said Kogan, mother of a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, who have been exposed to both Judaism and Christianity. She highlights the connections, rather than the differences, to her teenagers. For example, Jesus' last supper is commonly believed to have been a Passover Seder (though some scholars disagree).

Being an interfaith couple without children isn’t a very difficult prospect, Riley explained. But once kids come into the picture, couples may start to feel pressure to choose a faith as they debate, not necessarily religious practices, but how to spend their family’s time and money. Are you going to send your children to Hebrew school or Sunday school? Are you going to give to the church collection? Will kids attend religious camps or youth groups? If so, which one?

Not every parent is convinced that practicing two religions in one home is the solution.

Jane Larkin of Dallas, Texas, author of “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Continuity,” and parent to Sammy, 10, grew up Jewish, while her husband was raised Episcopalian. Before they were married, Larkin describes how the couple worked with a priest and rabbi, both of whom strongly advocated that they choose one religion because of the difficulties of trying to practice both Judaism and Christianity in a serious way.

So Larkin and her husband chose a Jewish identity for their home and their son, although Larkin’s husband did not covert. At the same time, Larkin is extremely respectful of her husband’s upbringing and his family’s religious background. When her son has a question about the Old Testament or Judaism, she often consults her Christian in-laws, who have a deep understanding of religious studies and the Bible.

“For our family, I do think having one identity is important,” said Larkin. “But choosing one religion and imparting those values doesn’t deprive a child of having full knowledge of the other or discussing the intertwined differences.”

Jacoba Urist is a health, education and culture journalist in New York City, who also writes for The Atlantic. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist