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When Diane Greenberg’s son was a little boy, maybe about 5, he surprised his family with an observation: all boys were Jewish and all girls Catholic.
“He just came out with that one day and we all laughed, because that was his reality,” his mom remembers.
That's because in the Greenberg household, young Steven was Jewish, like his father. His big sister, Katie, was Catholic, like their mother.
While parents of different faiths often select one religion over the other, or attempt to raise children observing both, the Greenbergs took an unusual tack: They split their household faith straight down the middle and raised each child a different religion.
Today, Steven is 21 and agnostic. Katie is 24 and a confirmed Catholic. Here, members of the Greenberg family of New Hope, Pennsylvania, interviewed on separate occasions, reflect on the effort to raise a separate-but-equal interfaith household.
One couple, two religions
Diane Greenberg: Before we were married, we both felt strongly that we would like to pass religion on to our children and we had to come up with something, so we talked about bringing up one child one way and one another.
Bob Greenberg: I was not going to give up my faith, because I had that strong identity, even though I wasn’t particularly observant. And frankly, I didn’t think it was fair to ask Diane to give up her faith, which she was closer to than I was of my own. I didn’t really look at that as a viable alternative: Either you convert to my religion or I’ll convert to yours.
Diane: We decided if the first child was a boy, he’d be brought up Jewish, in part because he’d always have the last name Greenberg. If we had a girl, she might change her name one day. We had the girl first, though. She was brought up Catholic, and then we had a son...We only had the two kids so we didn’t have to worry about a third!
Bob: She (Diane) has really been more proactive in trying to maintain the Jewish part of our religion than I have been. Like I said, I wasn’t particularly observant. I think she respected my heritage and my background and my wishes, so we decided initially that we split the kids in terms of the faith. It kind of evolved into, we’ll raise the kids on both sides of the religious family and we’ll continue recognizing and appreciating both.
Diane: I actually had my son baptized because I knew my parents would be very upset if he wasn’t, but we couldn’t invite my husband’s family. Isn’t that a horrible story? We didn’t tell them, we just did it! (Their son also had a bris, a Jewish male circumcision ceremony, held at home eight days after the child’s birth.)
Katie attended the Catholic Church’s weekly religious education program, while Steven attended Hebrew school run by Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement focused on outreach. The children also attended an interfaith educational program offered by Chabad-Lubavitch.
Diane: My daughter went to CCD [Catholic religious education] and she received all the sacraments in the Catholic church and my son, we took him to Lubavitch — they didn’t really have a synagogue at the time. It’s actually like civic Jews. They make it a lot of fun for the kids, and I brought my son to that. When he started getting older, and when we approached them about him having a bar mitzvah, they told me they would not do it because I’m not Jewish. In the Jewish faith, you inherit your faith from your mother, whether you’re brought up as a Jew or not.
The sticking point — and the scientific child
Diane: We tried to call numerous people to get him some courses, just somewhere to go. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t call us back. It was a busy time in life and at one point, I just kind of stopped looking. And my husband was really busy. I figured, if it was really important to him, he would keep looking, and he didn’t, so we sort of let fall away.
And actually, my son at a very young age told me he really didn’t believe in God anyway. I don’t know where that came from. But he’s sort of the techie-scientist sort of kid, so maybe that has something to do with it.
Bob: Lubavitch have a very nice outreach program, where they basically welcome anybody into their tent and they have nice activities, and Steven and I attended some of those. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the bar mitzvah and the real religious parts of it, they won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. So because Steven wasn’t born of a Jewish mother, and had not converted to Judaism, they essentially didn’t consider him a Jew and would not reside over the bar mitzvah ceremony.
They did give me a couple of names of reform rabbis that they said would do the ceremony, and I tried to pursue those but didn’t get much of a response. With the benefit of hindsight, I guess I should have been more persistent, and it never happened.
That was disappointing to me because first of all, it meant that my side of the religious family, the Jewish part, came to an end with me. When I’m gone, the tradition is not carried on. And secondly, it left Steven without any religious identity, although in reality, I don’t think he has a religious identity anyway. Like a lot of young people, he’s not a big fan of religion. I think he’s kind of agnostic on formal religion.
Diane: I didn’t know where my kids were going to wind up, what was going to happen. It wasn’t like we were trying to keep score and I wanted them to be definitely Catholic or definitely Jewish. I did want them to be well-rounded.
I know people have looked at us like we were nuts. I didn’t really want to tell either one of our families for a long time what we were planning. We kept mum about it to most people but if we did tell friends, they all said we were crazy.
I don’t know where my kids will wind up. I don’t know if they’ll wind up finding somebody and marrying someone of a totally different faith. Who knows? I was very happy actually that my daughter was brought up Catholic. I like having that in common with her, and I probably would have liked to have shared that with my son more, but I’m also happy about learning about the Jewish faith.
Bob: My religious education came to an end with my bar mitzvah. After that, I didn’t go to the synagogue. Of course, I didn’t go to synagogue before that. By and large, Steven’s experience was not a whole lot different than mine except that he didn’t get through the very important ceremony of the bar mitzvah. And in a Jewish state, it’s the moral equivalent of the baptism or a confirmation. It’s one of those highlights of the religion, and the fact that he never got there is disappointing to me, although I don’t think that it’s disappointing to him at all. Other than the disappointment that my son, whom I love very much, never got to be bar mitzvahed, I wouldn’t call it a failure because I hope we taught the kids to accept everybody.
Honestly, with Steven, I think the result would have been exactly the same. I could have pushed him to be bar mitzvahed, and he would have done it because I told him to do it. That’s how good a kid he is. But at the same time, the day after the bar mitzvah, he would have put those formalities aside, and he would be exactly the same person he is now — somebody that’s highly skeptical of religion.
What did the kids think?
Katie Greenberg: For me, it was just normal. I didn’t think much about it when I was a kid: I did CCD and he went to Hebrew school. We never questioned it.
I don’t know anybody else who did what my parents specifically did but it was just never strange for me because I grew up with it. I definitely knew people who celebrated multiple holidays, like Christmas and Hanukkah, so that’s mostly what it was for me. I don’t know anybody else who did what my parents specifically did, but it was just never strange for me.
I do (think of myself as Catholic) but I almost think of Judaism as being connected. They’re not totally dissimilar religions and I was learning a lot of the same biblical stories that my brother was when I was in CCD.
We’d go to the Jewish side of my family (for Jewish holidays) and I definitely find comfort in Jewish traditions because I grew up with them, but there’s always been a “that’s not my religion" thing.
Katie said religion has never been an area of conflict with her brother, nor has it ever been a topic of much discussion. Steven declined to be interviewed for this article.
We haven’t really talked about religion. I think I asked him at some point in the last few years if he considered himself agnostic, but I don’t think he answered it.
For me, this was just normal. It wasn’t something that ever struck me as odd. And my parents were very good about it. There was never any pressure from them. It was really just normal for us. I think it made sense for them so we went with it.
And I think they did a good job with it. I felt like I got exposed to a lot of viewpoints and beliefs and opinions, which was pretty nice.