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Eser Discusses Interfaith Relationships

bart_and_laura_large“How Jewish are you?” is how religion first came up in our relationship. Bart asked me on our second date. Even though I thought it was an odd question for someone whose JDate profile read “willing to convert,” I played along and answered. Bart “came clean” immediately: not a J. Two years later, we’re enjoying discussion and debate in our Monday night Eser group.

Though we come from different backgrounds, we hadn’t thought of ourselves as an interfaith couple until we saw the topic on the list of Eser’s Ten Best Kept Jewish Secrets. Maybe that is unique to us, or maybe it is par for the course. But in the spirit of all the questions we’re invited to raise in Eser, and with Passover on our minds, we came up with our own four questions on some of the hot button interfaith issues.

How do we combine traditions, respecting each other’s without losing our own?

Bart: Talking about various traditions we have around certain holidays laid a great foundation for understanding what is important to both of us: acting with purpose and an open mind. Listening to each other and remembering that we are on the same team. As long as we remember that, we can negotiate anything respectfully and with renewed sense of discovery. The bulk of negotiating and compromising between us has been centered on Thanksgiving. For me, it’s meant meeting college friends at a rotating site each year. For her, it meant Nana’s house with the same family members sitting in the same chairs. This past year, we went to Nana’s. Next year, we plan to host my friends…and Nana!

Laura: I don’t think this issue is unique to interfaith couples. The first time Bart and I faced off over traditions was actually about Thanksgiving. Although we’ve since resolved the great Thanksgiving debate, we are still working towards equilibrium for the December holidays. Bart is actually quite flexible; he only has two requirements:

1. On December 25 we “open” stockings, with individually wrapped presents. I have since purchased an UGG stocking.

2. We decorate with what he calls white lights – you know, Christmas lights. This is where I’m still uneasy.

My concern, which I’ve struggled to explain, is that I don’t want to assimilate, or even to appear “not Jewish”. But I also realize that it could be “worse” – he could want a tree! So, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time on Pinterest to find “Jewish” ways to decorate with white lights. He is so open to celebrating any and every Jewish holiday, so I know I need to find a way to be comfortable with white lights.

What to do about the religion of our future imaginary children?

Bart: This is typically where the crowd starts chanting “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” However, we both want to raise a Jewish family. I want our children to have all the experiences that come with growing up Jewish… partially because I want to live vicariously through them. Laura and I have talked about hosting our own Jewish Summer Camp for adults (our friends) who never experienced that growing up.

Laura: This was probably my primary reason for going on JDate. I want my children to be raised Jewish – temple-going, Hebrew school-attending, camp-loving, holiday-observing Jewish. While other interfaith couples may be at odds here, Bart and I are pretty much on the same page with raising kids Jewish.

What is the biggest challenge dating outside/inside Judaism?

Bart: I previously had dates that ended basically because I wasn’t Jewish. I was worried that Laura would not see past my religious identification (more importantly, my non-affiliation with Judaism). I mean, it happens all the time:  Boy meets girl on JDate. Boy takes girl on actual date. Girl finds out (gasp) HE’S A GOY!!! Girl politely tells boy thanks, but no thanks. Part of the trouble I found was the girls I was meeting weren’t taking me seriously. Judaism and dating Jewish girls has never been a novelty for me. I have my own Jewish journey to take, and I am happy to have a true partner to share it with.

Laura: Even though we both want to have a Jewish family, I sometimes worry about being the only one holding the J-torch. There is a difference between simply being okay with Jewish children and being an advocate. In conversations about this, Bart makes a good point: going on JDate as a non-J is indicative of a desire to actively pursue a Jewish life. Still, the concern crosses my mind.

What is the best thing about dating outside/inside Judaism?

Bart: I really enjoy learning about and discussing Judaism. I love our Monday night Eser group, and I know I have Laura’s support to learn about Judaism at my own pace. I like Shabbat. I love holidays, and let’s face it, who has more holidays than the Jews? Count me in!

Laura: Bart asks a lot of questions about Jewish things that I intuitively know. And as it turns out, I don’t actually understand a lot of the things that I “know”. It has been a great opportunity for me to learn about the origin, intent, and detail behind practices that I previously accepted at face value. All this learning together helps shape my (and our) Jewish practice – and makes me feel “more Jewish”. The truth of the matter is that we aren’t worlds apart. We’re talking subtle differences here, not stark contrasts. Sure, we will face challenges. But one would guess that even couples who are the same denomination (is that called intrafaith?) still have to decide where to go for holidays and how observant to raise children. Perhaps these aren’t hot button interfaith issues at all, but simply questions to discuss.

Being a part of Eser is something we’ve both enjoyed. We love being able to learn from new friends and old – and then continue the discussion at home. In fact, we talk about Eser every day – it has truly enriched the conversation and broadened our perspectives.

We’d love to hear your perspective on our four questions in the comments. Oh, and if anyone has any suggestions for how to decorate with white lights, please let us know.

Bart Thompson and Laura Handler are participating in the Monday night Cambridge group of Eser 2014. Both are Massachusetts transplants who now call Arlington home, with their pug Hannah. They met on JDate in November of 2011.

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