Interfaith couples work to find balance

April 9, 2011 

Samantha Oppenheimer didn't know any Jewish people before she sat next to her future husband, Lee, in a college class. She was a Baptist from a small town in North Carolina. But their difference in religious beliefs didn't get in the way of their romance.

As the relationship progressed, they started to discuss how their religious backgrounds could intertwine. Should she convert? How would they raise their children?

They answered those questions early. She remained Baptist. Future children would be brought up Jewish.

Twenty years later, similar questions arise. That's one of the reasons Oppenheimer helped start a committee that reaches out to interfaith families at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island.

Newly started, the committee plans to hold a couple of events a year to reach out to interfaith couples in the community, such as the recent "Passover A-Z" that provided everything from the history of the holiday to a good recipe for potato latkes.

The group itself is close to 30 members of the congregation -- some Jewish, some not, but all involved in some sort of interfaith relationship. The committee exists as a sort of support group to interfaith families, a place to ask all those questions that might seem out of place elsewhere. Do I have to convert if I attend? (No, the congregation does not pressure conversion.) How can I follow a service if I don't speak Hebrew? (The congregation provides English translations.)

"The issues have to be addressed because it happens with such frequency," committee chairwoman Marcia Brandt Frezza said.

Not always welcome in more conservative Jewish circles, interfaith marriages have become more common over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, the percentage of intermarriage in the Jewish community was at about 13 percent, according to InterfaithFamily, an advocacy group based in Massachusetts. That number now stands at about 30 percent, with the last major study done in the early 2000s revealing nearly half of new marriages were interfaith.

Beth Yam is following in the "big tent" idea promoted by Union for Reform Judaism, of which Beth Yam is a member, said Ted Davis, president of the congregation. The idea isn't to just open the doors to interfaith families, Davis said, but to provide an atmosphere that makes the non-Jewish members feel like a part of the family.

Samantha Oppenheimer has continued to attend Beth Yam because of that feeling. She said she's never felt pressured to convert. And her family was welcomed with open arms.

That's not to say an interfaith marriage is entirely without issues.

Issues always cam arise with holidays. At first a Christmas tree didn't exist in the Oppenheimer household. That started to weigh on Samantha. It just didn't feel like the holidays to her. So the family compromised and put up a tree.

Raising children also is a major issue for interfaith couples. Relying on reading the volumes of literature dedicated to this issue, the Oppenheimers made that decision long before having two sons. The couple's philosophy: set their path for them. If you let them choose their own way, they might feel they're picking one parent over the other, Oppenheimer said.

The boys -- Adam, 17, and Mark, 15 -- say they have no second thoughts about their upbringing. They even invited their entire classes from Hilton Head Preparatory School to their bar mitzvahs.

"I really like the sense of community and the religion itself," Adam said.

In a larger sense, it wasn't a big deal whether her children grew up Jewish or Christian, Oppenheimer said. A spiritual grounding and supportive faith family took precedence.

"It was more important to me that my children had a strong faith," she said.

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