My Experience As A "Jewish Father" and a "Christian Man"
By Doug Sumner, Temple Chai, Phoenix, Arizona
For 10 years, I have been the Christian spouse in an interfaith marriage and a member of Temple Chai. I was raised in a traditional and devout Norwegian-American Lutheran family and church in Northern Minnesota. My wife, perhaps my cultural opposite, was raised in a mostly liberal and secular Jewish family in Westchester County, New York. Although our discoveries about each other and our backgrounds were initially about humorous ethnic differences, as we became more serious about each other, the magnitude of the life-changing decisions and challenges that were ahead of us became much more evident and real.
My extended Lutheran family includes four uncles and four first cousins who are Lutheran ministers, and a grandmother and mother who were strong spiritual matriarchs and leaders. As traditional as they were, they were always very supportive of Israel and of the important role Jews had played historically and today. However, when it came to the real possibility that my parents would have Jewish grandchildren, their tolerance was tested at a very personal level. How would their son reconcile and retain his own strong Christian faith and how would they relate to and have the assurance of the spiritual well-being of their grandchildren? Of course, my parents' concerns were also part of the internal dialogues I had while deciding to marry Francine, raise our children Jewish, and integrate into a synagogue and culture that was literally foreign to me.
Once these life-changing spiritual decisions were made, and they were part of our marriage covenant, I committed to becoming an active member of the temple with my wife and strongly supporting our children's Jewish education and upbringing. Initially, I was very concerned and uncertain of how this transition would happen, what my role would be, and what impact it would have on my own Christian beliefs. What I did have, though, was a strong personal faith, based on experience, which consoled me that Francine was the woman I was meant to marry, that Judaism was the foundation of Christianity, and as a result, God would support and nurture our growth as a family.
After years of raising three children and participating with my wife at Temple Chai, I feel very comfortable in my role as an active "Jewish father" and a committed "Christian man." However, I continue to strive for more growth, both in Judaism and Christianity. As a Jewish father, I am committed to learning Hebrew and to be a part of my children's education. I am in the Advanced Judaic studies program, and I attend services and religious school events. However, the one area that has helped me personally the most, as a Christian involved in Judaism, is relating the history and rituals of Judaism to Christianity.
For example, relating the Jewish liturgy to the Christian liturgy provides me with a feeling that worship service that I attended as a child is very similar to the worship service I am sharing with my children. Similarly, learning more about the growth of Christianity in the early centuries and how it grew in many ways out of Judaism provides comfort that the two religions are related and that my involvement in both religions is not contradictory.
Although I am comfortable being an integral part of our Jewish family life, I know there are other Christian spouses that are not as comfortable and have not become as involved as I have. Making a lifelong commitment to marry a spouse who has a religious and cultural background significantly different from yours, dropping, to some degree, your involvement in your own religion, and acting as a role model for your children's religious education in a different faith is, to say the least, difficult and a growth experience. Interfaith marriage is not a simple designation. It is lifelong personal experiences and ongoing internal dialogues, which makes it impossible to prescribe a road map or process for getting through it. From my experience though, it is about doing what you think is right, taking risks, having faith, and nurturing the spiritual growth of your spouse, your children, and yourself.