5 Questions for Joyce Schwartz
By Susan Flynn
'Tis the season of joy and glad tidings. But some couples experience additional emotions this month: They call it the December Dilemmas. With one spouse Jewish and the other Christian, navigating the needs for tinseled trees, Santa Claus, potato latkes and lit menorahs can be complicated – especially once children enter the picture.
Joyce Schwartz, a trained social worker, is a director at Reform Jewish Outreach, a Newton, Massachusetts-based organization that provides support to interfaith couples through a variety of classes, including the popular “Yours, Mine & Ours,” which offers the chance to explore feelings about differences in religion in a group setting.
While couples may have talked about religion before kids, different upbringings and beliefs don’t always come into play until they have children. “I think that’s when many couples start to ask deeper questions,” says Schwartz. “Religion is not theoretical anymore.”
Schwartz herself was once a client of Reform Jewish Outreach. Raised a Catholic, she married a Jewish man 23 years ago, and together they made the decision to raise their children in his faith. “I did have a spiritual life and I needed to express that part of me,” she says. “I needed a Christmas tree. I needed to know my traditions were going to be represented. I was the last person in the world who thought I would be raising a Jewish child. But I was lucky to have a very supportive husband who bought me the biggest fake Christmas tree at Bloomingdale’s!”
1. Why is the Christmas tree such a loaded topic for some couples?
It can mean something very different to the two people in a couple. For some, it’s a symbol of Christianity, for others it represents a lot of memories with all the ornaments. In interfaith couples, it runs the gamut. We hear a lot of Jewish people say they would never have a Christmas tree, but after discussing things and understanding why it is so important to the other half, they have a change of heart.
Santa can be tricky. I remember one of my friends telling me she didn’t want my kids telling her kids there isn’t any Santa Claus. We never told our kids that Santa Claus brought presents. They knew they were getting presents from grandparents and aunts and uncles. It’s hard because Christmas is everywhere, and it starts earlier every year.
2. What happens in your “Yours, Mine & Ours” classes?
All of our programs are really designed to educate and welcome people. We feel it is really important that couples understand what they need from their faith backgrounds, and we help them see the importance of compromise. They also may have made firm decisions about what they want to do as a couple, but we all have extended families and have to find a way to work with them.
We talk about the pros and cons of raising children with one religion instead of two. My personal opinion is choosing one religion is better. I think a child needs a religious identity, so they can feel they are Catholic or Hindi or Jewish. You can teach them all the different theologies, but you can’t believe in all of them at the same time. I think it can be particularly hard to reconcile life-cycle events. Do you do a Baptism and a Bris? Do you go to Catholic school or Hebrew school? It’s hard to do both. But there are couples who do that and make it work.
There are no hard-and-fast rules here. We are just providing an opportunity to discuss these issues.
3. What’s the key to making things work with the in-laws?
I think parents are supporting adult children in interfaith couples more than was the case, say, 20 or 30 years ago. I have been married 23 years and my parents were very supportive, but I also had to be the ambassador. I think keeping the communication open and being the ambassador to the extended family is very important. For [your child’s] grandparents, it can really be a sense of loss for them. The fear is that they will lose [you] as a daughter or they won’t be as close to their grandchildren because they are being raised in a different religion. I would invite my parents to all the Jewish holidays, and slowly they got to enjoy them. My husband took on the role of being the photographer at Christmas and Easter.
One thing we do in our classes is to have the participants discuss the most valuable religious aspect that they received from their parents. It helps you recognize the values you have learned from your parents that will always be with you.
4. How can a couple respect each other’s religious backgrounds?
The key is listening and understanding. One of the best exercises we do is to start off asking each person to describe the religious backgrounds of their grandparents and parents and sharing that with each other. Then, one half of the couple introduces the other person to the group based on what they heard. It opens up communication in a very respectful way. It also gives them the opportunity to recognize things about each other they didn’t know before.
We also ask couples to consider – if you were to raise children in a partner’s religion, what three things would you need for yourself? One of my favorites came from a Jewish woman who was imagining raising Christian children. She said she wanted to be able to listen to Jewish music at home, hang Jewish artwork in her home and celebrate Passover. I remember one couple who came to a class. The man was British, very Protestant, who was dating this lovely Jewish woman. He said the one thing he would need was brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner. For him, it was all about family and memories. She made him brussels sprouts every year.
5. You feel strongly that a couple coming from two different religions can be a positive thing. Why?
Teaching your children about different religions and being respectful can be very enriching. I don’t want to make it seem like a lot of work. We all know people who married in the same religion and who get divorced. I do think very strongly that religion does not have to be a point of conflict. It can be a real opportunity for growing together and sharing. I think the whole world would be better served if we all had a better education in different faith backgrounds – if we had a taste of Hindi, a taste of Protestantism, a taste of Judaism. Because when there is understanding, there is tolerance for other people’s differences.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.