MIDDLETOWN, Pa. (AP) — When Andrea Lichtman, of Middletown, eloped, neither her Catholic parents nor her husband’s Jewish parents would accept the interfaith marriage.
“My parents didn’t speak to me for five years. It was very hard,” she said. Still, the couple married. “We were very sure in what we were doing.”
Times have changed. Nowadays, a marriage of two people of different faiths has become the norm.
Nearly 40 percent of adults living in the United States who married between 2010 and 2014 had a spouse who practiced a different religion, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Before 1960, that number was 19 percent, the center’s data shows.
The reason for the increase in interfaith marriages, some area religious leaders say, is that Americans no longer live in homogeneous communities based on their religion or ethnicity. The ties that used to bind people to their neighborhood, church or synagogue aren’t as strong as they once were. Young people travel more for college, work or the military.
“The number of marriages now that are interfaith is probably more the rule than not the rule,” said the Rev. Michael C. DiIorio, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Tullytown. He estimated that 60 percent to 65 percent of the marriages conducted at his parish are of a Catholic and someone of another faith, most commonly another Christian denomination.
The numbers are greater within the Jewish community; 58 percent of Jews who married between 2005 and 2013 had a spouse who practiced a different religion, according to the Pew data. Rabbi Robyn Frisch, executive director of Interfaith Family Philadelphia, said the figure is as high as 71 percent for Reformed Jews.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, wanted to learn more about how the Jewish community can be more responsive and accepting of such couples, so it called Frisch for help. The law school graduate, rabbi and leader of the InterfaithFamily Network in Philadelphia held a conference earlier this month on interfaith marriages at Shir Ami in Newtown Township.
More than a dozen participants joined in the conversation. Most were parents whose adult children were dating or planning to marry someone of another faith, or who already were married and raising children in an interfaith household. One woman asked about the notion of Jewish identity coming through the mother’s side. Others had questions about blessings and rituals. One wondered why her child chose not to marry another Jew.
“Identity is much more complex” now than it was in bygone eras when families lived in homogeneous communities where their children’s chances of meeting and marrying someone like themselves were much more likely, Frisch said. Now, she said, interfaith couples come to her not just asking for advice, but saying they are going to marry.
It’s not a rejection of a religion if someone marries outside the faith, Frisch said.
Parents should realize that their child’s choice of a spouse doesn’t reflect on them, she stressed. “The reality is they fell in love with someone of a different faith. The power dynamic shifts when they are out of the house. It’s your adult child.”
Parents of an adult child who marries someone of another faith should respect their son or daughter’s decision, Frisch said. And they should respect the culture and beliefs of their child’s spouse, she advised. She also warned against the use of “insider language” that could make someone of a different faith feel like an “other.”
A wise woman once told her to offer advice when asked for it, and that’s good advice, she said. And be an “active listener” - something she learned about in rabbinical school.
The same goes for the couple in the interfaith marriage, she added. They need to realize that old ways are hard for older people to forget. They should include traditions from both faiths in a wedding ceremony if possible.
“Knowing where you can compromise and where you can’t,” is also important, Frisch said, noting that interfaith couples are more likely to talk early on in their relationship about whether they will have children and how they will be raised. “Interfaith couples can’t avoid the issues,” she said.
The couple should ask themselves, “What does my religion mean to me? What does your religious upbringing mean to you? How are we going to honor that? It’s so important to have lines of communication open - how to compromise and what you can’t compromise on.”
Psychotherapist Deirdre Hally Shaffer, of Doylestown, said interfaith couples should try to be flexible, but she added that raising kids in both religions is difficult.
“For their own sense of identity, (it’s better) to raise them with one religion while having respect for the other,” she said. Usually the parent who is more religious will do this, she noted.
Couples preparing to enter an interfaith marriage need to understand, too, how their faith organization will view the marriage - and decide how important that is to them.
The Catholic Church recognizes interfaith marriages between a Catholic and another Christian or a non-baptized person as valid and they can be married by the clergy of the other religion, with the permission of the archbishop, said the Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Catholic Church, as well as other religions, want, and sometimes require, couples to attend pre-marital counseling whether they are marrying outside their faith or not.
At the archdiocesan Office for Life and the Family, director Steven Bozza said the Catholic Church wants couples to participate in the counseling to help them make sure they are making the right decision before they marry rather than afterward, when a bad decision can lead to more heartache.
“The couples, especially the guys don’t want to go,” DiIorio said, but after attending the session, they come back thanking him, saying counseling helped the couple talk about their commitment. “It’s a very fine thing.”
The Rev. Robert Linders, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown, said the counseling at his church for engaged couples, including those entering interfaith marriages, gets them talking about continued practice of their faith and how they will raise children.
“Sometimes they get along great. Other times, we uncover things and there’s more to talk about,” Linders said.
The challenge is “striking a delicate balance between inclusive and exclusive,” he said. “I understand a faith tradition wanting to keep its traditions from being compromised to the point where that faith tradition loses the very qualities that make it special and unique. On the other hand, ‘exclusivity’ often leads to narrowness and loyalty to one’s ‘tribe,’ which is the root of many of world’s problems. It has been rightfully said that people never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it out of religious convictions.”
The “real world” is what drew Frisch to the InterfaithFamily Network, an organization that supports interfaith families who are exploring Jewish life. She wants to help ensure that an interfaith couple remains close to the one spouse’s Jewish roots.
“I love being Jewish,” she said. “But ultimately, my children will figure out who they are and who they love.”
Lichtman, the woman who eloped, said her parents and in-laws eventually warmed up after the birth of her first child. “In the end, everyone sort of rallied,” she said.
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com
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