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Talking to Children About Jewish Identity in an Interfaith Family

Children begin to ask identity questions at an early age. Who am I? Who is my family? Where do I belong? Why does my family celebrate some holidays and not others? These are all standard questions children ask to determine how they fit into their world

The same is true about religious identity. Children want to know the different ways they connect to their parents, and members of their extended family. For children in interfaith families, clarifying the role of religion in the family dynamic and the child’s personal identity from an early age  is important. The following guidelines will assist you when talking about Jewish Identity. 

Conversations about religious identity can occur at any time. We recommend that you and your spouse or partner come to an agreement on how you will handle religious questions as early as possible. It will be easier for both of you to answer questions with some clarity if you have reached an agreement before the child’s questions begin. 

As with any important conversation, we recommend that you initiate the conversation with your child at an early age, in a relaxed comfortable environment. Let your child know that you are always happy to discuss religious identity questions and situations with him or her. Make religious identity a comfortable topic of conversation in your home.

How do I start the conversation?

Before you talk to your child about religious identity, it’s helpful and important to have discussed this with yourself and your spouse and partner. We recommend the following steps to assist you in determining religious identity in your family:

  • Think about how you feel in order to reach a decision regarding religious identity, practice and belief.
  • Communicate these decisions to your children directly.
  • Encourage them to discuss these issues with you as a family.

Step 1: Each partner should think about what religious identity means to him or her. As a child, what role did religion play in your life? What does religion mean to you today? What role do you want it to play in your children’s lives?

Step 2: Partners should share with each other their feelings about each question, and attempt to come to an agreement about which religion they will raise the child in, how they will celebrate religious holidays in the home, and how they will celebrate with their extended families. It’s helpful to have this discussion before the child is born. Often, parents wait until the child is a few years old before having these conversations. We recommend sooner rather than later, but later better than never!

Step 3: Once you have reached an agreement, share and implement their decision with your children.

Step 4: You also should share with the grandparents the choices you have made as soon as possible.

Why do my children’s questions catch me off guard?

When seated for a family meal, children may share comments and questions related to religious identity, religious practice or religious beliefs, enabling time for parents to think before responding. However, more than likely, questions and comments will pop up at the least expected moments, such as when you are about to drop your child off at a friend’s house or as you pull into your favorite local, noisy fast food spot.

Children take cues from their parents. The more comfortable you are with the discussion of religious identity, the more comfortable your children will be. The more religious identity is a comfortable topic of conversation in the family, the more comfort children will have with who they are and the decisions you have made for them.

Intermarried parents often ask:

  • Now that we’ve made decisions for our family, how do we explain our choice of Jewish identity to our children when one of us is Jewish and one of us is not?
  • How do we create a sense of respect and love for all the members of our extended family, those who have Jewish homes and those who do not?

When responding, keep the following thoughts in mind:

  1. Respond in a way that is appropriate given your child's age and level of understanding. Sometimes a short simple answer is best.
  2. Listen carefully to what your child is saying or asking, and consider whether he or she may be:
    Repeating something said by a peer?
    Asking an existential question (such as who am I…)?
    “Testing” a concept?
    Concerned about something specific related to religious identity?
  3. Give children warm, clear answers that help them understand their Jewish identity in relation to their extended non-Jewish family:
    “We are Jewish and we love to share holidays with Grandma who celebrates holidays that are different than ours”
    “We are going to invite your cousins to celebrate Hanukkah with us even though they do not celebrate Hanukkah in their home”
  4. It is not necessary to have all of the answers, especially when the questions catch you off guard. When that happens, let your child know you will have to get back to him or her—and then get the answers!
  5. Children may become confused when observing their relatives celebrating different holidays than they do. Explain that ideas and practices that are different are neither better nor worse. Children may want simple answers about religious beliefs by asking questions like “who is right?” Help them understand that sometimes people do things differently, and that is neither right nor wrong.
  6. Help children build strong, warm relationships with all of their relatives. Using phrases that help them understand different practices and what is expected of them. For example “We are going to Aunt Jody’s house to help her and her family celebrate their holiday.”
  7. When you celebrate Jewish holidays in your home, invite Jewish and non-Jewish relatives to share in your celebrations.

Your goal is to teach your child how to embrace and respect every member of your family. Once they are comfortable with this, they will be well on their way to celebrating their Jewish identity.