Labels can be great, like when they're telling you what's in your food, helping you figure out which train to catch, or providing you with the right terminology to express yourself. But labels can be harmful, too, boxing individuals and entire communities into stereotypes and harmful tropes.
And sometimes, labels can be downright confusing. What should we call ourselves? What do others call us? What words fit us best, and which labels best express our unique, multifaceted identities?
When it comes to partnerships in which one person is Jewish and the other is not, there are lots of descriptors, and lots of terms you might hear used to refer to your family. We asked five couples to tell us how they describe themselves and their families' religious identity - and why.
"Interfaith": What it means and who uses it
If this word seems familiar, it's with good reason. "Interfaith" is the term most commonly used in the Reform Jewish community (and beyond) to describe couples comprising one Jewish partner and one partner who is not Jewish. It's the terminology that most people know best, and with which many families identify.
The D'Isas of Washington, D.C., are one such family. Jeannelle D'Isa, who works for Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue, is married to Nicole, raised Protestant, who now leans toward atheism but embraces Jewish practice. The couple celebrates secularized versions of some of the holidays of Nicole's childhood, but overall, they say, they keep a Jewish home and are raising their child in the Jewish faith. Nicole has also taken Introduction to Judaism classes.
"We say we are an interfaith family," D'Isa says, "but our Jewishness is with us all the time."
Mary Beth Rettger and Roy Lurie feel the same way. Lurie, who emigrated to the U.S. at 25, was active in his South African synagogue growing up. Rettger, a practicing Catholic through her college years, has drifted from the Catholic faith but still feels connected to it. And she's come to feel deeply connected to Judaism, as well - so much so that she volunteers full-time as the executive director of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.
"Interfaith, that's us," she says. "It just fits. However much conversion doesn't feel like the right choice for me at this time, Judaism is where I hang my spiritual hat and invest my time and energy."
What if "interfaith" doesn't fit?
Though commonly used, the term "interfaith" doesn't resonate with every couple.
This may be especially true of couples who do not observe any religious tradition in their homes outside of Judaism (e.g., one spouse is Jewish and the other is agnostic). Individuals who do not adhere to any faith sometimes feel that the term "interfaith" indicates more than one faith, and thus doesn't apply to them.
Take David Levy and Keith Schumann, for example. Levy was raised Jewish, while Schumann, who grew up in a nominally practicing Catholic home, now calls himself "not religious." Neither takes issue with the term "interfaith," but they don't feel that it quite fits them, either.
"In Keith's mind, 'interfaith' implies two faiths," Levy explains, "and he doesn't see the meeting of Judaism and no faith as 'interfaith.'" The couple, who live in Brooklyn, NY, say they prioritize and embrace Jewish practices, like Passover seders and Hanukkah candles, and Jewish culture, like movies, books, and plays.
Is the term "non-Jew" OK to use?
Truth be told, this is a question that individuals can answer only for themselves. Many synagogues and Jewish organizations try not to use this term for fear of offending members of their community - though some individuals feel that it is a neutral term that accurately describes their identities.
The D'Isas say the term feels exclusionary, as if it disregards Nicole's Jewish contributions to the family and their joint commitment to keeping a Jewish home.
"This term is not used in our house," Jeannelle D'Isa says. "My spouse would never take a bimah honor that wasn't meant for all families or for interfaith families (which our temple offers) - but Nicole is also an accomplished baal t'kiah,and what would 'non-Jewish' mean in our house, anyway?"
Aimee Gindin of Sharon, MA, agrees. She was raised Jewish, and her husband, Mike Baldwin, had a largely secular upbringing. "I don't love the term 'non-Jew,'" Gindin says. "It feels like a term that a Jew would say to 'other' someone else. I see us all as equals in our family, so I prefer not to label Mike as being separate."
Rettger, however, says it's a term she's comfortable with, given that she has not converted and still feels connected to Catholicism. "I usually use this term to describe myself," she says - though she would not use "non-Jewish" to describe her interfaith family as a whole.
And Levy, too, says he and his husband are OK with the term. "I think of Keith as a non-Jewish member of a Jewish family," he says. "It's a description that applies to roughly half the members of my extended family in my generation." In other words, many 'non-Jews' are part of Jewish families, and the term doesn't preclude them from making meaningful Jewish contributions to their families and communities.
If you use the terms "non-Jew" and "non-Jewish", it's important to recognize that some people find these terms alienating or even hurtful. Therefore, it's best to use caution with these terms in communal settings and to use other language where possible.
Other terms for families that include members who are agnostic or connect with other religions
Here are some other terms you may hear used to describe couples and families of melded religious or agnostic heritage.
- Multifaith: This term most often refers to families that celebrate holidays from both Judaism and another faith. It is also a good option for blended families with more than two religious practices incorporated into their traditions, representing a diversity of backgrounds and faiths.
- Jewish-adjacent: This term describes someone who is not Jewish but is closely proximate to Judaism and/or Jewish life. Though it could refer to a spouse or child of a Jewish person, the term is also sometimes used by (and about) family members such as in-laws, grandparents, step-relatives and others who are not Jewish themselves but who participate in Jewish holidays and rituals with their Jewish relatives.
- Intermarriage/mixed marriage: These terms, once popular in the Jewish communal lexicon, have largely fallen out of favor.
"We're just Jewish"
Though the broader Jewish community may use terms like "interfaith" and the others above, these labels don't resonate with everyone. Some families feel most comfortable simply identifying as a Jewish family, even if one or more members aren't technically Jewish - especially if they have committed to Jewish practice and raising Jewish children.
In Dunwoody, GA, Daren and Amanda Becker have committed to raising their two kids in the Jewish faith. Amanda, who grew up Lutheran, has not converted to Judaism but neither does she attend church.
"It works for us to identify our family as Jewish," Daren Becker says, "We do not use any terms like 'interfaith' or 'Jewish-adjacent' to describe ourselves. Our kids and friends are aware that Amanda was not raised Jewish but that we keep a Jewish home."
And though Levy and Schumann don't mind the labels, they feel that "just Jewish" suits them best, too. "We're more likely to say we have a Jewish home, similar to how we planned a Jewish wedding," Levy says. "And we describe our family as a Jewish family."
A closing note about the term "interfaith"
Even though the word "interfaith" doesn't resonate with every family, it's important to note that many synagogues and others in the Jewish community use the term. That's because it's considered an all-encompassing and broadly acceptable term - and for the purposes marketing, programming, and general conversations, synagogues (and the people in them) need an easy, welcoming way to talk about the broad diversity of families that comprise their communities.
But just because it's used as an umbrella term doesn't mean that individual families need to use it for themselves. Each family is uniquely individual, with nuances unlike anyone else's - and as such, each family must decide for themselves what term feels best to them.
If you are part of a family that prefers another term, consider sharing that feedback with your clergy members and fellow congregants so they can better understand your family's identity. This will help others to be both thoughtful about and respectful of the many ways that families in the community identify. And in the long run, it will help ensure that all our families can find their home in the Jewish community.