An Interfaith Family Journey

My current involvement with interfaith communities and organizations brings strength to my life and hope for a better world. As a social worker, I was always involved in social justice and human rights work but rarely was it faith related. Interfaith work started to play an important role in my personal life when I met a wonderful man, fell in love, and got married. My husband is Muslim and I am Jewish. Our family thrives from the opportunity to be part of both interfaith communities and open inclusive spaces within our respective religions.

Our story begins with how we met. Like many busy professionals today we met on an online dating site. As we were getting acquainted on our first date, he shared he was Muslim and I revealed I was Jewish. He made a joke about how this would never work out; we both laughed and continued to learn more about each other.

I was raised as a Reform Jew in a very liberal family in suburban Long Island, NY. I celebrated Jewish holidays with my family, attended after school Hebrew school and Sunday school, Jewish sleepaway camp, and had a bat-mitzvah. My husband was born in Guyana, South America and as a young child immigrated with his family to a residential neighborhood in Queens, NY. He went to public school but also attended Madrasa, which I learned was very similar to the Hebrew and Sunday School I attended, except he learned Arabic and studied the Quran. Growing up he observed Ramadan, celebrated Eid and his family observed the Islamic dietary rules of Halal.

Our narratives although seemingly very different have many similarities. We had many memorable moments getting to know each other’s families and customs. He came with me to my cousin’s bar mitzvah and I attended my first Islamic wedding. We attended Jewish holidays together at my parent’s house and his family’s annual Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan.

Although we had some moments that were confusing and new, such as where do I get an Indian Sari to wear to his Hindu friend’s wedding and how does he learn to dance salsa for my Puerto Rican friend’s party with Latin music. But through it all, we laughed, learned, and enjoyed our time together.

Early in our relationship my husband asked if I would consider converting to Islam but I told him “no”. As our relationship grew, religion became a unique challenge in moving forward together. He felt adamant about raising children in Islam. Initially, I agreed with the understanding that I still needed to learn more about Islam and culturally we would still celebrate Jewish holidays.

As part of my religious exploration I attended services in a few mosques. The prayers in Arabic sounded like many of the familiar Hebrew chants I heard growing up.   However, the challenging difference was the gender segregation during prayer services. Men and women were either in separate rooms where women could hear prayers through speakers or in the same room but the men prayed in front of the women. Although I knew that in Islam men and women are viewed as equal in the context of the religion, I could not reconcile this separation, which caused feelings of anger and confusion. When I asked my husband what he was taught growing up, he explained men and women were separated because of the physical position of prayer, which includes kneeling over close together. The concept was that the separation prevents the men from being sexually provoked during prayer. In my mind, if this were the case wouldn’t the women get sexually provoked from the men’s prayer position in the many mosques where women prayed behind them? And what about gay and lesbian Muslims, where would they fit in? I would challenge my husband about these issues but in his opinion this was just the way it was. He didn’t disagree with me, but he also didn’t feel the same passion I did for pursuing the issue. I worried about our relationship, knowing that I did not want to raise children under these values or assumptions.

As a clinical social worker and therapist, I strongly believe that therapy is a very effective tool and resource in helping individuals and couples work through issues in their relationships. Culturally, counseling was not something my husband was accustomed to, but he agreed to try it. I found a therapist who specialized in working with couples in interfaith relationships and could understand the nuances of a intercultural, interethnic, and interracial relationship.

During our first appointment, the therapist made us feel comfortable and allowed us both the space to voice our concerns. Throughout our sessions, we explored our personal views and individual priorities within our respective religions, cultural upbringing in our families, and opportunities for more inclusive and interfaith spaces. She helped us visualize how raising a child in both religions could work successfully.

Two organizations made a big impact in the way we could practice religion together and allow us to imagine raising a Muslim and Jewish child. The Brookville Multi-Faith Campus in Long Island has a wonderful interfaith community. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations share the same building. Together they sponsor many interfaith events. Their individual religious services are open, inviting, and inclusive too! The other organization that we benefit from is Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). MPV offers a Muslim community where men and women pray together and services can be led by a female or male. It is inclusive and welcoming of all individuals and couples including interfaith, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

After working through our differences and feeling welcomed by these communities, we had a fairy tale interfaith wedding, officiated together by a Rabbi and an Imam, that represented both our individual religions and our shared values.

Looking into our future, we are aware of the many challenges that come with raising children. However, the opportunity to raise our children as both Jewish and Muslim while embedding our family values is truly exciting. We hope to see interfaith communities grow and religious institutions become more inclusive where families like ours can feel welcomed and embraced. I hope that you join our family in supporting interfaith families and communities for a peaceful world.