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I lost my Jewish community after my interfaith marriage, so I built a new one

“Sure, I do interfaith marriages, but I have conditions,” the portly rabbi said, as he guided us to the two worn leather chairs in front of his desk. Then he sat down and clasped his hands together.

A few weeks before, on a warm summer afternoon, my fiance Chris had popped the question at the base of the Saugerties Lighthouse in upstate New York. We had been dating for less than two years and had met in the produce section of the grocery store. On our first date, I casually mentioned that I was Jewish and asked him about his own beliefs.

“I’m a nonpracticing Christian, but I’ve been renting a room from an older Jewish woman, and we keep kosher in her home,” he said.

“You keep kosher?” I was in awe. I’d never met a kosher Christian.

I was relieved to find out that our religious differences wouldn’t be an issue. That is, until we were desperately trying to find a rabbi to marry us.

“Are your kids going to be Jewish? If your kids aren’t Jewish, you’re damned to hell.” The rabbi slammed his hand down on the table and leaned back in his dilapidated brown chair.

I was stunned to silence. Chris looked at me, mirroring my shock.

All I could think was, “Jews don’t believe in hell.”

While we did indeed plan to raise our kids Jewish, we also planned to honor the few Christian traditions my future husband practiced, which essentially amounted to having Christmas and Easter dinner with his side of the family. Had I just committed myself and my unborn children to eternal damnation over a tree and a few plastic eggs?

Hearing the rabbi issue an ultimatum was our first inkling that I had underestimated the level of pushback I would receive from those I had counted on. It was ironic that Chris and I were prepared to navigate our own personal beliefs in a way that made sense to us, but, as we were quickly realizing, others outside of our relationship were making it difficult to do so.

Finding a rabbi was only one of the obstacles we would face as an interfaith couple. When I announced my engagement, some of my Orthodox friends back in Brooklyn, where I had grown up, told me they would not attend my wedding. “I just don’t feel comfortable,” one of them said over the phone, leaving the clear but unspoken reason lingering in the heavy silence that followed. Another said, “You have an obligation to marry a Jew.”

I had grown up in a Conservative Jewish home, and though my family had hoped I would marry a Jewish person, they weren’t as adamant as many in my community. My mother and father felt that it was more important that I find someone who made me happy.

I was grateful for my parents’ acceptance, but I was also devastated by the response of my Orthodox friends, and it marked the end of many relationships, some of which I’d had since Hebrew school. We had grown up together, celebrating Shabbat, attending shul together and spending so many weekends with one another. I knew that my close friends hadn’t approved of my relationship, but they hadn’t said much until after I expressed our plans for marriage. My community was part of my identity all the way through college, and their rejection of my future life partner was a huge loss.

Chris was taken aback when I told him about these reactions. He couldn’t understand why this was even an issue. Despite my sadness, I felt nothing but love for my Jewish community. I understood why they felt the way they did, but that wasn’t going to make me rethink my decision. Ultimately, we decided to accept that we could not change people’s long-held beliefs.

The day before our wedding, the rabbi who had damned us to hell called and asked what time he was supposed to show up. We had already found someone else, a rabbi who implied he was adding a hefty surcharge for our interfaith marriage.

Hassle aside, we had a traditional Jewish wedding surrounded by friends and family who accepted us for who we were and the love we shared. But without that lifeline back in Brooklyn, I knew I would need to rebuild my community in our small rural Hudson Valley town. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Though my friends’ responses to my choice were painful, I knew in my heart my future children would be undeniably Jewish. When our child was born a little over a year later, I hoped to instill in him the traditions I cherished most.

I started small. I dug out my grandmother’s Sabbath candlesticks and began lighting them on Friday nights. Occasionally I would buy a challah, but the only ones I could find were from the supermarket, and they were usually stale.

I held out hope that when my son went to preschool, I would meet other Jewish mothers. I had planned to send him to Hebrew school locally, but the only one we could find was run by the very same rabbi who had damned us, and I didn’t want my “heathen” child to be exposed to his insensitivity. With limited options in our small town, we settled on a Methodist school because we liked the program. While there was no formal religious instruction, they understandably only acknowledged Christian holidays, and this made me feel like I was failing at giving my child the early Jewish experience he deserved.

Two years later, my son began kindergarten at a nondenominational school and there were Jewish kids in his class, many from interfaith families. I began talking to their mothers in the parking lot after drop-off. We went for coffee together, and sometimes lunch. After a few months, one of my new friends invited the rest of us to Shabbat dinner. I was elated.

As soon as we arrived with wine and food, I joined the women in the kitchen while the men set the table and the kids chased one another in the yard. As we gathered around to light the candles and say the hamotzi over the homemade challah that the host had been painstakingly kneading, braiding and baking all day, a feeling of warmth and familiarity washed over me.

Someone asked what I thought of the week’s Torah portion, and though I admitted to not having read it, we had a lengthy discussion about how it related to our current lives.

I had missed this. I had missed talking to people who understood my history and what we carry with us.

My husband had a lot in common with our new friends, but when it came to the religious aspects of the meal, he quietly listened to the prayers and observed, not sure what to expect or how to participate. On the car ride home, he told me how much he enjoyed the evening and that he would love to get together with them again soon.

Friday night dinners quickly became a weekly event. During those first few gatherings, I could sense that Chris was slowly beginning to soak in the spirit of Shabbat. “Who’s making dinner? Want me to pick up anything?” he would ask. He became more comfortable with the rituals, and by the time we all gathered to celebrate a Passover Seder together, Chris readily contributed, reading his portion of the Haggadah.

We invited more people into the fold each week. Another woman hosted the break-fast on Yom Kippur. We grew close and continued to forge new bonds. While we mostly gathered for Jewish holidays, we also began making pizza on Christmas Eve with another interfaith couple every year. We were building community, coming together to celebrate the traditions that were important to all of us.

I knew when I married my husband we would face challenges because of our interfaith marriage, but I never could have guessed it would teach me to appreciate the small moments of love, friendship and family. We’ve learned to treasure the simple acts of lighting the candles, sitting down to Shabbat dinner, eating leftover kugel and truly understanding what it means to be Jewish.

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