The hardest part about being in a relationship is navigating differences. But those differences also give each relationship its dynamic, creative energy that ultimately sustains it.
This past week, I was in Israel helping to lead a group of 18 couples on a program called Honeymoon Israel. Of each couple, at least one of the partners had never been to Israel before. The goal of the program is to allow each couple to explore their individual and shared relationship with Judaism and Israel as they think about what their future lives and family together might look like. Representative of the current demographics of American Jews, most couples are interfaith and most of the Jewish participants identify more as “cultural Jews” than as “religious Jews.”
The first night we arrived, we heard a talk from Avraham Infeld about the challenge of being a modern Jew in America. He posed the question: How can we have a rich Jewish identity while still being engaged with the secular society in which we live? He mentioned that this challenge is relatively recent (before the enlightenment, Jews didn’t have an option to identify with a nationality or ethnicity other than “Jewish”). It’s also one that we as Jews still haven’t figured out (most American Jews today either don’t see a contradiction between their American and Jewish identities or clearly prioritize one over the other).
On a free evening last week, I went to visit a friend who lives in Jerusalem. He moved to Israel after determining that being a religious Jew in America was too challenging for him. The cost (financially and socially) of sending his future kids to Jewish day school or Jewish camp, of eating only at kosher restaurants, etc. was simply too high for him in America. Jewish education is free and kosher restaurants are everywhere. As a result, Jewish identity in Israel just happens and doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice or particular intentionality.
I thought about my friend when, a few days later during a full-group discussion, one participant argued that interfaith couples, unlike couples where both partners are Jewish, can’t simply assume that their children will be raised Jewish. He said that being interfaith requires intentionality, negotiation and compromise in every single decision they make as parents. Despite the negative rhetoric that exists in many parts of the Jewish community about interfaith relationships, these couples are faced with questions and conversations that are often ignored by two Jewish partners. Perhaps the very fact that Jewish identity doesn’t “just happen” for these couples can paradoxically lead to a more intentional Jewish identity than the one of my friend in Jerusalem.
I wonder if being Jewish in America is like being in an interfaith relationship. Our country’s culture isn’t Jewish, so we have to work hard to define and maintain our Jewish identity. There’s always the temptation to drop our Jewishness or move to a Jewish society — where the tension between personal identity and the dominant culture doesn’t exist. But I think it’s possible that this very tension can create a deeper relationship with Judaism. Confronting our differences, whether between us and our partner or us and our society, can be the beginning of transformational growth.