Choosing a faith for the family


COLUMBIA — Even as a child, Robin Reuben was curious about Judaism.

"I always wondered why we didn't celebrate the Jewish holidays, as we were part of a Judeo-Christian religion," she said, referring to the phrase most often used to describe the country's religious makeup.

An active United Methodist, Robin considered becoming a youth minister after first attending Georgia State University. Her plans changed, however, when she fell in love with Richard Reuben, who is Jewish, while at college.

After marrying in 1987, the Reubens chose to make Judaism the faith shaping the spiritual paths for their two sons, Patrick, 11, and Daniel, 9. The couple is among the nearly 40 percent of Americans married to someone from a different faith, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released earlier this year.

While the decision about how to raise children can create tension between parents, Richard, a law professor at MU, and Robin, an MU strategic communications graduate student, felt no such conflict.

"Our kids needed some grounding, and Judaism didn't conflict with my beliefs," Robin said. "I also didn't want the kids to think their dad wasn't saved."

As a Christian, Robin was raised to believe that Jesus was God's son and that faith in Jesus as the Messiah saves people from an eternity of suffering. Judaism teaches that the Messiah has yet to come.

Still, the choice came after both research and soul searching. The couple sought advice from interfaith couples and a Jewish customs class instructor, who discouraged interfaith couples from raising children in both faiths.

"I don't think they could handle both faiths at a young age," Richard said. "It is difficult to keep two realities at the same time, and we didn't want them growing up confused."

Creighton University's Michael G. Lawler, a scholar who studies interchurch marriages among Christians, said children of all faiths are dependent on parental guidance for beginning their spiritual journeys.

"Children never control any institutional meaning system; adults do," Lawler said. "And children have a habit of imitating the adults they value most — most often, of course, their parents."

Interfaith families have grown in recent years, although precise numbers do not exist. However, a number of Web sites such as InterfaithFamily.com have grown to address questions and needs of these families, including the issue of how to choose which religion children will adopt.

Although Richard and Robin came to the decision to raise Patrick and Daniel as Jews without pressure from one another, the issue remains difficult for some members of Robin's family. Robin readily took courses to convert to Judaism, but has yet to take the final step — because of her mother's strong Christian faith. And reactions from other Christians to raising her sons Jewish has led Robin to further distance herself from the faith of her youth.

Religious education for Patrick and Daniel happens both at synagogue and at home. Both children are enrolled in Hebrew school and attend synagogue at Columbia's Congregation Beth Shalom with their parents on Yom Kippur and other high holy days.

At home, the family celebrates Shabbat, the weekly Jewish sabbath observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, characterized by lighting candles and singing traditional prayers at meals.

In two years, Patrick's Jewish religious education will culminate with his bar mitzvah, the rite-of-passage ceremony at which boys become adults in the faith. In some traditions, Jewish girls have a similar ceremony called the bat mitzvah.

Patrick said he looks forward to "becoming a man of the Torah." But he said he's also excited by possible visits from distant cousins that will attend the family celebration when he turns 13. At his bar mitzvah, Patrick will read in Hebrew a portion of the Torah, as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are known.

Although Daniel and Patrick are comfortable in their Jewish identity, they remain curious about Christianity because of Robin's family and the religion's dominance in the country. The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landmark Survey released earlier this year reports that 1.7 percent of U.S. citizens are Jewish and about 78 percent are Christian.

Although mid-Missourians are overwhelmingly Christian, Patrick said he enjoys being different. "I mean, what's the point of being what everybody else is?" he said.

The family did try to adopt some practices of both faiths, such as decorating a Christmas tree, for a time. But Richard said some of their Jewish friends disliked it. Now they spend every Christmas with Robin's family in Atlanta.

For Patrick and Daniel, December gives them a happy mingling of both Christianity and Judaism.

"I think that I respect my mom's side of the family by celebrating Christmas and honor my dad's side of the family by celebrating Hannukah," Patrick said. But there's no mistaking which he prefers.

"Personally, I would prefer Hannukah over Christmas, just because it's longer lasting, and the suspense builds up," Patrick said.

While both Robin and Richard's spiritualities have changed over time and remain fluid — Richard also incorporates the practice of Buddhism and meditation in his spiritual life — they hoped to give their children a firm religious footing, even if Patrick and Daniel later leave the Jewish faith.

And overall, Richard believes living in a multifaith household has strengthened his children's attitudes about life.

"It was important to have Mom as Christian, as it gave them a sense of tolerance," Richard said. "They learned at a young age that Mom and Dad thought differently."