LI interfaith parents tackle thorny issue

Sarah and Seth Cirker come from Lutheran and

Sarah and Seth Cirker come from Lutheran and Jewish backgrounds. Instead of picking one faith, the Port Washington couple are teaching both to their children — Madeline, 8, Leah, 3, and Gabriel, 6 — and letting them choose their own paths. (May 21, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile)

She was Jewish. He was Roman Catholic. They met at SUNY Albany, fell in love, and married before a judge in a civil ceremony.

Eventually they faced a daunting question: How would they raise their three children religiously?

For Port Washington residents Pam and Steve Gawley, the answer has been to educate them in Christian and Jewish traditions. They celebrate holidays for both religions, provide formal classroom instruction in Christianity and Judaism, and are key players in the Interfaith Community -- believed to be the only group on Long Island that aids families raising children in two-religion households.

"It was very important to us to stay true to ourselves and the cultures we grew up in," said Pam Gawley, who began the Long Island chapter of the group with nine families six years ago. "We needed to find a way to make them work together respectfully."

Today, 25 families with Jewish and Christian parents participate regularly, and another 50 sporadically, she said.

Leaders of the Interfaith Community say a small but growing number of couples who marry outside their religion take this approach. According to the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of marriages in the U.S. are now religiously mixed, most commonly between Christians and Jews. Some 1.25 million Americans are in Jewish-Christian marriages. In smaller numbers, Buddhists, Hindus and others marry outside their religions.

Concerns of religious limbo

The Gawleys and others are instructing their children in both traditions and then plan to let them decide which to choose eventually, if either. While the group includes only Jews and Christians, other couples would be welcome, organizers say.

The dual approach is not without controversy. Some fear it may leave the children with no strong affiliation to either faith. Some Jewish leaders worry that interfaith marriage dilutes the Jewish tradition as Judaism's numbers dwindle. Up to 50 percent of Jews who marry do so outside their religion, according to several estimates.

"The most likely outcome (of the dual religion approach) is that the children will not be strongly identified either as Jewish or Christian," said Steven Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. "I would like to see Jews identify as Jews."

The Catholic Church requires people married in the Church to commit to raising their children Catholic and believes they should be raised Catholic even if a Catholic marries outside the Church, said the Rev. James Massa, executive director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While it is "entirely appropriate" to expose the children to both religions, he said, "at a certain point the child is going to ask the question, Where do I belong, what's my primary allegiance? "

'They have two paths to God'

Members of the Interfaith Community say they are tackling a thorny, increasingly common dilemma in a way that enriches their faith and makes them more open to the diversity of U.S. society and the world.

The Rev. Allan Ramirez, of Brookville Reformed Church in Glen Head, Christian adviser to the group, said he tells the children "they are so lucky because they have two paths to God."

"These are families genuinely interested in the spiritual development of their children," he said, "and too often they are made to feel alienated because they are not all Christian or all Jewish."

Members of the group say they believe there are more commonalities between Judaism and Christianity than differences, though they don't try to reconcile the differences.

"I'm not asking them to believe in both" religions, said Pam Gawley, referring to her three children. "I'm asking them to understand both" and then eventually make their own choice.

Members attend Jewish high holy day services at the Port Jewish Center synagogue in Port Washington and other celebrations such as Passover seder dinners officiated by Rabbi Stuart Paris, the Jewish adviser to the group. They also attend Christian services celebrated by Ramirez, who also is one of Long Island's most outspoken advocates for Latinos.

By about the age of 12 or 13 instead of a confirmation or a bar mitzvah the children have a "coming of age" ceremony as they graduate from the program. Some eventually go on to be confirmed as a Christian or have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony marking their entrance into Judaism as a full-fledged member.

"I am in such tremendous awe and admiration of these young families," said Paris. "I think they are living the way God wants us to live."

How three interfaith families are raising their children

The Cilentos of Oceanside

Marsha Cilento, 50, is Jewish. Husband John, 44, is Roman Catholic. They were married in a civil ceremony but are trying to keep their three daughters connected with both religions. "Our religions are a core part of who we are on both sides," Marsha Cilento said. "I could not give it up. It's part of me and I had to pass that on in some form" to daughters Samantha, 14, Gina, 12, and Sarah, 8.

Marsha said one challenge is that the religions at times have diverging, even contradictory beliefs. Christians believe Jesus Christ was the son of God who sent him to Earth where he died for humanity's sins, for instance, while Jews see Christ only as an important teacher.

But she added that "I think there is more commonality than difference" between Judiasm and Christianity, especially in their basic values. And Jesus, after all, was himself Jewish.

"It makes me feel special being two religions and with other families that are the same," said Gina Cilento. "Other people just celebrate one religion. I get to celebrate two."

The Gawleys of Port Washington

For Pam Gawley, 45, raising children in a religiously mixed family is like raising them in a bilingual household. The idea of the Interfaith Community, she said, is to make them fluent in both Christianity and Judaism, and eventually let them decide which path to take.

"I'm not asking them to believe in both," she said. "I'm asking them to understand both" and then make their own choice -- or continue as an "interfaith person."

Gawley was raised Jewish and her husband, Steve, 47, a music industry executive, was raised Roman Catholic. They have three children -- Michaela, 14, Matthew, 11, and Ryan, 6. Steve Gawley said educating their children in two religions is "a real effort, maybe even more if we were one religion." But the advantage, he said, is that they "grow up appreciating two different perspectives. You become a very tolerant person."

Michaela Gawley said she feels equally comfortable with both Judaism and Christianity, and that being an "interfaith person" is "the only thing I've ever been. It's made me very tolerant. I can't judge another person's religious beliefs. I don't think I could ever have only one religion in my life."

The Cirkers of Port Washington

Sarah Cirker, 37, was raised Lutheran. Husband Seth was raised Jewish. The Cirkers met while working in Los Angeles on a TV pilot.

"It wasn't a big deal," Sarah Cirker said of their different religions. "It didn't play a part in whether I wanted to marry this person."

But when the couple's three children were born -- Madeline, now 8, Gabriel, 6, and Leah, 3 -- they had to decide how to raise them.

They joined the Interfaith Community, where Sarah is a co-chairwoman of the group along with Pam Gawley. Cirker said the organization has been crucial to allowing her family to pursue two faiths.

"I don't know if it would be working if we didn't have the community to support it," she said.

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