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Asking the clergy: When interfaith couples want to bring up children with both religions

In a culturally and ethnically diverse region like Long Island, it's not unusual for people of different faiths to meet, marry and start a family. This week's clergy discuss approaches to raising the kids when parents come from different religious backgrounds.


The Rev. Mark Lukens, pastor, Bethany Congregational United Church of Christ, and chair, Interfaith Alliance of Long Island:

As a foundational part of our identity, religion shapes how we understand ultimate things such as our relationship to our Creator and to one another. Those beliefs include moral teachings that are common to nearly all religious traditions, but they also include truth claims that at some point become mutually exclusive. Therefore, I counsel both parents to share their religion with their children and with each other, understand what they have in common and where they diverge, all in an atmosphere of love and respect. Ultimately though, while our own faith can be informed in profound ways by other traditions, one cannot be fully Christian and fully Buddhist, for example, or fully Jewish and fully Muslim. As the child matures, she or he will need to make a choice, and the parents will need to encourage the child in that choosing. They will also need to be prepared to accept the possibility that their child might choose a faith other than theirs. Being familiar and comfortable with the faith of one's spouse makes this hard thing easier, especially if you can remember that the person you fell in love with was formed in part by his or her religious tradition. Be grateful for the wonderful gift that child is to you both, whatever faith he or she chooses.


Rabbi Janet B. Liss, North Country Temple, Glen Cove:

My advice to any interfaith couple is to have a serious conversation about how they will raise their children before they have them. While I understand the motivation behind the statement that "we will raise our children in both religions," this approach does not help a child form a religious identity. I would advise any couple to choose one religion that will be the primary religion and raise the child in that faith. The child by virtue of being in an interfaith household will be exposed to the other religion. Teach your children to respect the religion of the other parent. Children do not have the knowledge, the ability to discern differences or the maturity to "choose" their religious identity. While most religions share common moral values, we celebrate different holidays, follow different traditions and have different histories. Our differences are what have created other religions. Intellectually, adults understand this; children do not. Children often equate religious belief with how many gifts they get and how often. This is why it is important to decide for your family how your children will be raised. Are you comfortable with your future children being baptized or having a Brit Milah, a ritual circumcision? Will your child attend Hebrew school or go to a church Sunday school? It is important to know who has the strongest feelings about his/her religion. If keeping your religion's traditions alive are important to you, make sure that your child is grounded in that religious tradition. Make an appointment to discuss this with any clergy.


Sanaa Nadim, chaplain, Islamic Society, Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University:

Raising children in a home where parents practice different faiths can be beautiful yet difficult. Working as a chaplain for more than 25 years, I have had the rare (and often cherishable) opportunity to speak with couples regarding this question. In Islam, we encourage spouses to raise their children according to the principles of the Muslim faith. This can mean only raising them as Muslim. In Islam, the children are meant to be raised along with the faith of their father, which is why Muslim women are encouraged to marry men who practice Islam.

I advise couples to raise their children in one faith. Otherwise, I recommend that couples have an honest conversation about what parts of each religious tradition they are (both) comfortable having their kids learn and adopt. It is critical for each parent to know how to reinforce the religious practices of the other. This includes having each spouse learn more about the other's religious tradition. Once both parents are on a similar page, I think this process becomes much easier. For example, in Islam it is important that each child learn the five pillars, and practice praying, and even fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Discussing religion with children can lead to it playing a more intimate role in their adult life. In Islam, one cannot be forced to accept faith. We are taught that religion is more beautiful, and its practices sustainable, when the heart accepts it.

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