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Give-and Take / As it is in real life, that was the order of the day at the Multi-Faith Forum's panel on interfaith marriage. SIDEBARS: Interfaith Resources; ON RELIGION (see end of text).

THE INTERFAITH marriage panel was well into its second hour

when Rabbi Janet Liss of the North Country Reform Temple in Glen Cove

announced, "What I am going to say is not as popular as some of the things

we've heard today.

"I stand before you as a rabbi, and within Jewish tradition we do not

encourage intermarriage," Liss began. "The reason I don't perform

intermarriages is because I see the ceremony as a ceremony between two Jews.

And the language, the tradition and what it is that happens under a wedding

canopy, or chupah, is directed to two people who believe in what I'm saying."

If they don't, she said, then she and the couple are not communicating.

The wedding itself was just one hurdle facing the husbands and wives on the

panel, which brought together four interfaith couples and four clergy members

earlier this month at Huntington Congregational Church in Centerport.

Each approach was different. Allan Weiss, a Jew, and his wife, Susan, who

is Christian, were married by a justice of the peace in Vermont. Maria

Al-Shalkmi, a Roman Catholic born in Italy, wanted to walk down the aisle of a

church to wed her Muslim husband, Ali. Although they had a hard time finding a

willing priest for their wedding in Westbury, she said, "I got my wish." N.S.

Ramamurthy, who is Hindu, and Sharon Oliver-Murthy, a Catholic, married in 1970

in a Catholic church in Canada-"there was no Hindu temple in Winnipeg in those

days," she said. And Raj and Sharon Goel married twice in one day at the

Huntington Hilton, with a full Hindu wedding in the morning and a full Jewish

one in the afternoon.

The Rev. Mark Bigelow, pastor at Huntington Congregational for 10 years,

explained that to many Christians, marriage is "a sacred contract between two

people in relationship to God" and a triangular relationship that "needs

support for it to continue to grow and to thrive." Many clergy will not perform

weddings for people outside their church because they cannot feel sure the

couple will "receive the support that they are going to need in order to

preserve both their relationship [and] their faith, and to have their children

grow up in faith," he said.

When they married in 1968, Susan and Allan Weiss weren't religious. But

later, she said, "It became apparent that we needed more help raising the

children, teaching them values and morals. We needed a community."

Her husband consulted a rabbi, who quoted the Talmud: "A person without

religion is like a leaf in the wind." The rabbi instructed the couple to

"figure out what you want your children to do and then tell them." The couple

decided to enroll their daughter and son in confirmation classes at the

Congregational church.

When the classes were over, the children weren't ready to make a

commitment, Susan Weiss explained. "When you are an interfaith family, children

have a hard time choosing. They don't want to hurt one or the other parent."

Many interfaith couples choose to let children determine their faith when

they are older. But from Liss' perspective, "These aren't the types of

decisions that are left up to children." It's impossible for youngsters who

haven't been exposed to decide, she said. "And you can't teach the child both

religions-I don't know of a single pair of religions that complement each other

and don't clash."

For Bigelow, the greater concern is not for people raised in two-faith

traditions but for those living without religion. Having "some foundation" is

the most important factor for children, he said, and as long as religious

instruction is developmentally appropriate, it's OK for children to be educated

in multiple faiths. "They may not learn one truth, but they will learn about

truth," he said.

But Liss said, "You're giving the children conflicting messages." Problems

arise because "we're teaching similar values from very different viewpoints."

She used the example of a teacher in a Jewish school asking students to name

their favorite Bible hero. "What does the Jewish teacher say when the child

who's been raised in two faiths answers, 'Jesus'?...A 5-year-old doesn't

understand world religion."

Before getting married four years ago, Sharon Goel spoke with a rabbi who

urged her to decide with her bridegroom how they would raise their children. At

the time she replied, "We need to raise ourselves first and get accustomed to

each other before we worry about kids."

Since then, they've agreed to a "high holy days kind of practicing

religion," Raj Goel said. "We let our moms tell us when to show up and where."

The Goels, who live in a two-family house with his parents, expect their first

child in September. They plan to "raise the kid part Indian, part Jewish and

hopefully he won't turn out to be a purple-haired freak at 16," Raj Goel said.

Ali and Maria Al-Shalkmi had also talked only in general about religious

upbringing before they became parents. "I said I wanted to teach [our children]

about my religion," she recalled. "He said, 'We'll see.'"

Today, the father handles their son's religious instruction. "I'm teaching

my son to be a good son," Ali Al-Shalkmi said. "I've raised him Muslim. I love

my religion. I want him to believe in God and to be someone good."

In the Muslim tradition, as Sanaa Nadim, chaplain at the Interfaith Center

of Stony Brook University, explained, men are responsible for being the

"guiding light" in the family. Islamic law allows Muslim men to marry "People

of the Book"-meaning Christian or Jewish women-but Muslim women are usually not

permitted to marry outside the faith, she said.

"We have looked at the positive and the harmonious and the beauty" of

interfaith marriage, Nadim said, gesturing to the couples on the panel. But in

her office, she said, she hears the other side. "It's fine to be able to make a

life in this world, in this century, with somebody else from a different faith

group, [but] sooner or later the confusion arises."

For N.S. Ramamurthy, the most significant differences he and his wife have

had to overcome are cultural rather than religious. "Hinduism is more of a way

of life than dogma," he said. While the children were growing up, the family

celebrated Christian and Hindu holidays and went to church and to temple.

They've felt free to practice how they want, he said. "If I'm a good Hindu, I'm

a good Christian," he said.

In Hinduism, said Anand Mohan, professor of interdisciplinary studies at

City University of New York, "religions themselves are unimportant." The

purpose of life is to seek absolute truth. "There's no difference if you say

I'm a Christian or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Jew," he said. Absolute truth is

transcendent, he said, which means that "all religions are statements about

truth; they are not themselves true."

Interfaith marriages are extremely valuable, he said. "Because what do they

teach you? They teach you that your religion can be as false, can be as

narrow, can be as untrue as the other person's religion."

Clergy from different faiths address the challenges of living in a

pluralistic society in a variety of ways. When he marries an interfaith couple,

Bigelow said, he recognizes "the holiness" present in the relationship but

encourages them to continue their relationship with God, within the faith in

which they were raised.

Liss has struggled with the contradiction that occurs when the message that

"all humans are created in the eyes and the image of God" leads people to find

partners outside their faith. "We tell everybody to go out and love everybody

because that's what we honestly want them to do. But when they come home with a

non-whatever partner of a different faith, what do you do?"

For Nadim, the challenge is to maintain individual culture while

appreciating plurality. "Yes, we live in a diverse community," she said, and

it's "wonderful to share and accept each other's views and to live together

peacefully face to face. But holding onto our identity, there is nothing wrong

with that."

Interfaith Resources

A SAMPLING of resources on interfaith marriage:

Associated Interfaith Rabbinic Marriage Center & Jewish Interfaith Wedding

Ceremonies in Long Beach; contact Rabbi Lawrence Siegel at 516-897-9656, e-mail

weddings@interfaithrabbi.com or check the Web site at

www.interfaithrabbi.com/index2.html

Hindu Temple Society in Flushing; contact Uma Misoreakar, president, 718-460-

8484.

The Interfaith Community, an informal members-led association of

Jewish-Christianfamilies; contact Sheila Gordon at 212- 870-2544, e-mail

interfaithcommunity@ crosscurrents.org or check the Web site

www.aril.org/interfaith.htm

Interfaith marriage chat rooms, part of the Interchurch/Interfaith Marriage

Ministries project in conjunction with the Department of Internet Ministries of

the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: www.interfaith .goarch.org

Interfaith marriage preparation for Catholics marrying non-Catholics at the

Diocesan Pastoral Center at the Diocese of Rockville Centre; Alycia Gorman,

516-678-5800, ext. 223.

Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury; contact Al-Haaj Ghazi Y. Khankhan,

director of communication, 516-333-3495.

Long Island Multi-Faith Forum-including Baha'i, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism,

Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American Indian,

Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism, Yoga-516-565-0290 or 631-269-1167.

Workshop designed for interfaith couples and introduction to Judaism classes at

the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues Manhattan; call

212-650-4204/4205 or e-mail emilchin@uahc.org

Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Hempstead; 800-228-6483. -Jessica DuLong

Finding a Church

The great search to find the right church is now getting an assist on the

Internet.

The Web site www.findagreatchurch.org is offering the fruit of two years of

research by veteran religion author Paul Wilkes. He contacted pastoral

experts, leaders of ethnic ministries and editors of church newspapers to

develop a list of 600 excellent Protestant and Catholic churches.

They appear in two books he's written on what makes a strong faith

community: "Excellent Protestant Congregations" and "Excellent Catholic

Parishes." Both are subtitled, "The Guide to Best Places and Practices."

"What does it mean to be in the book?" Wilkes asked in a telephone

interview. "Certainly these are churches of excellence that are painting

outside the box, that are taking chances in the best sense, spiritually

entrepreneurial . . . These are very innovative churches, from 60 people to 12

or 15,000 people."

Locally, the Protestant churches listed are New Life Community, Sayville;

Allen A.M.E., Jamaica; Abyssinian Baptist, Jan Hus Presbyterian, First

Presbyterian, Metro Baptist, Overseas Chinese Mission and St. Bartholomew

Episcopal in Manhattan; Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian and Brooklyn Tabernacle,

Brooklyn.

The Catholic parishes are St. Brigid's, Westbury; Good Shepherd, Holbrook;

St. Killian, Farmingdale; St. Mary's, East Islip; St. Francis Xavier, St.

Ignatius Loyola, St. Joseph's Chapel, St. Jude, St. Malachy, St. Mary and Our

Lady of Guadalupe, Manhattan; and Transfiguration, Brooklyn.

"Our study found them, but we do not make any claim that we found all the

excellent churches in America," Wilkes said. But, he added, all of those in the

study are excellent churches.

Wilkes said he began the study after being impressed with the vitality of

the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J., where he led a

retreat. The work was funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at the University

of North Carolina in Wilmington.

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