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
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or check the Web site at
Hindu Temple Society in Flushing; contact Uma Misoreakar, president, 718-460-
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
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 email@example.com
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
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,
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.