The People in our Neighborhood-an occasional blog*
Why on This Night Do We Eat Jelly Doughnuts,
and Other Questions Interfaith Families Ask
by Julie Wolf
Editor, Jewish Family Network newsletter
Heather Martin grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in South Florida before ultimately settling in Franklin, Mass., where she and her husband, Scott, live with their two sons, Ryan (6) and Asher (2). After several years in the for-profit world, Heather made the move to not-for-profit work and has been with InterfaithFamily.com since 2004. She and her husband also own the Fitness Together personal-training studio in downtown Franklin. In this interview, Heather discusses the challenges and opportunities that interfaith families — her own and others — experience during the holiday season, and the resources that InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish community provide to help.
How did you end up in Massachusetts? I made the journey from South Florida to New England as well, and I question my decision every winter!
I went to McGill University for my undergraduate degree and Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school. After graduate school I moved from Pittsburgh to Northern Virginia to Boston, where I finally settled down, mainly because my sister was living here and I met my husband, Scott…
One of the key reasons for moving to Franklin was that we were looking for a town that had a Reform synagogue. Being an interfaith family raising Jewish children, we knew we were going to need a community around us that would support the religious decisions we were making for our family. We found that at Temple Etz Chaim.
The holiday season is so fraught with anxiety for so many Jewish-Christian interfaith families that there’s even a widely used name for it: the “December dilemma.” How does this dilemma play out in your own family?
I think everyone’s challenges around the December holidays are different depending on their own perspectives, but there are some issues that seem to come up regularly: Where do we celebrate? Should we have a tree? Should we be giving gifts on Christmas to our Jewish relatives, and should they or should they not be wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper?
In our interfaith family, this issue has made the family dynamics of the holidays both easier and harder: easier because there was no question where we will be spending Christmas, no sharing the holiday, no listening to “But you went to your in-laws’ last year”; harder, though, because we’ve had to figure out how to celebrate Hanukkah while honoring the fact that half of our extended family does not celebrate it.
The way we navigate this is that we have a Hanukkah party each year with my non-Jewish in-laws. There are usually up to 15 people who come celebrate, with the only Jews being myself and my two sons. We light candles, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, play dreidel, tell the Hanukkah story, and exchange gifts. My kids know that Daddy’s family celebrates Hanukkah with us, and my in-laws are excited to learn and share in the traditions. We then go to my in-laws’ house for Christmas. They have a tree, we do a family dinner, and Santa Claus shows up and brings gifts for the kids. Here my kids know that we are celebrating Christmas with Daddy and his family.
When do you feel is the “right time” for families to address issues surrounding the celebration and observation of the December holidays?
It’s always best to start talking about this as early as possible in a relationship. Scott and I attended a “Yours, Mine and Ours” workshop put on by the Union for Reform Judaism before we were married. It was really instrumental in helping us discuss the issues. You can never address every issue you will face as a couple, but opening the lines of communication earlier is helpful.
InterfaithFamily.com* just piloted our first online workshop called “Love and Religion — Online,” a spin-off of Dr. Marion Usher’s workshop “Love and Religion,” which helps couples talk about these and other issues.
*InterfaithFamily.com is a Web-based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life. [Its] online resources include guides for interfaith families navigating life-cycle events; articles, essays, and discussions about the unique issues interfaith families face; resources for connecting with clergy, synagogues, and other Jewish organizations; and information on events around the country for interfaith couples.
How do you think the Jewish community can help interfaith families navigate this time of year?
Various Jewish communal organizations, programs, and synagogues hold Hanukkah events. Making these as open and welcoming as possible is key. A great example of this is at [our temple], Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin. The temple holds an annual lighting of its giant menorah that stands outside the temple during Hanukkah. … The event is open to the entire community.
Also, providing information about the holiday is key. I remember the first time I held our annual family Hanukkah party for my in-laws, I needed to figure out some things about the holiday I never thought to ask, like why do we eat jelly doughnuts… Having this information available is not only helpful to the non-Jewish partner, but to the Jewish partner as well.
The other thing the Jewish community can help with is being understanding that even those interfaith families that are raising Jewish children may be celebrating the non-Jewish holidays with the part of the extended family that is not Jewish. Participating in decorating a Christmas tree or taking a picture with Santa does not make the family’s connection to their Jewish experiences any less significant, nor does it make them any less Jewish.
*If you have children under 5 and live in Metrowest and have an interesting story to share, please contact Julie Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about Jewish Family Network, please visit us at
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