Holidays present challenges to many interfaith families


Some families have complicated religious histories. Former St. Louisan Sandra “Ari” Hendin can certainly attest to that. Born into a Methodist family, she was raised Episcopalian after her parents’ divorce. By high school, she had become an atheist. In college, she dabbled in everything from Eastern cosmologies to Unitarianism. Today, she says her mother is a secular humanist. One sister is an evangelical. Her brothers are various shades of Christian. One sister-in-law is a Vietnamese Buddhist.

One might think that Hendin, 56, has had more than her share of opportunities to ponder the intricacies of faith. She has — at least when she has the time. After all, these days school keeps her pretty busy.


Rabbinical school, that is.

“It’s a strong value in our family to recognize the importance of diversity and that there is not just one path to God and spirituality,” said Hendin, who discovered Judaism in graduate school and plans on moving back to St. Louis after graduating from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia next year. “There are many different paths and each of them has something to offer.”

It’s no secret that conflicting religious traditions can often lead to tensions for Jewish or interfaith families, especially at this time of year. For some, figuring out methods to tackle the problem has become an unwelcome annual tradition.

“During the December holidays families have to find a way to negotiate so many different kinds of issues,” said Debra Shatoff, a St. Louis area psychologist and marriage and family therapist. “Everybody wants to feel that they can provide happy meaningful holidays for their children, moments that really bring them together as a family.”

Shatoff will be one of two presenters for a Dec. 7 event at Temple Emanuel to facilitate a free-ranging discussion among parents over the challenges and questions that interfaith families — and those of one faith — often face during the holiday season. Proceedings will get underway at 7 p.m.

“What we’re going to try to do in this event is to help people share their own personal experiences and how they have successfully navigated these issues,” Shatoff said. “There’s no one right answer for every family. What would work in my family, may not work in yours.”

Shatoff, a former Catholic who now considers herself spiritual but unaffiliated, speaks from experience. Not only has she dealt with interfaith families in her work but she is a member of one as well. Her husband and son are Jewish. Still, she sees religious diversity as more a benefit than a source of friction. Shatoff said she always thinks it’s a rewarding experience to invite her Christian family to celebrate Hanukkah at her house.

“There is a lot of richness in interfaith families,” she said, “because our children are exposed to different religious traditions and they get to experience firsthand how these different traditions use different ways to draw families together.”

Susan Warshaw, a Richmond Heights psychotherapist, will be Shatoff’s co-presenter at Monday’s event. Raised Christian, she married into a Jewish family. Every year, she and her family send Christmas gifts to her Christian relatives. They send back Hanukkah presents.

Those kinds of arrangements are vital to validating the feelings of in-laws who don’t want their traditions ignored. Another key component is open communication between couples about parenting practices before children enter the picture. In Warshaw’s case, the decision was made early on to raise their children Jewish.

“A lot of people do believe that giving the children one religion and having the parents decide that for the children is often less confusing for them,” said Warshaw, who recently decided to convert to Judaism herself. “If you leave it for the kids to decide to choose between mom’s religion or dad’s religion, you’re really asking them to choose between mom and dad. I don’t think that’s a fair spot to put them in.”

Still, she said there are no hard and fast rules. Families must do what works for them. “There are many different ways that families can choose to handle this difficult issue,” she said. “It just takes a lot of attention and calmness on everybody’s part about what’s the best for that particular family.”

That was the same choice Creve Coeur residents Ken Deutch and his wife, Diane, faced. He is Jewish. She is Christian. They have been married for 19 years and have two children, now in their teens.

“What we kept hearing was that if you leave the choice to the kids, they will often make the choice not to identify with any religion or end up confused,” said Ken Deutch, who attends services at Shaare Emeth. “We really wanted to make the decision to make sure that they had a religious identity.”

The Deutch children were raised Jewish, though Diane Deutch’s religious traditions are included as well. Ken Deutch said that the family celebrates what he calls the “spirit” of the Christmas holiday and the household does put up a Christmas tree. The result was children with a strong Jewish identity who understand their mother’s side of the family comes from a different theology. Overall, he said that they’ve had very few problems.

“It really works out well,” he said. “I think the fact that we made the commitment early on to raise our kids a certain way has really made that easy for us.”

Hendin also thinks it’s a good thing to expose children of interfaith families to both sides of the equation. Like the Deutchs, the Hendin children were raised Jewish. They attended services at Congregation B’nai Amoona. Her son just spent a year in Israel. Her daughter is a Jewish day school teacher in Boston.

Still, Hendin said that she and husband Rick made sure their children did not grow up in a theological cocoon. Decembers found them helping to decorate the tree at their cousins’ house and they often visited family for Easter. Likewise, Christian relatives were always invited to celebrate Passover and Hanukkah. She feels that those experiences helped to better prepare her children for a diverse, multicultural world.

“One of the things that we found was that by learning more about other traditions, it really helped our children clarify for themselves what their own religious identity is and it actually helped strengthen their Jewish identity when their were learning about others’ faiths.”

Interfaith Family Program

WHO: Psychologist Debra Shatoff and psychotherapist Susan Warshaw will facilitate a group discussion with parents of Jewish children in interfaith families during “Our Menorah and Grandma’s Christmas Tree–Let’s Talk About the Holidays in Interfaith Families”

WHEN: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7

WHERE: Temple Emanuel, 12166 Conway Road

MORE INFO: Call Nathan Rothwell at 314-432-5877 to RSVP. For more information about the event, contact Debra Shatoff at 314-576-5503.