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Interfaith Marriage: When One Converts

By Amy Krieger Rippis

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Jill will never forget the first time her Jewish parents met her husband-then her Irish-Catholic college boyfriend. All three were polite during introductions, saving their impressions until they could speak to her alone. "They're so Jewish!" Peter said. "He's so goyish!" her parents concluded. Jill knew then that she was in major trouble.

Religion was an issue for Jill and Peter from the outset: It was the topic of conversation on their second date in 1979 when Jill was a college junior and Peter a second-year law student.

Now, 10 years later, they live in New York; Jill, 29, a social worker, and Peter, 33, an attorney, recall how the issue was resolved.

Strongly Jewish in her identity and closely tied to her family, Jill hoped to share that part of her life with her partner. Peter had an affinity for Jill's Judaism. He respected her religious heritage. Although his own family was quite religious, Peter felt alienated from Christianity, and was open to the idea of becoming a Jew.

"Catholicism never touched me. It never made sense to me," Peter explains. "I'm very comfortable with Judaism. It makes a great deal of sense as an entity, as a religion."

 Still, it was difficult for Jill's parents to understand how their daughter could choose a man who was not born a Jew when Judaism was so central to their lives. Gradually, however, they did come to accept Peter. They saw that Jill was happy and tl1at she was not turning her back on her religion. But they warned the couple that conversion would not be easy.

TAKING THE FIRST STEPS

 After three years of dating, Peter and Jill met with a Conservative rabbi. To their surprise, the rabbi gave Peter the third degree and told Jill that the relationship would not work.

The rabbi's intent was to discourage them; but his words had just the opposite effect. "I walked out of there stronger and committed," says Jill. She realized then that it would just be a matter of time until the strength of their relationship was recognized.

She was right. The same rabbi later agreed to conduct Peter's conversion and met with the couple for 10 months. During that time, they were actively involved at the temple where Jill worked. It was from his immersion into the life of the synagogue-not the official classes or readings-that Peter says he gained perspective on what it so means to be a Jew.

Then Peter, having already been circumcised at birth, underwent a symbolic circumcision in a physician's office. A visit to a mikvah (a ritual purification bath) was next, followed by an appearance before a rabbinic tribunal, where Peter pledged his commitment to Judaism.

That pledge, the rite of passage, was a watershed for Jill's family, who witnessed the ceremony. Her father finally allowed himself to feel close to Peter. “It was the first time he realized he wasn’t going to lose anything, and, in fact, it was going to enrich his own experience,“ Jill explains.

Family pressures cannot complete with the realities of our pluralistic society.  Men and women are increasingly likely to meet—and marry—someone of a different faith. And as the rate of intermarriage rises, so does the number of conversions, according to Egon Mayer, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College in New York. 

TURNING POINT

A 1988 survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reports that 36 percent of Americans have changed their religion; the most frequent reason cited is marriage. “Switching is higher among Protestants than Catholics. It’s higher among Jews,” says Wade Clark Roof, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Religious background, however, does not necessarily determine which spouse is more likely to convert to the other’s faith.  In marriages between Catholics and Protestants, “…the main predicator of who converts is whoever has the weaker church commitment,” says Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

One third of those who choose to convert do so after the wedding, sometimes before the birth of the first child or before the first child is about to begin formal religious instruction.  “There are critical points in the life cycle where family homogeneity becomes especially important,” says Mayer.  Religious conversion can help keep a marriage together, he adds.  Some recent studies show that intermarriages dissolve at a much higher rate than marriage in which couples were either born into, or converted to, the same faith.

FAMILY TIES

At the same time, Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism, based in Manhattan and Teaneck, New Jersey, cautions converts to pay particular attention to their parents. "You have to show your family that much more that you love them,” he says. "You've got to be a better child because of how many changes you're making."

During their five-year courtship, Peter and Jill made a conscious effort to keep Peter's mother from feeling estranged, visiting often and celebrating Christmas with her at her home.

It seemed to help. At Jill's surprise wedding shower his mother made an announcement: "Peter never did care much about his own religion; if he finds God through Jill, I am happy."

Nevertheless, while Peter was in the midst of his conversion process, his mother had nightmares. The fact that her son was becoming different troubled her and she consulted a rabbi to find out what he was going through.

More difficult for her was a private synagogue ceremony that took place the day before the August 1984 wedding. Watching Peter read from the Torah, she was crying. Fortunately, the ensuing family ties were already strong. Jill's mother held her so that she would not feel alone.

The extended family pulled together again at the wedding. Such moments as when Jill's grandfather helped Peter's grandfather to feel comfortable with his yarmulke are what the couple treasure most about their wedding celebration.

The benefits and the challenges of conversion continue beyond the wedding day, however. For Klaus Liebelt, a Lutheran who became a Catholic when he married Rita, the unity gained from a shared faith outweighed any compromises.

A retail manager in Glendale, California, Klaus, 34, had stopped attending church shortly after his childhood confirmation. When he fell in love with Rita, 31, a financial consultant and a fervent Catholic, he never questioned who would convert.

But simply supporting Rita in her faith was not enough for Klaus. He believes that it is critical that a husband and wife share one faith, for the sake of the marriage and children.

"The two religions are not worlds apart. A lot of the prayers are the same," he says. "There have to be some concessions made. As long as they're livable, then I'm quite willing to make them."

Nevertheless, conversion was a big step. The process formally began the year before their June 1981 wedding, with Klaus enrolling in his parish's Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults program. It culminated about seven months later in a mass before Easter when, along with other converts in the class, he took communion.

By the time they witnessed the conversion ceremony, his parents had come to terms with their son's new convictions, but his older sister broke into tears. While it was an unfortunate scene, Klaus' focus was on his future family.

He realized, he says, that his choice came down to practicing Catholicism or nothing. "You can't have one spouse practicing and preaching one religion and the other one doing something else, and expect children to understand it or even cope with it.”

Now a father of two young boys, Klaus finds religion an integral part of his life. The family attends church every Sunday and prays at home as well. "It's a very significant thing to share," he says. "I think it really has brought us closer together.”

Debbie, 39, a former school teacher in McLean, Virginia, also opted to convert for the sake of family unity. She made that decision, though, after she and Andy, 39, a retailer, had been married for six years and the first of their two sons had been born.

When Debbie and Andy were married in a civil ceremony at a park, religion was not their highest priority. Both Debbie, a Presbyterian, and Andy, a Greek Orthodox, wanted to recite their original vows outdoors, although that ceremony was unacceptable to Andy's religion and resulted in his temporary excommunication.

Marriage is a sacrament in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Rev. Andrew George of Church of the Annunciation in Cranston, Rhode Island, explains. In the strictest sense, he adds, marrying outside the church is considered a rejection of the church.

Having children certainly changed Debbie and Andy's perspective. Baptizing their children in the Orthodox Church became an issue. In order to do that, Debbie had to convert. She met with the priest for a few months and in a private ceremony was baptized for the rust time. That following weekend she and Andy were married in the church.

Getting involved in a religion has given their family a more substantial  base. "We're attending church more frequently," says Debbie. "When holidays come along, such as Christmas and Easter, we're more inclined to get into discussions with the children about the religious significance of them, rather than just the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus."

Andy concurs: "We realized at a certain point in time that we were going to have to try to lay a foundation within our household in our family effort.” A family with a strong center, he believes, has some relationship with religion.

Amy Krieger Rippis is a freelance writer living in Providence. Rhode Island

Originally published in Modern Bride, Oct./Nov. 1989

 

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