Good Friday and the first night of Passover coincide. What will interfaith families do?
They were on a date at the Gusman Theater in downtown Miami when May Cain, raised in Reform Judaism, suddenly asked Bill Snihur, a Catholic, during intermission if religion would be a problem for their relationship.
“No,” he answered immediately.
“Neither of us requested the other to convert to the other´s religion,” said Cain. Her husband added, “We liked what we saw and we embraced it. We didn’t want to change this.”
Like many interfaith couples, Cain and Snihur, both lawyers, agreed to raise their children in a home that recognizes both cultures, celebrating Christian as well as Jewish traditions.
“We weren’t going to do heavy-duty indoctrination in both religions, but instead we focus on similarities and we speak to them about the meaning and symbolism of each holiday,” Cain said of their twins, Ariel and Alexander, 25-year-old brother and sister. The couple has been married 28 years.
That delicate act of balancing both faiths reaches its apex in years like this one, when Good Friday and the first night of Passover coincide. While Passover commemorates the Jews’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt and families gather for a Seder to retell the story, Good Friday is the most solemn day of the Christian year, marking the passion and death of Jesus Christ, often with penitence, abstinence and fasting.
But the two celebrations have been linked, both in history and religion, since the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, which Christians commemorate as Holy Thursday. Both holidays highlight liberation, according to clergy and theologians.
“The common point of Passover between Christians and Jews is that the holiday alludes to the liberation of the people of Israel in Egypt, and for Christians the death of Jesus, which happened during the Passover week celebration, alludes to the complete liberation of the human being,” said Samuel Pagan, dean of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, a Christian institution in Israel.
Crossroads of calendars
Although both holidays go back to the same day — the eve of 15 Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar, according to the Torah — they usually fall on different dates because Jews follow a lunar calendar and Christians have followed a solar calendar since the Apostolic Age.
That makes it easier for Judeo-Christian families to celebrate the two holidays independently.
But in Judaism, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot also depend on agricultural seasons ruled by the solar orbit. Thousands of years ago, rabbis decided in the time of the Sanhedrin to add another month to the calendar, seven times over a 19-year period. This Jewish year 5779 is a leap year, known in Hebrew as Shana Meuberet, or “pregnant year.”
When the springtime holidays — which are more significant theologically than Chanukah and Christmas — fall on the same date, Jewish and Christian couples look for ways to combine them or celebrate them one after the other.
“For families celebrating both traditions, this is a great opportunity to understand and discuss what the symbols mean, and to ask questions, to see how the traditions are different and what they share in common,” said Rabbi Moshe Tom Heyn, an interfaith hospice chaplain who co-chairs the MCCJ (formerly known as the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews) Clergy Dialogue.
This year, the Snihur family will go to the home of friends for the first Seder, cook a traditional Jewish dinner the second night of Passover and prepare a festive dinner on Easter Sunday, when Christians mark the resurrection of Jesus. In past years, they celebrated the Seder and Easter together, with the children gathering the traditional Easter eggs as well as the afikoman, a piece of matzo from the Seder hidden for the children to find.
At the home of Karen Davis and Nick Athanassiadis in Coconut Grove, who follow Jewish and Greek Orthodox traditions, they use a Haggadah — a guide for the ritual-rich Seder meal— in Greek donated by a rabbi on the island of Zakynthos.
“He follows the Greek Haggadah and we use the English Haggadah. Then we try to spot differences. It´s a little game that we play at our Seder table,” said Davis, who was raised in Orthodox Judaism and now takes her son Michael to Greek Orthodox churches, which celebrate Easter a few weeks after Sunday’s holiday.
Growing interfaith marriages
Couples marrying outside of their faiths represent a growing trend that is changing the landscape of relationships. A 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 39 percent of all American adults who have married since 2010 have a spouse who follows a different faith. Prior to 1960, only 19 percent of married couples were in an interfaith marriage.
The rate of Jews who have married outside their faith has also grown, increasing from 17 percent before 1970 to 58 percent since 2000, according to a 2013 Pew study of the American Jewish population.
Among interfaith couples, a significant percentage of households choose to adhere to two traditions simultaneously. That “can be challenging, particularly when the first night of Passover is Friday night and Easter is on Sunday,” said Jodi Bromberg, CEO of the Massachusetts-based InterfaithFamily, which provides educational resources for interfaith couples.
“It’s challenging because anytime two different religious traditions bump up against one another, interfaith families need to figure out how they’re going to navigate them. It can be tough. Couples may want to celebrate both holidays with both families, but when they’re on the same weekend, that can be hard,” she stressed.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski encourages religiously mixed families to respect both faiths, and to adhere to each other’s traditions “in a way that doesn’t distort the tradition.”
“We are not looking for syncretism,” Wenski said. Judeo-Catholic families, he noted, ought to have an authentic Passover meal “in a way that a rabbi would be happy” and celebrate the sacraments “in a way that a priest would be happy.”
Rabbi Alan Litwak of Temple Sinai in North Dade agrees. “Each of our religious traditions has wonderful messages and deep meaning. We shouldn’t try to bring them together and make them harmonize,” he said.
Litwak said it’s important that interfaith families support each other and come up with a plan “that works for everyone.”
Raising the children
Forging a relationship in marriage always requires working through differences. That’s even more so when couples follow different faiths.
“Sometimes we both believe that we are right,” said Davis, the Coconut Grove Jewish woman whose husband is Greek Orthodox. They’ve been married 17 years. “Sometimes it’s difficult to reach a compromise when you both feel that you are right.”
Raising children in two religions is often criticized by members of the more observant communities, Jewish as well as Christian. And being accepted into the core communities can be complicated.
Critics argue that exposing children to two faiths is “detrimental to the children’s spiritual development because they end up not being firmly grounded in one tradition or the other,” said Rabbi Heyn of MCCJ.
But supporters say children who learn about both faiths become “more open-minded children, because they are exposed to different ways of thinking about life or religions; they are more accepting,” he added.
For some couples, the partner who follows their faith more devotedly often takes the lead in the children’s religious education.
María Teresa Neira studied in a nuns’ school in her native Colombia and was raised “very Catholic.” But her Jewish husband, Russ Brunetto, son of an interfaith marriage, considered himself non-religious.
The couple, now retired and living in North Miami, baptized their children as Catholics. The grown children were married in the Catholic Church but they identify as non-Catholic Christians.
The couple’s 11-year-old grandson, raised with Judeo-Christian spiritual values, insists he wants a Bar Mitzvah and to read the Torah in a synagogue.
“He has a lot of Jewish friends and is interested in Judaism,” said his Catholic grandmother. “A rabbi who is very close to the family said he will prepare him” for the ceremony, when 13-year-old boys assume their religious obligations.
In the end, it’s the children of interfaith marriages who decide, when they reach adulthood, which religion they want to embrace — their mother’s, their father’s, both or none at all.
“While it takes a lot of work, and constant communications between the members of your family, it can be done in a loving way,” said Davis, a teacher at a private K-12 school. “You can meld cultures and religions and live a very happy family life.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this story.
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