Interfaith marriages like Chelsea Clinton's can create challenges

Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton were married July 31 in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in an interfaith ceremony. Clinton is  Methodist and Mezvinsky is Jewish.
Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton were married July 31 in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in an interfaith ceremony. Clinton is Methodist and Mezvinsky is Jewish. AP

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last Saturday, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky entered into what many consider a challenging world: not just marriage, but an interfaith marriage.

Clinton is Methodist, and Mezvinsky is Jewish. Their ceremony, in Rhinebeck, N.Y., was conducted by Rabbi James Ponet and the Rev. William Shillady.

Such marriages are steadily increasing, said Jeff Goldenberg, director of adult Jewish learning for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City. The rate of interfaith marriage among U.S. Jews is about 50 percent, he said.

"We know this is going to happen," he said, "so now the question is, 'How do we address this issue?'"

Although Clinton and Mezvinsky might hear from family, friends and even outsiders on this topic, a few Christian-Jewish couples offered their wisdom on how to make an interfaith marriage work:

Not everyone will be accepting. "Some people are judgmental," said Mark Katz of Kansas City, Mo., who is Jewish and has been married to Jill for 18 years. "You have to feel comfortable with your decisions."

When Don and Leslie Nottberg of Overland Park, Kan., were married in 1976, many assumed their marriage would fail.

"We had to deal with our families as well as other people who did not know us well but felt they had a right to tell us the odds were against us and that we had made a wrong decision," Leslie said. "But for who?"

Challenges are inevitable.

The Nottbergs said they have had faith "in the fact that we loved each other enough to weather the unknown storms that faced us."

Although just becoming newlyweds, Clinton and Mezvinsky already should know what to expect, Mark Katz said. "And you have to continue keeping communications going. ... You don't want religion to be a source of conflict."

Interfaith couples have to be honest about their feelings from the start, said Mark Lambert of Overland Park, who was raised Catholic and married his wife, Mara, two years ago.

"She made it known to me when we were dating that she would want her children raised Jewish."

You must be flexible.

In the 20-year marriage of Mark and Patty Gilgus of Lee's Summit, Mo., Patty was the more accommodating one, said Mark, who has been an active leader in the Jewish community for many years. Patty was raised Southern Baptist.

"Patty was more flexible in terms of adopting some of the practices that I thought were important and involving herself in the religious institutions and organizations that I was involved in," he said.

Gary Kretchmer is Jewish, while his wife, Sheryl, is Christian. The Overland Park couple, married since 1986, are active in two congregations: one Reform Jewish, the other a Disciples of Christ church.

Holidays can be a big challenge, so make plans. The extended family can put pressure on couples about holiday celebrations, Goldenberg said.

"Each spouse's parents dictate where they would like to see them observe the holidays that they grew up with," he said. "When the couple plans ahead, it is better. Spending time with your spouse's family during a holiday doesn't mean you are embracing that religion.

"I know a mom who is Jewish who took a hard-core stand and didn't want her children to take part in the Christian aspects of her husband's family. After a while she realized her kids were missing out on family time, especially during the holidays."

Understand and respect each other's faith. What was difficult at first for Leon Butler was not understanding Judaism.

He will never forget the first time he attended a High Holy Days service with his wife and her family at a Conservative synagogue.

"It was all in Hebrew, and I didn't understand Hebrew," he said. "Now I can at least read it." His advice to Clinton and Mezvinsky: "If Marc continues to practice Judaism, I would strongly advise Chelsea to learn some Hebrew."

Goldenberg said each spouse needs to understand what is religiously important to the other spouse.

"Focus on the values of the partner, what's important to them," he said. "What is challenging is that some of the basic beliefs are different. So how do you include both sides of the family so their beliefs are respected without this being confusing to the children?

"It is the kind of thing that requires a place to be with a small group of interfaith couples. It is hard to have this conversation on your own."

Mark Gilgus says Clinton and Mezvinsky should find a religious community that welcomes interfaith couples.

The big question: In what faith will the children be raised? Karen Butler said she and Leon decided to raise their daughter Jewish.

"You can't raise children both ways because then they end up being nothing," she said.

Heather Miederhoff of Overland Park said she and her Christian husband, Brant, agreed that their two children would be raised Jewish. Both sets of grandparents were accepting.

But Heather said their 4½ -year-old daughter is starting to question why the grandparents do things differently.

"Like why her dad's mother puts up a Christmas tree and my parents don't," she said. "We said Jews celebrate Hanukkah and kids get presents then. And also Santa brings presents for her at Grandma's house. This is the only time when we do both religions."

Mary Wilkens of Kansas City, who called her childhood in a religiously mixed household "purgatory," offers this advice: "If Chelsea and Marc are both strong in their faiths, do your future children a favor: don't have any!"