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Washingtonians Bridge The Gap Between Jewish, Christian Traditions

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Rabbi Harold White leads the Interfaith Families Project community through a Hanuakkah service.
Emily Berman
Rabbi Harold White leads the Interfaith Families Project community through a Hanuakkah service.

Blending holiday traditions can get a bit tricky when you're Christian and your partner is Jewish, or vice-versa. In the Washington, D.C. region, it's quite a common conundrum. A study conducted by the University of Miami shows that about 40 percent of married Jews in the region have non-Jewish partners.

More than 100 families are sorting these issues out together, as part of the Interfaith Families Project. It began roughly 18 years ago, when four women (two Jews, two Christians) organized group services and a Sunday school for their children that taught both religions.

Rev. Julia Jarvis, the group's Christian spiritual leader, says from the beginning there's been one central challenge in practicing both Judaism and Christianity — how to talk about Jesus. "We used to say that Jesus was the elephant under the chuppah that nobody really wanted to talk about in our community," says Jarvis. "Because it was hard!"

Rev. Jarvis and Rabbi White framed the conversation in a way all members seemed to feel comfortable with — Jesus as a historical figure. After all, Jarvis points out, "Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. And his first followers were all Jews."

Talking about Jesus, for some couples, has been their common ground. Matt McGrath and his wife Randi Field have been part of IFFP for nearly two decades.

Randi, who still considers herself 100 percent Jewish, is happy that she now has "a connection to Jesus, and I have tremendous respect for Jesus. Before IFFP, I didn't have that. I had no knowledge of the historical Jesus."

Her husband Matt still considers himself 100 percent Christian, but with a much deeper appreciation for the religion's roots.

Rabbi White, the group's Jewish spiritual leader, admits what IFFP is doing would not work everywhere. "But, Washington is a very interesting place. We have lots of hybrids here." There's a critical mass of couples who keep this community alive," says White. It's an on-going experiment, which is why, he says, it's called the Interfaith Families Project.


[Music: "Jingle Bells" by The Klezmonauts from Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas]

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