I grew up in a strictly kosher home in Long Island, New York. We observed the Sabbath and lived a five-minute walk from the synagogue where my father was the pulpit rabbi. Although my life was spent observing Jewish traditions and customs, I was exposed to other religions. My family lived in an Italian-Catholic town, and my best friend and next-door neighbor was raised in an observant Catholic family. We helped trim our neighbors' Christmas trees and they helped decorate our sukkah, the temporary hut used during the fall holiday of Sukkot. They sat at our Passover seders and we painted their Easter eggs.
Looking back, I think that we got along well with our Catholic neighbors because we were all accustomed to religious rituals and all they entail. Some of those rituals are similar, even if they're practiced differently -- fasting, feasting, and prayers are observed by all religions -- so more joins than separates those who observe different faiths. Of course, there are religious and observant families who don't feel comfortable reaching out to others of different faiths, or who have similar faiths but different points of view. My upbringing taught me that it's possible to lead an observant lifestyle in the secular world while remaining flexible and adapting to differences. It can be a struggle, but it can be enlightening as well.
There are no definitive guidelines for observant families to teach their kids about other religions, but the more positive and engaging parents can be when talking about another religion, the more likely kids will be interested and understand another person's religious experience. "A lot depends on the age and temperament of each individual child," says the Reverend Stuart Baskin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas. "Parents, family friends, teachers, and religious leaders teach by their attitudes. If they talk in distrustful terms, children will learn the same attitudes."
Parents raising a family in a religious home can follow these strategies to help kids respect other faiths.
Before talking about and comparing other religions, it's important that your child understand your family's religious background, and its ethical and spiritual values. "With different theologies leading to different practices and celebrations, it's an education for kids, as long as parents can approach it with a curious and respectful attitude instead of saying, 'Our way is right and their way is wrong,'" says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist with a background in Judaism and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
Don't leave it to your kids to figure out religious leanings; initiate a conversation. "Your family's religion is part of the history of the family and is part of the fabric of the family," says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a psychologist in New York. "But you also need to say to your child that all religions have things about them that are great, and we celebrate that because it's part of who we are and who other people are."
Religious rituals create a spiritual framework (and warm memories), so parents should observe traditional ones and then add a new twist that even others of different faiths can participate in together. Hang up a calendar that notes different religious holidays to guide families through a year of celebrations. This is an effective way to envision the year and give kids things to anticipate. "Kids love tradition because it's anchoring in a very unsettled world," Mogel says.
I have a Muslim friend who likes to break his daily fast during Ramadan with a falafel sandwich (instead of the traditional date) right after prayers, before heading home to an elaborate feast. It's his personal way of decompressing after a long day, and his kids love the informality. In my own family, we have an annual tradition my father created. On the eve of Passover, after burning the last crumbs of bread left in the house before switching to matzoh, we toast marshmallows. Our non-Jewish neighbors enjoyed being part of this ritual.
For some parents, the challenge is to find what one religious family has in common with other religious families. In homes where more than one religion is practiced, the sources and deities being observed may not be the same, but the concepts may be. Mogel believes that families should try "bending with grace in both directions," which balances following religious practices without dividing the family.
Yisrael Campbell (formerly known as Chris), a father of four and a comedian, converted to Judaism after being raised as a Catholic. "It's very important for me to remain in contact with my family, and that includes finding ways to make allowances within my belief system," Campbell says. "I changed so significantly that I have a greater responsibility to meet them somewhere; I have to find a way to participate in my family's life. I converted; they didn't."
Finding a common ground with his Catholic family can mean not making a fuss that his mother and sister still call him Chris, or arriving on Christmas day in the afternoon, to avoid some of the holiday hoopla. His mother, for her part, wraps her Jewish grandchildren's gifts in blue Hanukkah paper, while other gifts are wrapped in the traditional Christmas red and green.
As Presbyterian Christians, Rev. Baskin and his wife saw a universal hunger for God. Rev. Baskin remembers teaching his daughters to always set an extra place at the dinner table each night, complete with place mat, plate, knife, fork, spoon, and glassware, for the "sojourner" who might show up at our door. Rev. Baskin explains, "We would have friends drop by from time to time, and they would sit at that place, but we talked about the sojourner as the outsider who would also be our guest. We believe that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and that our common humanity marks us more powerfully than our differences."