Debra Lipenta and John Michael met on Halloween 2015 — she dressed as the Black Widow, he as a lumberjack — and despite their costumes quickly recognized one another as kindred spirits. They had much in common and their values were aligned, including that each felt the strong pull of religious tradition and community. There was one problem: Deb was Jewish. John was Christian.
“I was concerned,” remembers Deb, who has worked in the Jewish community, traveled to Israel, and for years has led a Jewish Federation-supported Rosh Hodesh group for girls. Intermarriage had already played a role in Deb’s family. Her father had converted to Judaism prior to marrying her mother, and raised Deb and her brothers in a strong Jewish household — and yet her brothers both had interfaith marriages, and were raising Catholic children. It’s a story by no means unusual today. A 2013 Pew survey found the intermarriage rate among American Jews to be 58%, and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews.
“Judaism is a big part of my life, and I intended to keep it that way, and pass on those traditions,” says Deb. She raised the difficult issue with John early in their relationship, and was relieved at his willingness to engage. Remembers John, “It was very important to Deb to raise her children Jewish. So we said, ‘Let’s explore this further.’” That’s when they called InterfaithFamily.
Jewish Federation-supported InterfaithFamily helps interfaith couples engage in Jewish life, and helps Jewish communities to welcome them. Through informational programs and meetups, classes and individual consultations, InterfaithFamily encourages couples to communicate and find a form of Judaism that speaks to them. “The dynamic in those groups was so open and loving,” says John. “It was a safe and inclusive space where the rabbi really wanted us to talk out these tough issues together.”
With a deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds, faiths and needs — and a deeper appreciation for each other — Deb and John were married in October 2017 by their InterfaithFamily rabbi, in a ceremony sprinkled with homages to both faiths that made everyone present feel honored and included. “Mazel tov!” all assembled cried when John broke the glass, while the rabbi alluded to shattering barriers to unite communities.
For Deb and John, inclusiveness is an instinctive way to grow themselves, their communities and their worlds. “A community is a special thing, like having a second family,” says John. Adds Deb, “The more we can be open-minded, and live with open arms, the larger our community can become.” We should all aspire to be as inclusive as Deb and John.
When you are inclusive, you make room for lives and perspectives different from your own — and in so doing, you embrace your capacity to grow larger than yourself.