When Gary and Aimee Wagner tried to join a synagogue after they were married five years ago, the rabbi sent the check back.
Gary, a committed Jew, could join as an individual, and Aimee, a
nonpracticing Catholic, could participate in all activities members
enjoy. But a non-Jew could not officially be a member.
That so offended the Wagners that they left the congregation
and joined B'Nai Havurah, a reconstructionist community that is
respectful of traditional Jewish observances but is open to new
interpretations and forms of religious expression.
"Before we got married, we decided we were going to have a
Jewish home, even though I wasn't Jewish," Aimee Wagner said. "Gary has
a very strong Jewish identification. I did not have
The Cole family - Todd, who is carrying Lily, 4, Matilda and Leila, 1 - walk in Denver on a recent Saturday.
Matilda converted to Judaism so her kids could be raised in the Jewish faith. (The Denver Post | HyoungChang)
a strong religious identity."
Intermarriage has long been a touchy subject among Jews, but as the
number of interfaith couples has increased, Jewish organizations are
grappling with how to keep their community intact while dealing with
In the last decade, Denver's Jewish population has grown 33
percent to 83,500. During the same period, the percentage of
intermarried couples among Denver married couples with at least one
Jewish member has increased from 39 percent in 1997 to 53 percent last
year, according to the 2007 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community
That's requiring Jewish leaders to take a hard look at how
their community deals with interfaith couples in its quest to preserve
"Intermarriage isn't going away," said Rabbi Steven Foster of
Congregation Emanuel. "We have to respond to it in a way Jews haven't
That's critical if interfaith couples are going to raise their
children as Jews. In interfaith marriages where the couples are not
affiliated with a Jewish organization, only 12 percent of children are
raised Jewish, according to the study. Forty-seven percent of the
children of intermarried couples who are affiliated are raised in the
"The children of intermarried couples could be the largest immigration left to us," Foster said.
Congregation Emanuel welcomes all to worship, but Foster will
not perform interfaith wedding ceremonies. A Jewish ceremony, he said,
requires two Jewish people.
Unlike many Jews, the Wagners didn't pull away from the faith
when they had trouble finding a rabbi to marry them. They knew in
advance it would be a challenge. They've already converted their
daughter Rachael to Judaism so she won't have the same problem later in
Jews becoming disengaged
But for Leslie Resnick, it was a different story.
"The rabbi (in my synagogue) wouldn't marry me, and I took
affront to that," said Resnick, who married a non-Jew she has since
divorced. "It really hurt me. The next high-holiday season, I wasn't
all that excited to go to the synagogue."
Resnick still holds her Jewish identity dear, but she is among
the 16 percent of Denver's Jewish population who say they have no
religion. Resnick's parents, Rhoda and Ron Resnick, also identify as
Jews but consider themselves humanists and don't practice the religion.
"Judaism, in terms of being a civilization, has taught very
good values, and I don't want to give those up," Rhoda Resnick said.
"But I have trouble with mindless following."
Sixty percent of Jewish households in Denver are not connected to a synagogue or any other Jewish organization.
"On a spiritual level, if 50 percent of Jews are not engaged, that's
Gary and Aimee Wagner were denied membership in a synagogue because Aimee isn't Jewish. (Evan Semon, Special to The Denver Post)
problem," said Rabbi Brian Field of Judaism Your Way, an organization
that provides different avenues for Jews to connect with the community
and the religion. "There are so many Jews who are intermarried that the
challenge all Jewish organizations are facing is how to include in the
community people who aren't Jewish."
Denver businessman Donald Sturm founded Judaism Your Way in 2004
after his own frustrating search for a rabbi to wed him and his non-
Jewish wife, Susan. He didn't want others in the same situation to
struggle with the issue.
"I had the means to solve my own problems; most people don't,"
Sturm said. "I'm not trying to be critical of the rabbis, but I think
they're out of date."
Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, a pioneer in
Click on image to enlarge
Denver's south metro area, has come to terms with the rising number of
people who marry outside the faith. Though much of its membership is
Orthodox, he describes his congregation, Aish Denver, as an outreach
organization that welcomes intermarried couples. Still, he finds the
growth in intermarried couples alarming.
"The numbers are sad and shocking," he said. "It speaks a lot for
the downspiraling of Jewish people in this region. It's extremely
difficult to raise children Jewish if one parent is not."
Reaching out to a generation
Stephanie and Mark Mehleck expose their two children to both Christianity and Judaism, although neither parent is religious.
"My parents have taken kids to Hanukkah parties, and Mark's mom
takes the kids to Easter celebrations," said Stephanie Mehleck, who is
Jewish. "We're totally open to them going to the cultural events
related to the religious holidays, but I think going to services with
our parents feels a little bit hypocritical because we don't go to
Stephanie Mehleck's birthday fell on the first night of
Passover, but she and her husband wanted a night out. The children's
Jewish grandparents, Dr. Stan and Toby Ginsburg, took them to Chuck E.
Cheese, rather than celebrate with a Seder.
Opinions differ on how to raise children in interfaith
marriages. Some families believe exposing kids to many religions is
confusing. Others say they want the child to make the choice.
Catholic-born Matilda Song Cole had been searching for her own
spiritual center when she met her husband, Todd, in New York. She has
since converted to Judaism, and the couple is raising their children
"I'm still not really a religious person, but I do feel like it's important to have a community for raising kids," she said.
Although he won't perform interfaith wedding ceremonies, Foster
wants to make the community a welcoming place for the couples and their
families. To that end, he started Stepping Stones, an outreach agency
that supports and educates interfaith couples and their families.
Foster said that without outreach, up to 90 percent of the children of interfaith couples are lost to Jewish life.
"Some people would say, 'So what,' " he said. "I say Jews and Judaism have offered something special to the world."
Margaret Jackson: 303-954-1473 or email@example.com