Navigating the Holiday Season as an Interfaith Family: Heather Ralston

Heather Ralston and family

This year, Chanukah and Christmas will overlap once again. For many interfaith families, that means navigating two different religious traditions. For the Jewish spouse, it also means making sure their children feel connected to their Jewish heritage this time of year. We spoke to two Jewish parents in an interfaith marriage about raising their children Jewish this time of year.

Heather was born and raised in Owings Mills. She went to Krieger Schechter Day School until 8th grade, when she switched to Owings Mills High School. She met her now husband, Kevin, through mutual friends when they were both 18. After living together and raising three kids in the Reisterstown neighborhood, they recently made the move to Carroll County. Heather is now the Carroll County Connector with the Macks Center for Jewish Connections (MCJC)

What was your religious affiliation growing up?

My mom was raised Modern Orthodox. My paternal grandmother was Christian, but my father converted to Judaism. I always knew my family had a Christian side, but we never celebrated anything because we were raised Jewish. Until I was about 7 my family attended Liberty Jewish Center. After, my family became more conservative and joined Chizuk Amuno Congregation and I attended Krieger Schechter Day School.

Tell us about your husband, Kevin, and his religious background:

Kevin grew up Irish Catholic and is one of 10 kids. He attended a Catholic school that taught the Old Testament, so Kevin is well educated on a lot of the historical aspects of Judaism.  Now, he doesn’t practice Catholicism.

What is it like raising an interfaith family?

My Jewish identity means a lot to me, and I want to pass that on to my kids. Our kids have always known they are Jewish, and their father is Christian. I teach my kids to be proud of their Jewish heritage. My daughter is the only Jew in her preschool. Now that Chanukah is coming up, she wants to teach her class about it, so I’m going to school with her soon to do a teaching segment on it.

Kevin and I agree that we will always provide our kids with information on both religions and when they are older they can decide what feels right for them.

How do you celebrate the Jewish and Christian holidays in your home?

Our kids know we celebrate Jewish holidays because we are Jewish, and we observe non-Jewish holidays because we celebrate their dad. We all enjoy Shabbat and its traditions.

The Jewish holidays are celebrated in a more religious/traditional way, and we celebrate the Christian holidays in a traditional commercial way. Our kids haven’t learned the true meaning of non-Jewish holidays, like how Easter is to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. This year they began asking about the meaning of Christmas, which we explained to them.

Kevin proudly embraces mine and my children’s Judaism. He was so excited about Sukkot this year in Carroll County, he built a huge sukkah and invited all our neighbors over for a sukkah party. Kevin’s family is supportive of our family being Jewish and have actively participated in traditions, like Shabbat and blessings, like during our son’s bris. At the same time, I embrace my Catholic family’s events and customs out of respect and love for them.

What is it like living in Carroll County where there aren’t many other Jews?

We moved here about two years ago. It’s been a bit of a culture shock because now, as Jews, we’re in the minority. My two older kids were going to Beth Tfiloh before we moved, but now they go to public school and a preschool in Carroll County. My kids know they have non-Jewish friends, but it’s also important to me that they have Jewish friends. They go to Beth Tfiloh camp every summer and my oldest attends Hebrew School at the local Chabad and is now finding more Jewish friends from me being the local Connector.

Especially now that we don’t live in a predominantly Jewish area, it’s important for my kids to understand that every family is different, and every family has different traditions. We may have a Christmas tree and decorations at home, but we don’t have nativity scenes at home or do things like Elf on the Shelf. Conversely, I tell my kids that in our home we celebrate Chanukah with latkes and gelt, but other families don’t necessarily do that in their homes.

What challenges or struggles, if any, have come up regarding religion? 

Before my oldest son was born, the idea of having a bris was a struggle for me and my husband. Mostly, we wanted the circumcision to be done in the hospital. Once we learned more about the history of a bris, spoke to a mohel and friends whose children have had a bris, we decided it was the right thing to do for our family. Kevin sat with the Rabbi and Mohel during the bris and it ended up being an amazing experience to be a part of once we really understood it.

My children are still young, but as they get older, I assume it will be challenging to explain how and why Judaism and Christianity are different.

What is your favorite Jewish holiday tradition?

Some years my birthday falls on Passover, and I don’t like the kosher for Passover cakes. Many years ago, my husband suggested we have ice cream cake instead, which has now become a tradition I love. I also love Chanukah. The world can be so dark at times that when Chanukah comes around it reminds us to look for the light and believe in the magic all around us.

Click here to read Debbie’s story.

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