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Keeping the Faiths : Holiday Season Can Test the Balance of Beliefs for Many Interfaith Marriages


Religion wasn't really an issue for Terry and Heather Balagia. At least, not at first.

Terry, raised a Roman Catholic in Austin, Tex., and Heather, schooled in Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn, N.Y., had met at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert in New York's Central Park in 1978. After a five-year relationship, they were married in the United Nations chapel by a Reform rabbi and a Catholic monsignor.

But in 1984, when Heather was pregnant with their first child, the Balagias decided they had to make a choice about how to raise their children--a decision an increasing number of Jewish-Christian couples face each year.

In the rising tide of interfaith marriages, some couples find differences of faith irreconcilable, especially during the December holiday season, when tensions that simmer all year can boil over. Nearly one-third of mixed-faith marriages end in divorce, compared to only 17% when both partners are Jewish, according to a City University of New York study.

The Council of Jewish Federations, in its study released this year, found that 52% of American Jews are choosing non-Jewish partners--double the number who married outside the Jewish faith 20 years ago. The report also said that nearly three-quarters of the children in intermarried families are raised with no religious training or in a religion other than Judaism. Further, only 10% of the children of such mixed marriages marry Jewish partners.

But the majority of interfaith couples find ways to blend their distinctive beliefs, rituals and traditions into enduring family patterns.

One spouse often converts to the faith of the other. Other couples maintain the original faith of each partner and try to teach their children the essence of both. Even after years of marriage, however, many interfaith families must still contend with disgruntled parents and other relatives who don't understand.

The Balagias, Gerry and Burt Belzer, Barbara and Jonathan Levitt, Janet and David Shalinsky and Diane and David Brounstein are five Southland couples who have made mixed-faith marriages work.

While the Balagias lived in New York, Heather decorated her first Christmas tree, and the young couple observed Jewish and Christian holidays in the homes of their respective parents. On special occasions they attended church and temple activities.

Before they moved to Hermosa Beach in 1988, Heather and Terry began to raise their children Catholic.

"To bring them up in both faiths . . . is just too confusing for the kids," said Heather, 35.

The choice was not difficult at the time, Heather said, because "I had my Jewish family all around me. And Terry was more connected to the church than I had been to the temple."

Three of the Balagias' four children--Terence, 7, Sarah, 5, and Rebecca, 2--have already been baptized into the Catholic faith. Adam--6 months old--will be baptized this month when the Balagias visit Terry's family in Austin.

Heather admits she is, nevertheless, "struggling with the loss" of her Jewish family identity. "It would be easier for me if I were raising our children Jewish," she said.

"But it's worth it," she added. "Terry was the right person for me. My love was so strong, we wanted to be together and . . . our families were so supportive."

In contrast, Gerry and Burt Belzer's marriage stirred dissension in their families.

Gerry and Burt, both 65, have known each other since junior high days in Wisconsin. He attended Hebrew school and was confirmed in a Conservative synagogue.

"Religion really wasn't an issue for us ," said Burt, who owns a metal distribution business in the South Bay. "But for our families, it was very traumatic. . . . The pressures (against interfaith marriage) were greater in our generation."

The Belzers, married in Methodist ceremonies in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1949, moved to Southern California that year. Because of Burt's strong feelings, they had agreed before the wedding to raise their children Jewish.

For a while, "we mixed in some Christmas," Gerry said. One year, their oldest son got a tree and their youngest put a menorah on it. But now, she said, "it's a real struggle to buy Christmas presents" for their grandchildren who are growing up in a Presbyterian home. Their other two sons and their families practice Judaism.

Gerry says she has always felt "fully accepted" at Temple Menorah, a Reform congrgation in Redondo Beach, where she has chaired the adult education program. Culminating a spiritual pilgrimage that began with her Methodist upbringing and a college-age encounter with Presbyterianism, she underwent the 20-minute mikvah , a purification rite in water that marks conversion, at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles on Dec. 12.

"Now she knows more Judaism than I do," Burt said with a smile.

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