Interfaith families embrace holidays

Staff Writer

 Members of the Fernandez family of Monroe — Sara, Alex, 12, Rachel, 15, and Ray — decorate their home with a Christmas tree, menorah and other holiday items.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Members of the Fernandez family of Monroe — Sara, Alex, 12, Rachel, 15, and Ray — decorate their home with a Christmas tree, menorah and other holiday items. SCOTT FRIEDMAN Kelli and Pat Antonucci of Monroe used to joke when people would ask what religion their daughters practiced.

“We would say ‘confused,’ ” Kelli Antonucci said.

Truthfully, she doesn’t think her daughters are “confused” at all, even when the holiday season rolls around. Kelli, who was raised Jewish, and Pat, raised Catholic, have embraced both religions in their family, with daughters Jessica, 15, Amanda, 13, and Rebecca, 11, identifying as both. “It’s so normal to us that we don’t even think about it,” the mom said.

Like the Antonuccis, many interfaith families are tasked with making difficult and unique choices: How will the children be raised? How can each spouse avoid “giving up” his or her religion? How will the house be decorated in December?

 James and Monica Brewer, along with son Lev, get ready for Hanukkah and Christmas in Tinton Falls.  MATT DENTON James and Monica Brewer, along with son Lev, get ready for Hanukkah and Christmas in Tinton Falls. MATT DENTON Together, interfaith families learn how to answer these questions and define their own sense of “normal,” especially as the trees, menorahs, kinaras, stockings and dreidels are brought out each year.

The Antonuccis, for example, will go to church and temple on major holidays — Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — but the daughters will not have bat mitzvahs, first communions or confirmations.

“They feel like they got kind of gypped on that, but … I think that what you lose, you gain in some other way,” Kelli Antonucci said.

And she’s not just talking about the fact that her daughters receive double the gifts.

“It’s nice that we get presents usually more than other kids would,” Jessica said. “But it’s also nice to know what religion your parents grew up with and to get a taste of both in your life. I really like having two religions, honestly. … It kind of defines who I am, because it’s something really different about me.

“You don’t really talk to a lot of people that have two religions — so it’s kind of part of who I am and my personality.”

Jessica said she feels she is able to form her own religion from her experiences with both Judaism and Catholicism.

While the Antonuccis have found comfort in the way they acknowledge religion, some rabbis, such as Rabbi Michael Pont of the Marlboro Jewish Center — a Conservative congregation — are more critical of that approach.

“Ultimately, I think each individual should know who he or she is from a faith perspective. … I kind of feel like if you’re celebrating both, then you’re not really embracing either,” Pont said. “That’s my concern.”

Rabbi Marc Kline of the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls echoed Pont’s concerns.

“You can be biracial,” Kline said. “You can be bisexual. But you can’t have two different religious traditions that contradict each other and call them both yours.”

James and Monica Brewer of Tinton Falls wanted their children, Jonah, 14, and Lev, 12, to grow up with one clear-cut religion.

“I told my wife I wanted my children to be raised religious, with a religion,” James Brewer said. “I wanted them to have that moral background and the moral compass that religions provide a person. I said [to Monica], ‘You can choose whether it’s Jewish or Christian, but I want them raised religious, and I don’t want to do it halfway.’ ”

Even though Monica Brewer did not grow up as an observant Jew — unlike her husband, who was raised a devout Christian — it didn’t change the fact that she wanted her children raised Jewish.

“Ironic, don’t you think?” Monica Brewer said. “It’s cultural and tribal — that is what it is to be Jewish for me, and I wasn’t willing to forgo all of that.”

Now, Monica Brewer is a vice president at the Monmouth Reform Temple, and James Brewer — while not allowed to hold the Torah, among other restrictions for non-Jews — is an active member and participant of the synagogue.

Each year, the Brewers put up a Christmas tree after Hanukkah is over in order to let the Jewish holiday have its time to shine.

James Brewer, who still considers himself Christian, said he appreciated that his sons were still able to have Christmas in their lives, despite being Jewish.

“They don’t have to go to school and say, ‘I didn’t have Christmas,’ which I think can be rough for a Jewish kid to see all the Christian kids enjoying this magical holiday. … There’s a magic that doesn’t happen if you don’t celebrate it,” James said.

Some families don’t even put a label on religions.

Sam and Henna Khan of Edison are neither Christian nor Jewish, yet they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as Ramadan and Diwali.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew,” Sam Khan said. “I’m a strong believer of God.”

Although Sam Khan was raised Muslim and Henna Khan was raised Hindu, they decided to welcome all religions and faiths into their lives. Their daughters, Alisha, 14, and Michelle, 9, are free to embrace any religion they choose.

As the founder of the South Asian Community Outreach Group, Sam Khan holds an Interfaith Holiday Party each December at the Royal Albert Palace in Edison. Families of all faiths are encouraged to attend.

“I believe in unity — my motto is to bring all the communities together and live peacefully and enjoy every single holiday,” Sam Khan said. “Holiday is nothing but joy and happiness and a celebration of life.”

Felice and Jon Shaloum of Middletown have taken a similar approach to the holiday season, even though every member of their family, including Ethan, 11, and Francesca, 8, is Jewish.

“We don’t live in a really Jewish area,” Felice Shaloum said. “All of my kids’ friends are Catholic … and I just don’t want my kids to feel like there’s something wrong with them because Santa doesn’t come to our house.”

Every year, the Shaloums put up what they refer to as a “tree of life.” In addition to receiving gifts for Hanukkah, Ethan and Francesca will open gifts from under the tree on Christmas Day.

It’s not that her children “celebrate” Christmas, Felice Shaloum said, but rather that they have “an appreciation” for it.

“They are very, very aware that they’re Jewish, and they take pride that they’re Jewish,” she said. “I just don’t want them to lose out on Christmas, because it is a really fun holiday, and I want them to celebrate with their friends. … Perhaps if we lived in a Jewish area, I would feel different, because they would have more Jewish people to connect with.”

Regardless, Felice Shaloum said her mother is not too thrilled that she has a tree in her house.

“I just try not to make such a big deal out of it, because it’s not a big deal,” she said. “We don’t go to church. We don’t do anything religious. It’s just a fun day, and it’s stupid to make it into a big deal, because it’s not. It’s a fun holiday, and everybody celebrates it, so why can’t we?”

Ultimately, the holiday season looks different for everybody. And for the Fernandez family of Monroe, the season looks like a Christmas tree decorated in menorah and dreidel ornaments.

“We have a snowman on top,” said Sara Fernandez, who was raised Jewish. “There’s no religious reference.”

The tree is put up every year out of respect for her husband, Ray, who was raised Catholic. Ray is the only Catholic in the family — when Sara and their children, Rachel, 15, and Alex, 12, go to temple, Ray stays at home.

Sara Fernandez said her children have not been given a hard time by anyone for coming from an interfaith family.

“Today, so many kids are interracial or interfaith or no faith,” Sara said. “I think mostly everyone’s jealous.”