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Interfaith couple enjoy spiritual strength, harmony, cultural richness

After lighting the menorah in celebration of Hanukkah, Joseph Salzer, center, and his mother, Kristie, carry the candles to the kitchen Friday. Kristie is Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. The Tampa family celebrates holidays of both faiths.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

After lighting the menorah in celebration of Hanukkah, Joseph Salzer, center, and his mother, Kristie, carry the candles to the kitchen Friday. Kristie is Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. The Tampa family celebrates holidays of both faiths.

TAMPA

Brad and Kristie Salzer have three menorahs and a Christmas tree.

For Hanukkah, they have eaten brisket, applesauce and latkes. Their Christmas Eve dinner included spiced baked potatoes, beef tenderloin and creamed spinach.

Brad is Jewish. Kristie is Episcopalian. The couple met on a blind date and married after working through what they dubbed the two "R's" — relocation and religion. Kristie, 49, moved to Tampa from Washington, D.C., to marry Brad, 48. They each decided to remain faithful to their own religions and raise their children to respect and honor both traditions.

Living in an observant, interfaith family is a delicate dance that takes center stage during religious celebrations, particularly when holy days intersect as Hanukkah and Christmas do this year.

"We want it to work, and we respect each other's religion," said Brad, who works in real estate finance in St. Petersburg. "We want to support each other, and we want the kids exposed to both great faiths and all great faiths."

His wife, a registered dietitian, agrees.

"I love the traditions, and there isn't one that I wouldn't want to include," she said. "It's not really an option if we're going to do it or not because it just feels good to do both."

The Salzers represent a growing number of couples in America who come from different religious backgrounds. Among Jews, the interfaith marriage rate is 31 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. That concerns some in the community who worry about the declining numbers of children being raised Jewish.

It's a scenario the Salzer family knows well. Ruthe Warshaw, the family's 96-year-old matriarch, has seven grandsons and two granddaughters. So far, only one of them sends his children to Hebrew school. Six of her grandsons married non-Jews.

Despite a family full of intermarriages and varying religious faiths, Warshaw appreciates that her progeny participate in Jewish traditions such as holidays.

"As far as being member of a synagogue, it's not important to me," Warshaw said. "My husband and I have always enjoyed the traditions rather than the religion. That's why it doesn't make that much difference."

In the Salzer house, Kristie cooks traditional Jewish foods for Jewish holidays. She hosts a 30-person Passover seder every year. Her salmon gefilte fish is particularly popular. The family also attends high holy day services in South Tampa at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, where they are members.

At Schaarai Zedek, intermarried couples make up 20 percent of the membership, Rabbi Richard Birnholz said. Most of those families choose to raise their children in the Jewish faith. Birnholz encourages intermarried families to celebrate each other's religious holidays and milestones.

"In a lot of ways, it's sort of like a birthday party," he said. "You go to somebody's birthday party. It might not be your birthday, but you certainly go and celebrate with them. That does not mean this has to be a prescription for the way every intermarried family practices. (It is) simply what I find to be in this congregation."

Christianity is the dominant faith in the Salzer household. The couple's dual worship backgrounds make them unique at their church, St. John's Episcopal Church. The Rev. Douglas E. Remer, the church's rector, said he hopes the Salzer children's exposure to both faiths helps them learn Jewish faith, culture, traditions and beliefs.

"Aside from the theology, the history, remember Jesus was Jewish," he said. "It helps to know something about the Jewish faith in order to appreciate the Christian faith. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. I affirm it. I respect it, and I'm happy for them."

The Salzer children, who have both been baptized, say they take pleasure in learning about their parents' faiths.

Will, 14, serves as an acolyte at St. John's. His friends envy his dual religious backgrounds.

"They're all jealous," he said. "They're always like, 'You get presents for Hanukkah and Christmas.' "

The boys have Hanukkah and Christmas wish lists. Will said he enjoys lighting the menorah during Hanukkah. His brother Joseph, 12, looks forward to eating latkes and being with family on Christmas Eve, when the Salzers host a large dinner.

"I enjoy celebrating them both because I like being able to understand both of the cultures," Joseph said.

Tonight, as the Salzers light the seventh Hanukkah candle, they will celebrate another family milestone. This one marks the beginning of an interfaith love story. It is Brad and Kristie's wedding anniversary. Sixteen years ago, a priest and a rabbi performed the ceremony.

Over the years, the couple has turned their religious differences into a strength.

"I guess I was selfish enough that finding the person with whom I shared a connection in so many ways was more important than having her be Jewish," Brad said. "We do share a great spiritual connection with our belief in God although we come from different faiths."

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Interfaith couple enjoy spiritual strength, harmony, cultural richness 12/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 3:08pm]

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