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Two people, two faiths, two girls: tough choices

She's Catholic. He's Jewish. The Brehms of Carrollwood Village start a support group for interfaith couples.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002


CARROLLWOOD -- It was November 1983. She was a newly hired trainer at the Lechmere company in Massachusetts. He was a vice president with 16 years at the company. Bill and Rosemary Brehm met on the job and fell in love.

But their relationship was complicated by their different faiths. Bill was Jewish and Rosemary was Catholic.

On their second date, during the winter Hanukkah holiday, Rosemary had dinner at Bill's house and he lit a menorah. It was the start of a turbulent romance that forced them to make tough choices about their wedding ceremony and how to raise their children.

"Obviously our faith was important to both of us," Rosemary Brehm said. "It was a tense time. I cried a lot."

Now the Brehms have been married for 17 years and have two daughters they are raising Jewish. Bill Brehm, 43, is president of Congregation Beth Am on Fletcher Avenue. Rosemary Brehm, 49, teaches religion classes at St. Timothy's Catholic Church on Ragg Road.

Together, this Carrollwood Village couple have formed a support group at the reform synagogue to help other interfaith couples.

About 20 people have attended the first few meetings, which are advertised in the synagogue's newsletter. Membership consists primarily of Jews who have married Christians.

"The group is a nice way to hear how other people are handling the same things we are going through," said Dana Miller, who is the synagogue administrator at Beth Am and has a Catholic boyfriend she has dated about a year.

Interfaith marriages force many couples to make compromises from the very start. Rabbis typically will not perform wedding ceremonies involving non-Jews. The Catholic Church requires special permission to marry outside the church, which becomes necessary when a Jewish mate choses not to have a church wedding.

Some interfaith couples avoid the wedding complications by taking their vows before a justice of the peace.

But it was important to Rosemary to be married with the Catholic Church's blessing. And Bill Brehm insisted that a Jewish clergyman perform the ceremony. They reached a compromise when Rosemary got permission from the archdiocese in New York to be married outside the church in a reception hall. A Jewish cantor performed the service.

Even now, when Rosemary Brehm attends synagogue with her husband and their daughters, she does not read from the Torah. When the Brehm family attends St. Timothy's, Bill Brehm and their daughters do not take the Holy Communion.

While statistics on interfaith marriages are hard to come by, spiritual leaders believe the numbers are growing. Estimates range as high as 40,000 interfaith marriages in the United States per year, according to published reports.

In response, some reform Jewish temples such as Beth Am are sponsoring outreach programs to educate intermarrieds about Judaism without forcing conversion on the non-Jewish partner. Orthodox Jews do not condone intermarriage.

"I know the number is tremendously high and very much not to my liking," said Rabbi Yossie Dubrowski, of Chabad Lubavitch synagogue at 14908 Pennington Road. "Even one intermarriage is a negative thing for the growth of the Jewish people.

"It is so difficult to deal with a family that has two different religions. Usually they practice no religion and sometimes both. In either case, it's not positive for the children."

Stephanie and Danielle Brehm say they are comfortable attending Jewish synagogue and the Catholic church.

"Some of the kids at my school ask, How do I deal with it? Do I get confused? I say, "Not really.' It's all I've ever known," said Stephanie, 15.

Danielle, 13, said she has learned to appreciate both religions.

"When I was younger, I liked the Catholic service better because it was English and I understood it," she said. "But now that I know Hebrew, I can participate more in the Jewish service, and I like it better now."

Members of the interfaith group at Beth Am also are able to compare notes on how others cope with extended family or members of their religious community who might object to their marriages.

"When I initially told my college chaplain that I was engaged to a Jewish man, there was a long silence," Rosemary Brehm said. "Then he said, "I've never really seen that work.' I replied, "We are going to make it work."'

Bill Brehm recalls the meeting he had with the family rabbi when he and Rosemary decided to marry.

"He said to me, "You could find someone else who is Jewish.' That was his solution. His answer was that she should convert.

"That was the last time I counseled with him. We knew he was not going to be a supporter or advocate for us."

At least one of the interfaith group members did convert to Judaism.

Linda Perman of Lutz was raised Presbyterian. She and her husband, Jack, who is Jewish, met through mutual friends close to 30 years ago in Niagara Falls, N.Y. After dating about six years, they were married. That was 22 years ago. They have a son, 19, and a daughter, 16.

"I was very involved in the Presbyterian church," Linda Perman said. "But when we decided to get married and have children, I wanted them brought up in one religion. I was very comfortable with the Jewish community in Tampa. It felt like the right thing to do."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at grant@sptimes.com.

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