interfaith couple

Khylie Gardner and her boyfriend, Jacob Nelson, dress up for Christmas in 2020.

Khylie Gardner liked it when her dad came along to synagogue services while she was growing up. But he didn’t really know what was going on.

“In order to go to services or go to a community event that’s based in Jewish culture or religion, there’s so much you have to know,” Gardner said.

She felt like there wasn’t a space for her dad in the Jewish community, even though he was married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish children.

“I don’t want that to happen to Jacob,” Gardner said of her boyfriend.

Gardner, 26, and Jacob Nelson, 32, have been dating for about two years and Gardner has made it clear that when they get married and have kids theirs will be a Jewish family. “He understands that that’s really important for me, but he doesn’t have any cultural touchstones at all,” she said.

Working with the Tucson Jewish Community Center, where she was the director of marketing for about two years, the couple is creating a new social group for young people in interfaith relationships.

“Our vision is to create a non-judgmental, super accessible place for ourselves and other interfaith couples who want to create Jewish community together,” Gardner said.

According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of American Jews who have married in the last decade have married a non-Jewish partner, compared to 45% among Jews who got married the previous decade.

Gardner hosted the group’s first event Sept. 23 in the JCC’s sukkah. Four other couples attended and “it was a really cozy event,” Gardner said. She hopes to plan a family-friendly Shabbat this fall for the next event.

Rachel Jarrett couldn’t attend the first meeting but is hoping to make it to the next one.

Jarrett grew up in the Jewish community, going to synagogue and Jewish summer camps. She misses having a group of Jewish friends to celebrate holidays with.

She has been married seven years to Benjamin Jarrett, who grew up a Christian. They are raising their 5-year-old and 14-month-old sons as Jews, but Rachel said her husband hasn’t felt very comfortable going to events at the Tucson JCC or at her synagogue in the past.

“He feels very out of place,” she said.

Getting to know other interfaith couples would likely make him feel more comfortable, Rachel said, and make her feel like she is able to experience Judaism with her husband.

Rachel always thought she would “marry Jewish,” and told people as much, she said. But when she met Benjamin in graduate school, their relationship blossomed into something special.

“We were just comfortable with each other, more so than anybody else,” she said.

Rachel hasn’t talked with Benjamin yet about the new interfaith group, but she thinks he’d be open to it, especially since their oldest son is learning so much about Jewish life in school.

“My husband has kind of been veering away from a lot of the Christian beliefs lately, and I think he does want to learn more about Judaism,” she said.

The Tucson JCC is helping to spread the word about the new group and lending it space.

Rachael Mitchell, the JCC’s director of communications, said the organization strives to engage people at various junctures in their Jewish journey, and the so-called microcommunity Gardner is creating is an opportunity to connect with more people and grow Tucson’s Jewish community.

“Interfaith couples and families are a community that we value because it represents the diversity of our community and helps to engage people who might not have otherwise felt at home at the J,” Mitchell said. JN