Focus on Families

For three generations, Tucson family has made interfaith traditions work

Sandra Bolze and her husband, Joe, have an unusual marriage: for 43 years, he’s gone with her every Friday night to Shabbat services. And she’s gone with him every Sunday morning to church.

Kayla Tilicki at her Bat Mitzvah with her grandparents Joe and Sandra Bolze

Their daughter, Tucsonan Niki Tilicki, is in a similarly successful interfaith marriage. But Bolze is quick to point out that she and Joe do not promote interfaith marriage.

“It takes a lot of giving and forgiving to have a good marriage no matter what your faith is, and if you have an interfaith marriage you really have to be extremely giving,” says Bolze. Snowbirds from Sayville, N.Y., she and Joe arrived in Tucson early this year to attend the Bat Mitzvah of their granddaughter, Kayla Tilicki, on Nov. 19.

“I have been very, very lucky because my in-laws and my parents were both very supportive of our marriage,” says Bolze, the daughter of a kosher butcher.

“Niki is also very fortunate,” says Bolze, who was thrilled at how many of her son-in-law’s relatives came from far and wide to Tucson for Kayla’s Bat Mitzvah.

As it was a second marriage for both her and Joe, says Bolze, deciding how to raise their children was simple. “Joey had three children and I had one. Our children were 3, 4, 5 and 6,” and all had already started going to their respective Catholic and Jewish Sunday schools. “So we just told our children that they would be the religion of their mother,” she says, adding that Joe agreed if they had any more children together, they’d be Jewish. “Niki and Danny are our children, and they’re both raised Jewish,” she adds.

Joe was so eager to make her feel comfortable when she moved into his home, she says, that on their first married Shabbat he set up the Shabbat candles for her — a courtesy he’s repeated every week now for more than four decades. “Every Friday night I know how much he loves me,” she says.

While a two-faith household can be complicated, it is worse, says Bolze, that so many interfaith couples choose to “do nothing. It is so sad, to me, not to give your children a faith. It’s so easy to do everything if you do it well, if you’re giving. Joey and I always feel that we should come before God as a couple.” But she acknowledges that they are unusual — and admits that if something during a church service makes her uncomfortable as a Jew, “I just plan my grocery list.”

For Niki Tilicki, growing up with Jewish and Catholic siblings and parents “was the only world I knew, so I didn’t know there was anything different. And it was awesome,” she says, getting to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter.

As for her own marriage, she says she is “without a doubt a product of my environment.” Before she and Phil Tilicki were married, they went to pre-marital counseling with both a priest and a rabbi, who warned that raising kids in more than one religion might not work, but that one parent always suffered “if they didn’t get their religion.”

“It was the priest, Father Phil — we still send him a card every year at the holidays — who said, ‘you [each] identify with your religion, why don’t you raise your girls Jewish and your boys Catholic,’” Tilicki explains. They agreed, she said, knowing that they could end up having two boys or two girls or no children at all.

Their first child, Easton, was a boy, and Tilicki says when he was baptized it was hard for her, “realizing how much I was letting go of for my love for my husband. And when we named our daughter I’m sure that was hard for him,” she says. The naming ceremony for Kayla took place in her grandmother’s Jewish retirement home, with pictures of old, bearded rabbis on the walls. “My son was almost two and he’s screaming, ‘Santa, Santa,’ and my husband’s trying to hush him,” she remembers, laughing.

Although she and Phil are not as dedicated about attending religious services as her parents, she says, they go to church or synagogue, separately, at least two times a month. “I attend church with my husband when he asks me to, and [he attends] temple with me when I ask him to,” she says.

Kayla’s Bat Mitzvah, says Niki, “was perfect. People cried during her ceremony and laughed during her ceremony. And we really made sure everything was explained” for the non-Jewish attendees.

The ceremony and party also showcased several family traditions, including handing out chocolate bars to the kids, something Bolze’s Uncle Benny had done over the years at family B’nai Mitzvah, “because learning the Torah is supposed to be sweet and delicious,” says Bolze. The candy bar wrappers at Kayla’s event were printed with an explanation of the tradition.

In her Bat Mitzvah speech, Kayla drew attention to an empty chair on the bima behind her, “adorned with a tallit symbolic of my ancestors who did not have this opportunity that I have today because they were women” — a reference to Bolze’s mother and aunts, who were not allowed to have Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. Kayla told the congregants she hoped the empty chair would help them remember to “look beyond the rules.”

Bolze herself celebrated a belated Bat Mitzvah at age 50, while Tilicki, now 42, had a Friday night ceremony 30 years ago where she was not allowed to read from the Torah — a slight she remedied by reading from the Torah on the Friday night before her wedding.

At Kayla’s Bat Mitzvah party, as at several previous family parties, instead of flowers for centerpieces they used canned goods, which were later donated to the food bank at Interfaith Community Services, where Bolze and her husband volunteer. Bolze notes that ICS is supported both by Congregation Or Chadash, the family’s Tucson congregation, and St. Mark Catholic Church, where Joe is a parish member.

In her speech, Kayla thanked her “Bubbye and Poppy for taking me to Friday night services every week when you’re in Arizona. I love going with you!”

She also thanked her father “for supporting me in my faith from the day I was born,” adding, “It means everything to me that you are here today!”

A postscript to the story: Kayla’s sister Mariah, Phil’s daughter from before he met Niki, who was raised Catholic by her mother, became engaged on Dec. 16 — to a Jewish man.