We Need to Acknowledge the Losses Parents Who are Not Jewish Feel When Committing to Raise their Children as Jews

I recently spoke with a couple that I’ve known for a while. The husband (I’ll call him Ben; not his real name) is Jewish and the wife (I’ll call her Rachel; also not her real name) is Lutheran. They are very excited because Rachel is pregnant with their first child. They both grew up in religious households, and each of them take their religion very seriously. They had agreed before they were married that while they would each continue to practice their own religion, they would raise their children in only one religion, but had not decided which one. Not long after Rachel became pregnant with their first child, they together decided that while Rachel would continue to attend her church and practice her religion, they would have a Jewish family and raise their children as Jews.

As a person who values Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and continuity greatly, I was thrilled to hear that Ben and Rachel had decided to raise their children as Jews. I know many families in which mothers who are not Jewish are raising Jewish children while continuing to practice a different religion and finding this to work very well for themselves and their families. I see Ben and Rachel’s decision to raise their children as Jews as a testament to the fact that they were married by a rabbi who was open and understanding as well as to the fact that the Jewish community has become increasingly welcoming to interfaith couples and families. In addition, Ben’s family accepted Rachel from the very beginning, embracing her and welcoming her into their family.

I was very happy when Ben and Rachel shared their decision with me. A Jewish family! As a rabbi and as someone who advocates for inclusion of interfaith families in the Jewish community and works to encourage interfaith families to embrace Judaism—and as a Jewish person who greatly values the beliefs, values and traditions of my religion and who knows how wonderful and meaningful it is to be part of a Jewish family and the Jewish community—I was thrilled, both for Ben and Rachel, as well as for the Jewish community as a whole.

Parent and child

It's important to acknowledge how difficult this decision may be for the partner who is not Jewish

But I also felt a pang of sadness. I realized all that Rachel was giving up. I thought of how meaningful it is for me to say the Shabbat blessings with my children every Friday evening before dinner and how it connects me to saying those very same blessings with my parents on Friday evenings when I was growing up. I thought of how much I enjoy saying the Shema with my kids before they go to bed—just as I said the Shema with my parents before going to bed when I was a child. I love sharing MY rituals and MY beliefs with my children, as I pass them on l’dor va-dor, “from generation to generation” and they become OUR way of life.

Rachel, who has committed to raising her children in a religion different from the one in which she grew up, will be able to pass on her values to her children, but she won’t have the opportunity to pass on her beliefs and traditions—to share with them the religious rituals she enjoyed as a child and continues to find meaningful today. She won’t have the opportunity to raise her children in the church in which she grew up. When her kids celebrate Christmas and Easter with her, they won’t be THEIR holidays, they will be HER holidays. In committing to pass on Judaism, her husband’s religion, to the next generation, Rachel is giving up the opportunity to pass on her own religion from one generation to the next.

Rachel spoke of the sense of loss that she feels in having decided not to raise her children in the religion in which she grew up and which she still practices. She further spoke of how this loss isn’t felt just by her, but by her family as well. But she also spoke of how she has come to embrace her decision to raise her children as Jews, and how she is excited that she will be able to fully participate in her family’s Jewish celebrations and observances, while still having a religious life of her own. She knows that this is the right choice for her family—and for her…but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy.

Rachel and Ben have made a big decision. They are excited to have reached this decision and Rachel is happy with it. But she doesn’t deny the loss she feels, and neither does Ben. I am optimistic that as their children grow up they will both feel good about their decision to have a Jewish family and that Ben will continue to be supportive of Rachel in acknowledging that it may not always be easy for her. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. I know first-hand the joy and rewards of raising Jewish children and I am excited for Ben and Rachel that they will know them as well.

I think it’s important for all of us in the Jewish community, when we celebrate a couple’s decision to raise their children as Jews, to acknowledge how difficult this may be for the partner who is not Jewish. Yes, we can (and we should) be excited that Judaism will be passed on to the next generation and that the children will be blessed to grow up as Jews and that the Jewish community will be blessed to have them in our midst. But we can’t pretend that this will always be easy for the partner who isn’t Jewish and we need to give them the opportunity to feel and express their loss as we respect the sacrifices they have made.

Are you raising your children in a religion different from the religion which you grew up? Has this been difficult for you? What are the greatest challenges? What are the rewards? Respond in the comments section below.

How to Be Inclusive

Torah scrollA few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my son’s torah reading. They both said no.

At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.

An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?

The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?

Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.

Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.

I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.

While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?”  My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.

How to Be at Home in the Minority

Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.

The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”

You can read her blog post here.

Belt It Out!

In my head I am an opera singer. When I sing in the shower, it sounds so good. Yet when I sing out loud, I quickly realize that I am not in tune and even my 4-year-old now tells me so! He attends the JCC Appachi Village Day Camp.

He comes home every Friday singing Shabbat music. He learns it by hearing it each week and it sticks. He does not get every word right, but he gets most of it. He loves the melodies, he loves the energy of the song leaders, he loves the music. He knows it is for Shabbat and that it goes with challah and grape juice. He knows it is a special part of the week and part of being Jewish. He sings Shabbat songs in the bathtub and the car. It tickles me that he and my older daughter sing Jewish music with pride and joy. Here’s a short video of him singing:

I was recently meeting with an interfaith couple who have adult children. The wife, who had supported her children learning about and celebrating aspects of Judaism, shared that Hebrew has always been a hurdle for her in Jewish participation. She asked why we haven’t removed more Hebrew from synagogue services like Latin in a Catholic Mass. Why don’t we encourage people to say the prayers in English at home? This way parents and kids would understand what they are saying and it would have more meaning. The thought of “doing” Jewish would be less intimidating and more accessible.

I really struggle with how much Hebrew should be in a service, how to teach people to read and say the prayers, how to teach meaning, how to transmit a reverence for this LIVING language with ancient roots and how to understand the values inherent in the Hebrew language itself. For instance, if we know that the root of kavod (respect) is the word for heavy, then we learn something about the Jewish understanding of the concept of respect. If we know that the root of shalom (peace) is wholeness, then we know more about the meaning of peace within Jewish tradition.

My son can’t translate mah yafe hayom (How lovely today is. Shabbat Shalom). He has no idea what the Hebrew words mean. Yet, he knows the words connect him to his friends at camp. He knows the words are special. If adults could approach Hebrew in this way, maybe it would be more poetic and less literal. Meaning is always good and something we should strive for. But Hebrew, in prayer and song, goes beyond grammar and translation and enters the realm of the sacred just by the sound and rhythm and feelings it can imbue and conjure up. Has this ever happened to you: that you memorized the Hebrew to a prayer or song and it felt good in some way to repeat it and sing it?

The Challenge of a Jewish Education – A Plea to Educators

I am a day school kid. I didn’t like learning Hebrew much but I didn’t like school much either. I have some anxious  memories of Hebrew verb conjugation from second grade in the 1970s. Through Jewish camps and youth groups, I learned to love Jewish music. I have since recovered from day school and have picked the parts of Judaism that I like and find that I am quite happy.

When it came time to think about a Jewish education for my own kids, I had some flashbacks. But I also have some fun memories. We would have lively gatherings of the Jewish kids in the community for various holidays. Later we had youth group activities and fun parties. I enjoyed being with the kids that I had known forever. I have many memories associated with Judaism that are not necessarily religious. I attended a leadership program in high school and much of it was just fun—the focus was not on religion but being a good person.

My husband and I have struggled with what to do for our own kids’education. We considered day school. We considered camp. We joined a synagogue with a reputable Hebrew school. We decided to enroll them in a Jewish camp. We celebrate the holidays—decorating a sukkah is a favorite for the kids (but tons of work for me and my husband). Everyone has their own path and we are navigating our way so that our kids enjoy Judaism.

I have spoken with many people who have had a Jewish education. They often say they hated Hebrew school or day school. Still, many of them enroll their children in Jewish schools. Though some Hebrew schools have made a great effort to ensure that the new generation of students have positive experiences, it makes me so sad that some Hebrew schools have turned people off to the joys of being Jewish.

So, for the future of the Jewish people, I encourage educators to make sure that kids are engaged in the Hebrew school experience. A fun Purim spiel can be entertaining for the whole family. Spirited music, cooking classes and dressing up in costume for holidays are all wonderful ideas. Let’s encourage creative and fun ways to learn Hebrew. Decorate the sukkah and learn prayers with joy instead of dread.

Religious schools must bring Judaism into the 21st century in dynamic and fun ways. The educational system of the 1950s will not ensure the future of Judaism—indeed, it can be detrimental. Many parents complain that their child seems to be a round peg and the Jewish educational system is trying to force the child into a square hole. A lackluster Jewish education will adversely affect the future of Judaism. Teachers and schools must adapt to the families of today, whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, interfaith, etc. Sensitivity to the families and kids is key. Accept families and kids where they are and help them on their own journey. Welcoming kids in the door and keeping them there with a smile on their face is crucial. The entire family should feel welcomed and engaged. Hebrew school should not be torture—there are so many positive aspects of Judaism and it’s time to break the cycle.

Do you have a suggestion of something that your kids loved at their Hebrew School? Please post it in the comments below. Sharing your positive experiences is a great benefit to everyone.

Accessing Judaism

I recently attended the confirmation ceremony at a local congregation in the Bay Area. During the ceremony the students led the congregation in services, chanted the Ten Commandments from the Torah, and shared words of wisdom that they learned during their studies with the rabbi.

One student shared his understanding of (Progressive/Reform) Judaism. He explained, “Judaism is different than most other religions. There are two different aspects of it: The first are the traditional aspects, the praying and the beliefs; the second are the Jewish teachings and participation in the Jewish community. Although Judaism is based on a belief in one God, not all Jews actually believe in God. Those who believe in God tend to connect to Judaism through prayer and belief. Others are agnostic; they do not believe in God. They tend to connect to Judaism mostly through Jewish community and culture.”

Judaism has room for those who believe in God, those who do not and those who struggle with their relationship with God. The ability to connect to Judaism either through belief or through community and culture allows for partners and spouses of Jews to fully participate in Jewish life, without converting to Judaism.

The beauty of Judaism is that each individual can find his/her own connection. They can decide what feels right and what their practice will include. For example, some Jews say the Shema every night before going to sleep. Others do not. Similarly, some parents who are not Jewish, but who have committed to raising their children with Judaism, say the Shema with their child every night (while others do not).

There are many options for your practice of Judaism. If you are a parent, check out our booklets, specifically “Good Night Sleep Tight,” if you’re interested in saying the Shema or other bedtime rituals. You may also be interested in our next Raising a Child with Judaism class for more ideas that you can incorporate into your family life. You may also find inspiration from others in our articles about growing up in an interfaith family.

Whether you connect through belief and prayer or community and culture, we welcome you!

What Chelsea Clinton Loves about Judaism

There is a great short podcast on the Jewish United Fund’s website with an interview of Chelsea Clinton, who spoke at the Women’s Division Spring Event 2013. Cindy Sher, the terrific editor of the JUF News, makes a great initial comment: “you became a member of the extended Jewish family when you married your husband Marc, so welcome to the Tribe.” (We had a lot to say about Clinton’s wedding back in August 2010.) She then asks Chelsea “what are a couple of things you love most about Jewish religion or Jewish culture.” Chelsea’s answer highlights how important Marc’s Judaism is to him, and says she loves how “he’s so dedicated to ensuring that we start developing our own Seder traditions for Passover… so he feels like we ironed out all of the crinks before we are blessed to have children.” It will be fascinating to watch this couple’s engagement with Jewish life and community as it develops in the future.

The Blessing of the Parents

I attended an informative and provocative session at Limmud Philly. This conference is held in several major cities and is a usually a day or weekend of Jewish learning. The learning includes philosophy, prayer, entertainment and socializing. It is quite an event for those that like to think Jewish!

I attended a session entitled “We Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.” The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamily’s own Benjamin Maron. Benjamin did a great deal of research regarding different synagogues and their policies regarding interfaith involvement.

I was fascinated by the discussion of prayers and who is allowed to say what from the bimah. Frequently synagogues limit the participation of the parent who is not Jewish. We discussed that the reason that some synagogues don’t want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is that the translation of the prayers are things like: “Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot” and “Who has chosen us.” The word “us” refers to the Jewish people, therefore, someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t allowed to participate.

I understand the principle of this – Jews have been through a lot. Our ancestors have been persecuted in our efforts to practice our religion and we have worked hard to educate ourselves. Those that have had a bar or bat mitzvah know that there is a lot of work and education going into this process. We feel the need to hold fast to our religion. Will someone who isn’t practicing Judaism threaten my Judaism by saying a prayer?

The children of many of my friends are becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I am familiar with the frequent scene of the parents and grandparents surrounding their young teenager, beaming with pride. I was thinking about this further. I know many families where the spouse does not practice Judaism but has agreed to raise the kids in Judaism. How do they feel during the blessings? Do they feel included, awkward, proud? Maybe a mixture of feelings and emotions? If there were a blessing from the parent who wasn’t Jewish, what would that look like? Would it be sacrilege to bless your child in their arrival in their Jewish adulthood?

As a Jew, I want anyone standing on the bimah during a simcha to feel joy! I don’t want anyone to feel excluded or simply tolerated. I want them to feel WELCOME! So now, I look at this from another perspective: the parent who is not Jewish, standing in front of the Jewish community, blessing this event is equivalent to saying, “I was not raised Jewish, but I am proud, thrilled, and elated that my child is entering into Jewish adulthood. I fully support this choice and my child.” To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their child’s Jewish journey – how great is that!?

Do I feel threatened that someone who isn’t practicing Judaism is saying a prayer and including themselves in the Jewish community? Not at all. In fact, I am elated that this parent is allowing and encouraging their child to be Jewish! While I know some of the movements are having trouble “moving” forward toward adapting to interfaith issues within our American society, it is critical that they work to keep those that want to be Jewish.

I will be attending two bar/bat mitzvahs this weekend, and I know that I will be thrilled to witness each child stepping into the role of being a Jewish adult. I love Judaism and am delighted to see someone make the choice to practice Judaism. I think that their parents should be allowed to bless their child’s arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, L’chaim and WELCOME!

A High, a Low, and a Mitzvah

"...not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day."

We are currently in week 5 of our Philadelphia-based online class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. This week’s focus was “doing good” through mitzvot. In Hebrew, “mitzvah” means “commandment” but is also commonly understood to mean a good deed. Like most people, I want my children to care about others and take action to make the world a better place — to do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah, commandments or good deeds). I try to teach by example and provide them with opportunities that make a difference for others.

Still, in our busy lives, I don’t always feel that we make it as much of a priority as it should be. This week, I was inspired by a simple message our facilitator, Tami Astorino, sent out to the class at the beginning of the week. Here is part of what she wrote:

This week, “Inspiring Our Children To Do Mitzvot” probably speaks to everyone. We all want a way to inspire our children, at any age, to be good people and live their lives with a moral compass.

A dinner ritual I learned when my kids were in preschool we STILL enjoy doing with our kids (now ages 9 and 11). At dinner we often share three things about our day, “a high, a low, and a mitzvah.” Each person at the table takes a turn sharing:

  • something about their day that brought them happiness or satisfaction (the high)
  • something that made them mad, sad or disappointed (the low)
  • something they did to help others, make the world better, show kindness or compassion, etc. (the mitzvah)

Though I am not officially enrolled in the class, I have been following along and reading the class materials and discussion posts. As Tami predicted, this week’s theme did speak to me and I wanted to do something about it. As I was driving my children (ages 8 and 11) to their afternoon activity that day, I told them about Tami’s family ritual and asked them about trying it in our own home. My youngest was eager to get started, my oldest was a bit skeptical. I told my oldest he could have a ‘bye’ for the first night and see how he felt after hearing everyone else. The second night, he shared with no hesitation. We have now adopted this as a ritual in our own home.

We’ve only been doing it for a short time, but I can already see an impact. I have noticed that we are all sharing more with one another and making an effort to really listen. The highs and lows have been great conversation starters and the mitzvah discussions have made us all more mindful of trying to do good for others daily.

This weekend, my family is participating in a program called Stop Hunger Now. Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief organization that coordinates the distribution of food and other life-saving aid around the world. We will be joining with families from our synagogue and another local synagogue to pack dehydrated, high protein, and highly nutritious meals that will be used to help feed people in developing countries around the world. We have done this project in the past, but I am hoping that this year it will be even more meaningful because it is not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day.

If thinking about a high, a low, and a mitzvah gives you ideas for your family, consider enrolling in our next online session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family (currently offered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago). For just 20 minutes a week, you will be inspired!

Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!