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For the past eight-and-a-half years, I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants. During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time: when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.
Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly and often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.
Dottie is, in every way, the consummate Jewish grandmother. She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.
My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)
It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said, “Of course.” And he said, “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked, “Is she nice?” And he answered, “Very.”
Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was 3, my Rachel was born. Oh, happy day-I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys and now I finally had my little girl!
After Rachel was born, my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be OK with this. My answer was, “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”
When Charlie and Rachel started school, I became very familiar with their school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards, I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it, but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.
When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, “Of course.” It was a wonderful experience for me.
My grandkids are now in high school and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.
My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother-and-Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.
I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other. It’s special.
They are truly the air I breathe.
Some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality than Dottie. In my blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish, I noted that, “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandparents who aren’t Jewish never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course, the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
Ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child. This may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with-this can be all the more difficult for grandparents who didn’t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.