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For the past eight-and-a-half years, Iâ€™ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). Itâ€™s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants.Â During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time:Â 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 â€“ she didnâ€™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 â€śBubba.â€ť Though sheâ€™s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottieâ€™s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottieâ€™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, â€śOf course.â€ť And he said, â€śMom, sheâ€™s not Jewish.â€ť I asked, â€śIs she nice?â€ť And he answered, â€śVery.â€ť
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-Iâ€™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, â€śAre you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.â€ť
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 Charlieâ€™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 dadâ€™s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if Iâ€™d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, â€śOf course.â€ť 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. Thereâ€™s a new â€śBubbieâ€ť in Mrs. Yerkesâ€™ 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 â€śblended family.â€ť We learn from each other. Itâ€™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 Â blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who arenâ€™t themselves Jewish, I noted that, â€śUnlike 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 arenâ€™t Jewish never had a choiceâ€”theyâ€™re bound by their childrenâ€™s decisions.â€ť 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 childâ€™s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
Ultimately, itâ€™s a parentâ€™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 â€śpushingâ€ť Judaism on their child. Â ThisÂ may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isnâ€™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 didnâ€™t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than â€śthe air I breathe.â€ť
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are spending more and more time with parents of adult children who are intermarrying and grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in interfaith homes. The question I hear from them is often about how they can share their own love of Judaism and the family heritage and traditions with their grandchildren. We talk about the relationship with their adult children, honoring the decisions they have made and being in respectful dialogue about that. We speak about how grandchildren learn through osmosis the Jewish values grandparents live and breathe and will enjoy learning family recipes, participating in holiday celebrations and hearing the stories of their family.
The goal isnâ€™t toÂ makeÂ grandchildren Jewish unless thatâ€™s a shared goal with their parents. The goal is to love, accept, learn from, honor and celebrate this child for who they are and to show pride in who you are and how you became who you are. Will this lead to Jewish continuity? Thatâ€™s in the stars. Youâ€™ve got your relationship with your children and grandchildren now. If there is bonding and togetherness and warm memories and sharing of values, not only will these young souls flourish but those who come into their circles will be enriched. If there is positivity and connectedness associated with Judaism, itâ€™s all good.
My question to you, Chicago area grandparents: What are you doingÂ June 19-21? Are your grandchildren done with school and not yet in camp? Take the plunge and try a special weekend away with them at the JCC’s Grandparents Weekend. The weekend is filled with programming that will engage children 4-12 years old in fun and meaningful activities. There is plenty of time for running around, enjoying the beautiful retreat center, playing games within the structure of the weekend, and also free time downtown when the magic of even more grandparent-grandchildren bonding happens.
Here are words from grandparents Barb and Denny Kessler who have participated in this JCC retreat for many years and have found it to be deeply worthwhile:
In a few months we will be returning to the Lâ€™Dor Va-Dor Grandparents & Grandkids program at Camp Chi for our 8th year!!! The opportunity to be with our grandkids for a weekendâ€”without their parentsâ€”in a Jewish/camping setting has been our great pleasure. We take two of our seven grandkids each year for a truly fun and meaningful weekend together. The kids hear about it from their older sibs and cousins and canâ€™t wait to be old enough to go. We have found this to be a unique way to deepen our relationship with our grandkids. Several of our grandkids are from an interfaith home and spending a weekend at Camp Chi has been a wonderful way to have them be part of a Jewish community, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish traditions as a family and interact with other Jewish kids. We usually take two cousins, rather than siblings, because our grandkids are from different cities and they love being together. At the end of the weekend we make a photo album for each of the kids, write about the weekend and give it to them so they remember our special weekend together. They all treasure their albums and even many years later talk about our weekends together at grandparentâ€™s camp.
This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.
Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.
However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.
What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.
My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)
If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.
Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? Are you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!
I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!
But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?
I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.
What would you like to add to this list?