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I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.
It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?
With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.
My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, â€śRaising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,â€ť to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.
The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether theyâ€™d had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a â€śYes, weâ€™ve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.â€ť
We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noahâ€™s ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.
I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own familyâ€™s celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular schoolâ€™s curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.
In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:
What special days do you celebrate in your family?
This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.
By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. Heâ€™s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each otherâ€™s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. Iâ€™ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.
Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadnâ€™t seen her in a year or soâ€”her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughterâ€™s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, â€śIs she seeing anyone special?â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, â€śBut is he Jewish?â€ť
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditionsâ€”bâ€™nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.
â€śNo,â€ť I said, feeling uncomfortable.
â€śThatâ€™s OK,â€ť she said, â€śsince heâ€™s a great guy.â€ť
I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, Iâ€™ve been getting this question from Jewish friendsâ€”even if they had married someone of another faith or donâ€™t care about being Jewish personallyâ€”for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouthsâ€”before â€śDo you like him?â€ť or â€śWhat does he do for a living?â€ť or even, â€śHow do you feel about him living in England?â€ť
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give meâ€”as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.
So Iâ€™ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe moreâ€”am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? Iâ€™m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.
My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday partyâ€”and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.
So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girlsâ€™ hearts. We think we were successful.
But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.
And people are questioning her choice.
And they are making me uncomfortable.
And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.
And thatâ€™s not all I care about, but I get it.
And I wish they would stop asking.
Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslimâ€¦I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.
Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.
But when these people keep asking, first thing, â€śIs he Jewish?â€ť I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didnâ€™t.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.