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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
For parents, the welcoming of a newborn is perhaps the most blessed and miraculous time of life. It is also an overwhelming challenge, especially for first-time parents--often only recently emerging from adolescence themselves--who are given the awesome responsibility of raising a child and providing him or her with all that is necessary to carve a secure path in life. It is amazing that childhood itself is a relatively short period of time; but the child needs to develop a foundation for the rest of life. For an interfaith couple this challenge is often even more complicated, even when it is the result of months and even years of negotiation. Hard questions need to be asked and answered and decisions that might routinely be left for later in other families must be tackled early on. It is too easy to suggest that "things will work themselves out" or even "love conquers all."
In our experience the biggest issue is contained in the nature of assumptions that are made. For example, one couple that came to see us had made a decision to raise Jewish children. They had carefully worked out all of the challenges they faced from the time they started dating. All seemed fine until days before the scheduled delivery date--the couple knew that they were expecting a boy--and the Jewish mom wanted to begin to make arrangements for a ritual circumcision, a brit milah. That's when the father, an Episcopalian, became unnerved. When his wife said, "but you agreed to raise a Jewish child," the response came, "but what does circumcision have to do with it?" For most Jews, circumcision for Jewish boys is a given. But Jewish partners can't assume that what they take for granted is a given for their non-Jewish partner.
This is why we suggest that interfaith partners talk everything out--especially with regard to their children, and especially before they have children--talk it out again, and then talk it out once more.
And even after decisions have been made, parents know that the birth of children changes one's entire perspective on life. So much so that even a thoughtful interfaith parent who may have been fully committed to upholding the decision he or she made is suddenly questioning the appropriateness of that decision--much to the chagrin of his or her partner. So at the happiest--and understandably stressful time--things become even more stressful. Some will say that this is all a result of interfaith marriage. And while there may indeed be certain things that will be less challenging in an in-faith marriage, some transitions in life are inherently stressful, regardless of the source of that stress. Having a child is such a transition.
One couple, father and mother. eyes brimming with tears, recently came to my office with a newborn. During the period of time they dated, and during their five years of marriage, they had both agreed: one religion for the raising of children. And while he did not engage Judaism religiously, he clearly identified with the Jewish people. She was fully prepared to leave her Roman Catholic roots behind. That is, until the baby was born--an event that transformed both of their lives. As unsure of herself as she was about her ability to nurture the child, she was even more unsure of her ability to raise the child in a Jewish home. He had given her the responsibility to do so, but he had few tools to help her.
Unfortunately, there are few resources in the Jewish community for non-Jewish parents charged with raising Jewish kids. Our organization is among the few trying to address that, by creating educational and experiential programs just for that population. While our program, which we call the "Mothers' Circle," may not yet be in a community near you, it is clear that segments within the Jewish community are now, slowly, starting to realize how important it is to support the non-Jewish members of Jewish households. If you are struggling with the issues of raising Jewish children it is certainly worth investigating if there is such a local program near you because it's impossible to do it alone, and less effective to make it the responsibility of a non-family member like a teacher. As the community progresses, we hope such programming will become common rather than the exception to the rule.