Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Reaching Out to Interfaith Children
Reprinted from The Jewish Week with permission of the author. Special to The Jewish Week. Visit thejewishweek.com.
March 31, 2006
One of the most well-known sections of the Passover Haggadah tells the story of the four children. One is wise, we are told, one is wicked, one is simple, and one is so ignorant he does not even know what to ask. This fourth child is not described as dull or unwilling to learn. He is not intellectually challenged. He is simply uneducated--generally, we assume, either because he is he is too young or because he has rejected a Jewish education--or perhaps because his parents have rejected it for him.
Studies show that large numbers of parents in intermarried households do not provide Jewish education for their children. Some do not want it; some actively choose to bring up their children in other religions or with no religion. Some reject it because they do not value it. Some reject it because they fear that such an education could cause conflict within the family, and they fear that teachers will not be sensitive to their life choices or the realities of their family life. Others may not enroll their children in Jewish studies out of ambivalence or even because no one has asked them to do so urgently enough.
And some children with one Jewish parent are denied a Jewish education because they are not Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law. Halacha mandates that a person must either be born to a Jewish mother or convert to be considered a Jew. Therefore the Conservative and Orthodox movements understand that a child whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not must be converted to be recognized as Jewish by the entire Jewish community.
In some ways this is a bitter paradox. The more people know about Jewish life, learning, values and history, the more likely they are to choose to convert. The greater their exposure, the more powerfully they will feel pulled toward living a Jewish life. Yet the children of Jewish fathers who live in Jewish households are frequently denied the opportunity to learn more about Judaism because most day schools and congregational schools associated with the Conservative and Orthodox movements will not accept them. Those institutions are open only to students who already are Jewish according to Jewish law.
Recently the Conservative movement inaugurated Edud, an initiative to reach out to intermarried families. An important part of this initiative is a passionate engagement between those of us already living committed Jewish lives and the children of the intermarried. That, we hope, will increase the chance that those children eventually will choose to identify as Jews.
The Edud document, Al Ha-Derekh, calls for bold campaigns to motivate intermarried adults to provide both formal and informal Jewish education for their children. Parents of preteens should be encouraged to send their children to synagogue youth programs. Children born to non-Jewish mothers must be converted before they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah. In order to welcome these children, we call upon congregational and day schools to develop policies that promote the Jewish education of the children of intermarried couples.
Special approaches and focused energy often will be required if a Jewish educational experience is to be meaningful. The Jewish education that we offer must extend beyond the classroom. It must include informal experiences and personal influences that may compensate for the reality that one loved and admired parent is not Jewish. Because one of a child's parents and many close relatives are not Jewish, that child may be exposed to mixed messages and conflicting influences. We should not ignore or dismiss that truth. Instead we must provide those children with the best teachers, the most passionate models and the most inspirational experiences that our institutions have available.
If this new strategy is to be effective, synagogue and school leaders must devote special energy to parents. Creative approaches are required to help transform parents into partners in their children's education. Special attention to these parents' unique needs and concerns will be required. Enrichment programs in a non-threatening environment can enhance the educational process. And if we are sensitive, as well as honest and straightforward, as we tell the parents of children who are not halachically Jewish that eventually their children must be converted, we will spare both parents and children much anguish and hostility later.
The second child in the Haggadah is considered the rasha, the wicked one, because he has excluded himself from the Jewish community. If we are not careful, we might find that many of the children born to today's Jews define themselves as that wicked child--but we know that they are more like the one who did not even know what to ask. Those children will exclude themselves from our community if we do not teach them enough so that they can begin to ask their own questions.
We must not let that happen. Instead let us reach out, and through our Edud initiative let us inspire those who without our help would remain uneducated and outside the community of Jews.