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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.
We used to think that it was easier to be a grandparent than a parent. After all, at the end of the day, grandparents go home--while parents still have to tend to their children all night long. For the grandparents of interfaith grandchildren, it may not be so simple. As a result, we have developed a set of rules, guiding principles for grandparenting.
One: Do as I do
The most effective thing a grandparent can do is to do. In other words, the modeling of behaviors is the most effective form of providing direction and guidance for grandchildren. There is no better way to communicate your own religious identity. This is particularly true when grandparents live close to their grandchildren and grandchildren can actually see grandparents engaged in religious activities. Long-distance grandparents can share family pictures that emphasize engagement in such activities. And if religious identity is important, then focus your vacation time on spending holidays with your grandchildren, rather than on traveling elsewhere.
Two: Create positive memories
Children carry their childhood memories into their own adulthood and strive to repeat positive ones--those that have become anticipated parts of their lives and that help them to feel personal happiness and self-worth. Such memories are indispensable in instilling and nurturing identities. Create the most engaging religious experiences for yourselves and invite your grandchildren to participate in them. For example, don't rush through the Passover seder. Plan it carefully and encourage others to savor the experience.
Three: Don't judge
The route to developing a religious identity for the children of interfaith marriages is circuitous. It is not a straight line from "a" to "b." It is natural for a child to want to explore the religious identity of both parents, regardless of the choices that parents have made for their family or home. This is important to the development of his or her religious identity. So make sure that you don't judge the choices that a child has made along the way. Religious identity is fluid during childhood. Be supportive, encouraging and loving. And never put your grandchildren in that awkward place between you and your own children, or between you and their other set of grandparents.
Four: Communicate Openly
Provide your grandchildren with the opportunity to explore and question religious beliefs. Use their own experiences to spark questions about God and the world around them. Help them to build their knowledge base. (If you don't know the answers to their questions, creatively explore them together.) Be honest and open about your own beliefs and doubts.
Five: Don't use interfaith marriage as a mask for family issues
It's easy to blame the challenges you may have in your relationship with your own children on their decision to marry someone who was not born Jewish. Such an approach takes the burden of responsibility off of you and projects it onto your children. Instead, deal with family issues head on; separate them from interfaith issues. Otherwise, unresolved family issues that have been growing in intensity will emerge in the form of religious conflicts. And that won't be helpful to anyone, and in fact may be hurtful to the youngest and most easily influenced of your family: the grandchildren.
The bottom line
If you respect and love your religious/cultural heritage and spend plenty of quality time with your grandchildren, odds are in your favor that it will rub off onto the grandkids and that they will remember, appreciate, and pass along your family traditions to their grandkids. Don't underestimate the positive impact you as a grandparent can make on the future of your family, and therefore on the future of the whole Jewish people.