Elaine Kahn is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Jewish News, and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Experts Agree: Be Jewish Grandparents to Interfaith Grandchildren
This article is reprinted with permission of New Jersey Jewish News. Visit www.njjewishnews.com.
Parents of Jews who marry non-Jews often live through a range of emotions, including anger and self-condemnation, before arriving at some degree of acceptance. But when grandchildren enter the picture, even at the hypothetical stage, those old emotions can resurface, along with new issues.
"I will not have Jewish grandchildren"--that's their biggest thought, says Lynne Wolfe, director of Pathways: Outreach to Intermarried Families, a program of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in Whippany. Many grandparents also fear the non-Jewish parent or grandparents will secretly "steal [the grandchild] away to be baptized," which, Wolfe says, does sometimes happen.
For grandparents worried about how to cope personally and how to help keep grandchildren connected to their Jewish roots, authorities contacted by New Jersey Jewish News had one overriding piece of advice: Just be your usual loving grandparental self. No how-to book, film, or on-line resource can substitute for keeping lines of communication and love wide open (although www.InterfaithFamily.com was suggested as a resource more than once). Teach grandchildren by example, by reading to them, by exposing them to Jewish ritual, tradition, and food.
"Judaism is more what we do or what we say," says Wolfe. Reading a grandchild a book about putting up a sukkah is good, but building a sukkah together is even better. First, though, grandparents need permission from the parents, as a sign of respect for one's children and as acknowledgment that they are the ones in charge of the next generation, Wolfe says.
"Family values are very important in Judaism. You have to respect the hierarchy of the nuclear family," agrees Meryl Nadell of Scotch Plains, a clinical social worker specializing in working with intermarried families. [Otherwise] you are creating a horrendous family situation."
Miriam and Maurice Carchman of Springfield credit strong family bonds with helping them all weather the marriages of both their daughters to Catholic men with no plans to convert (their other child, a son, is single). The Carchmans belong to Conservative Temple Beth Ahm in Springfield, keep a kosher home, sent their children to USY and Camp Ramah, and admit their daughters' decisions to intermarry "massively upset" them. But both couples promised to raise any children as Jews; the one couple with children is keeping that promise.
The Carchmans told NJJN they realize too that geography is on their side: The daughter with children, two little boys, lives in Springfield and has joined Beth Ahm.
"I'm not teaching them Judaism; their mother is," Miriam says, stressing also that this daughter's husband doesn't come from an observant family and is actively supportive of his sons' Jewish education and participation in synagogue life.
Although Maurice worries about religious issues that might still surface, he says so far "everything has just worked out so good," largely because his son-in-law is very supportive "and knew the ground rules right from the beginning."
The Carchmans' rabbi, Mark Mallach, says outsiders shouldn't "punish people for choices their children made." With this in mind, he's worked out a way to mark the birth of any congregant's grandchild, Jewish or not. Grandparents hear (or read, in the case of the shul's newsletter) "mazal tov" for Jewish grandchildren, "congratulations" for non-Jews. Although Mallach says he prefers children in an intermarriage be raised as Jews, his second choice, to keep the child from being spiritually lost, is that the child "be churched rather than unchurched."
Miriam Carchman says her other son-in-law's mother, an observant Catholic, would agree, so she understood when told any future grandchildren would be raised as Jews. It's that understanding, Miriam says, which keeps her from fearing possibilities like secret baptisms.
"Jews are not totally blameless in the matter of secret ceremonies," says Jeanette Bergelson of North Brunswick: She knows of grandparents who secretly had their grandchildren named in their synagogues. Bergelson runs New Beginnings, which she describes as the state's only ongoing group for parents and grandparents that deals solely with issues of intermarriage.
The Carchmans' willingness to speak on the record about their children marrying out appears to be rare among affiliated Jews. Many grandparents approached for this article declined to be interviewed.
"After your gender and race, religion is a major self-identifier" so, when a child intermarries, there's an immediate sense of rejection and guilt and "What did I do wrong," says Nadell. Join this to the powerful Jewish mandate of "l'dor v'dor" (from generation to generation) and the result is a desire to keep the intermarriage secret or, minimally, out of the limelight. However,"many secular Jews do not have these feelings."
"Jewish grandparents have to put aside fears that intermarriage means 'losing a child, losing a grandchild,'" Nadell adds, and banish fears that "they'll like the Christian side more; it's more fun, there are more toys." Children learn through their senses, Nadell says, but the answer is not to compete with Christian rituals and holidays or paper over the differences; she finds "very distressing" the "syncretism" of holiday cards mixing Hanukkah and Christmas messages in an attempt to be funny. What's needed is to grapple with the situation, figure out what's worth fighting for, and do it all "with love, or it won't be swallowed, it won't be taken in."
If grandparents project only anger, rejection, and disappointment, "how would your children and grandchildren want to incorporate anything from you," asks Nadell. Grandparents must remember instead that they "will forever be that Jewish grandparent," sharing traditions, "your Jewish love, your knaidlach. The Jewish God is a loving God--we sometimes forget that."