Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.
Making Your Home a Place Where Your Children's Children Want to Go
Excerpt from 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (and Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin (Torah Aura Productions, 2007).
Model a welcoming attitude toward all.
Abraham had it right--at least, as Jewish tradition and the Bible like to tell it. He left the flaps of his tent open on all sides so that he could see visitors coming from afar, regardless of the direction from which they came. Then he would go out to greet them. When people come to visit us in our homes, we anticipate their visit in various ways. If it is nighttime, we may leave the front light on. Regardless of the time of day, we make sure that there are no obstacles in their path. And we frequently go outside--even in foul weather--to welcome them in, often before they reach our front door. Some friends, referred to as "backdoor friends," feel so much at home that they don't use the front door (considering it too formal) and may even just walk inside without knocking. Once inside, we offer our guests food and drink and make sure that they are comfortable in our homes. We may use our best dishes, reserved only for special guests. Each of us probably has some way of distinguishing how we treat guests and visitors as compared to how we interact with the members of our family or those who live in our homes. When we treat our guests well, they will want to come back and visit often. (Unfortunately, we also know how to treat people when we don't want them to come back and visit.) We can also be assured that our guests will share their experience of our hospitality with others.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, "What does this have to do with making sure that my grandchildren will identify with the Jewish community?" It's actually a rather simple formula. The approach we take for honored guests in our homes (and all guests should be honored according to Jewish tradition) should be extended as a model of welcoming into our synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions as well. For these institutions are extensions of our homes and of ourselves. Likewise, why would your grandchildren want to be part of a community that excludes them, or at least excludes one of their parents? When your grandchildren see that you are indeed welcoming to all, welcoming to both of their parents, and particularly the parent (and his/her family) who is not Jewish, your grandchildren will want to emulate your inviting approach to visitors. In particular, your adult child's non-Jewish partner needs to feel unconditionally welcome. As a result, you will reduce the tension between your adult child and his/her partner. Share well-kept family recipe secrets. Invite them to participate in sports and social activities with you one on one, without your child or grandchildren. Try to be as flexible as you can with your time, and always keep the hypothetical doors to your "tent" open.
For example, Kerry's kids always knew that they could invite their friends for any meal, especially for Shabbat or holidays, without a warning. And once they left for college, they would bring their friends--and their friends' laundry--home for extended periods of time. This is the kind of atmosphere to foster in your home for your grandchildren. Don't make them feel that they have to make extensive arrangements if they want to visit. Be prepared to change your plans on a moment's notice for them. Don't fuss about where they sit, how they are dressed or where they leave their things. This is not the time to teach them those things. Just be happy that they are there, with you.
The same thing goes for your adult children. Unwittingly, when our adult children come to visit, we sometimes regress to the parenting roles that we had when they were young. If they are encouraged to bring their "childhood baggage" back into the house when they visit, such tension will color the interfaith tensions that may simmer under the surface of their visit and can inhibit your ability to nurture your grandchildren and their religious identity.
When this kind of welcoming attitude is also embodied by Jewish institutions, your grandkids will feel included there as well. They will see it as part of the tradition of Jewish community, a community of which they will proudly want to be part. Obviously, you have much more control over expressing a welcoming attitude in your home than in the Jewish institutions to which you may belong. But that's not to say you have no control over those Jewish institutions. Even if you are just a "regular" member, not serving on a board or a committee, you can still make your voice heard. Your opinions matter, and your actions speak even louder. Almost every Jewish institution has one or several members who take it upon themselves to be the most welcoming, most friendly souls for the newcomers who walk through the doors. Even if you are not an outgoing type, if you are a "regular" at an institution and you see a new face, a simple "Hello, how are you, I like it here, I hope you do, too" will go a huge distance in making a newcomer feel welcome. Don't let people sit alone during services or programs or stand alone during receptions.
Whatever the issues are that you might seek to change within a Jewish institution, odds are strong that you are not alone in seeking that change. Sometimes written policies are a barrier, but more often it's the unspoken attitudes that make a Jewish institution less welcoming than it could be. After all, an institution is really only a composite of its membership. And we know that you can find like-minded allies among the other members in your quest to make a beloved institution more welcoming toward your intermarried children and your grandchildren and all intermarried families. Together you can work to create a more welcoming community.