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Our Experiences: Baltimore's Grandparents Circle

February 11, 2011.

A few years ago, the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore received a grant to start a Grandparents Circle, for people whose children were intermarried and whose grandchildren weren't necessarily being raised Jewish.

The circle lasted one year before funding ran out and it officially ended. But some participants in the circle have stayed in contact and even have lively email "conversations" with grandparents in other cities on how to deal with this delicate situation.

One of them is Suzanne Levin-Lapides, who joined the list-serve of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which funded the circle. JOI started offering Grandparents Circles around the country in 2008. Since then, about one-fourth of the approximately 800 participants have stayed in touch, either on their own or through the list-serve.

The emails are ongoing, Levin-Lapides said, but correspondence swells before each Jewish holiday. Participants are anonymous and from all over the country, giving their exchanges an openness they might not otherwise have.

"We talk about the same things we did in the circle, which is looking for ways to connect with our grandkids. We share experiences, and many of them are similar," she said, despite the geographic differences and individual situations.

In Baltimore, the Grandparents Circle ran for six sessions in 2009. Each session was devoted to a different topic, although the underlying theme was sharing your Jewish heritage with your grandchildren. But – and it's a big but – doing so without offending the adult child and his or her spouse was key.

For many, including Levin-Lapides, this turned out to be easier said than done.

"You feel like you're walking on eggshells," she said of comments she often heard in the circle and now reads in the emails.  "You're fearful of saying anything because you want a relationship with your child and you don't want to cause resentment with the spouse."

One grandmother made that mistake. When her first grandchild, a girl, was born, she pressured her son and daughter-in-law into having a baby-naming ceremony in her synagogue. But it caused a rift whose effects are still being felt.

"It seemed so important at the time," she said of the life-cycle event.

Sandi Gilbert went in the opposite direction. "The circle opened my eyes. Things used to be black-and-white and now they're gray," said Gilbert, whose daughter-in-law is Catholic and whose grandchildren are being raised in that religion.

Gilbert said the circle made her sensitive to how her son's wife must feel among his Jewish relatives. She found herself thinking of ways to make her more comfortable. She discussed the circle with her.

"It eased whatever tension was there," she said.

Gilbert also began putting into practice suggestions that came out of the Grandparents Circle. For the first time, she started lighting Sabbath candles, having Jewish books and games on hand for visiting grandchildren and making her home "more Jewish" by displaying Judaica.

For Gilbert, that wasn't difficult; she collects menorahs. Now, she makes Hanukkah especially festive by pulling a couple of dozen from a cabinet and lighting them all at the same time while her grandchildren play dreidel and eat chocolate gelt.

"Grandparents need to bend," said Gilbert, who, in recent years, has noticed more flexibility in her son's home, too.

In addition to their Christmas tree, they now light a Hanukkah menorah and have a Passover seder. An effort, she believes, to make the children more aware of their father's heritage.

"A lot of the participants got a lot out of the circle," said another grandmother, although it wasn't so for her.  This may be due to her admittedly unique situation. Before their marriage, her son and his non-Jewish wife agreed to have a Jewish home and to raise their children as Jews.

She doesn't deal with the stress and uncertainty others in the group had. Still, she has taken a few steps. She visits her son and his family on the Jewish holidays "to reinforce the celebration," and she makes sure her grandchild has a supply of Jewish material.

"There was nothing [like this] available in his city," said the grandmother, who bought him a gift subscription to The PJ Library, which monthly sends age-appropriate Jewish books and related music, crafts and even recipes.

Levin-Lapides has made changes, too. "You have to step up to the plate and be Jewish at home" is the lesson she learned from the circle. She puts that into action by, for example, making sure the Jewish holiday celebrations she hosts are fun and kid-friendly.

As she and others in the group learned, Jewish holidays are a natural vehicle for creating Jewish memories. Levin-Lapides knows members of the circle who, raised in a liberal tradition, bone up on the holiday so they can have a meaningful discussion with their grandchildren.

Levin-Lapides has also drawn a line. One year, when her son asked to have the Passover seder on the weekend before the actual date, a more convenient time, she refused.

"It doesn't work that way," she told him. "Otherwise, it isn't Passover. It's just a nice meal."

Sharon Seigel is director of parenting services and outreach at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, the federation agency that hosted the Grandparents Circle. She believes that the 20 participants – all women except for one man who came with his wife – left with a positive attitude, judging by the comments they made afterwards.

"The idea came across to start small with Jewish things and not to push too hard," Seigel said of suggestions like involving the grandchildren in holiday preparations, sharing family stories and taking them to Jewish events. Seigel is accustomed to seeing interfaith families at JCC programs, considered a more "neutral" setting than the congregations.

Although the Grandparents Circle only ran for one year, it made such an impression that Seigel is still getting inquiries about it.

"I have the names of several people who would love to have it offered again," she said.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Barbara Pash

Barbara Pash is the Associate Editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, and has won numerous awards for her writing locally, regionally and nationally. Most recently, she won Best in Show in the 2007 Maryland-Delaware-Washington, D.C. Press Association for an article about the dilemma rabbis face in performing interfaith marriage ceremonies and the impact interfaith families are having on the American Jewish community.

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