Rena Mello lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband Eric and their one-year-old son Evan. She has worked in the field of education for over ten years and is currently an international admissions officer at a local university.
A Mother's Ongoing Struggle with the Issue of Acceptance
Something has happened to me in the past four years that has been transformational, in ways I never expected. I have become a mother to two children, and I can honestly say I was not at all prepared for the changes that would take place within myself.
From the moment my son was born, I became a more selfless person. My existence is now inextricably woven with the lives of my two children and my husband. The love I feel for them is more intense and unconditional than I could have ever imagined.
My relationship to my husband has been strengthened by our new roles as parents. Luckily, our decision to raise our children Jewish was solidified before our marriage. Now that our eldest, Evan, is preschool age, we have made some choices that are already beginning to shape his Jewish identity.
We enrolled him in a Jewish preschool where Judaica is a significant part of the curriculum and where most of his classmates are also Jewish. As a result, and to our surprise, he has already begun to form a Jewish identity--and he is proud of it. When our daughter Hannah was born seven months ago, we had a baby naming for her in our home, as we had done for Evan three years prior, and thus welcomed her to the Jewish faith.
Evan and Hannah celebrate only Jewish holidays throughout the year, and we have Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner every Friday in our home. We still go to my parents for a Christmas celebration, but we do not have a tree or any other symbols of Christmas in our home come December. We feel and act like a Jewish family and this is what we wanted for our children--to raise them with the warm comfort of knowing what religion they follow.
My son, however, challenged me one day this winter with a typical three year old series of questions: "Mom, I am Jewish so I celebrate Hanukkah, and Jake (my sister's son) is Christian so he celebrates Christmas." "Yes, that's right honey," I say. "Mom, is Dad Jewish?" "Yes." "Is Hannah Jewish?" "Yes." "Mom, are you Jewish"? "No, sweetie, Mom is not Jewish, but I choose to raise you and Hannah in the Jewish religion because I like it." Evan then exclaimed in a sincere yet urgent tone, "But Mom, I want you to be Jewish too!"
This may seem like an innocent conversation, but in more ways than one it made me stop and think. I was not expecting my child to set me on a path of profound postulating about my own choices and the broader issues that we face in the larger Jewish community, but he did. I always say that I learn something new every day being a mother, and on this particular day my preschooler really got me thinking about the issue of acceptance. If my children grow up to have strong Jewish identities and I am not Jewish, will this in any way isolate me from their experiences?
Before I had kids, I truly believed that conversion would be a choice I would make only for myself, when if after many years of raising my children as Jewish, I felt so closely connected with the faith that conversion would seem like a organic progression of events for me. But, I am now wondering if this decision of mine may be accelerated and influenced by the two little beings sleeping in bed right now as I write this article.
Becoming a mother and wanting our family to be a unified safe haven in the world has changed my priorities. If becoming Jewish would make my kids happy and would bring me closer to feeling the connections they experience with Judaism, perhaps it is a road I should consider. I also wonder how I will be accepted by the larger Jewish community as an active parent in religious school or in a synagogue if I am not Jewish-by-choice. I have felt like an outsider in certain communities that are not open to intermarriage, as much as I have felt welcomed by the places that are supportive of families like us.
However, as with many of life's important questions, there is always another point of view to consider before making any decisions. I wonder, why can't I remain as I am, a dedicated "Jewish" mother and an individual who believes in the Unitarian tradition of the validity and relevance of many different faiths. It hurts me and my husband that some Jewish congregations will not accept me as a member worthy of being on the board or standing on the bimah (podium) at my kids Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
And, even more disturbing to us, is the belief some hold that my children are not truly Jewish because I am not. This frustration makes me want to work harder to raise awareness of the choices we have made as a family and to teach my children that they can be Jewish even though their mother has chosen not to formally convert. I want them to grow up knowing that families like us are accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish religious life.
After some thought and deliberation, I am now at a crossroads. What I believed to be true about my inner convictions and religious identity is not so stable anymore. Thanks to my three year old, I am now considering some other options, or at least thinking about them.