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InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
Readers can contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about interfaith issues. Of course, Wendy will not be able to respond to every question, but she will try to respond to as many as she can and sometimes may combine questions on similar topics and address them in one article. She will use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect people's privacy.
My son is about to get engaged to a woman who comes from a Hindu background. They are discussing what religion to raise their children in, and she said to him that since she isn't Jewish, their children won't be considered Jewish by the Jewish community, so why bother raising them as Jews? I was so upset to hear that, since the Reform and Reconstructionist movements count children Jewish who have a Jewish parent--father or mother--and who is raised as a Jew. What can I do to assure them that won't be an issue? Or will it be?
Dear Prospective Mother-in-law,
You are correct that Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews have embraced a concept known as patrilineal descent. Under traditional Jewish law, a Jew is one who is born to a Jewish mother (matrilineal descent), or who has converted to Judaism. In 1983, the Reform movement broke with Orthodox and Conservative Judaism and declared that any child born of one Jewish parent of either gender, and raised as a Jew, was to be considered a Jew. Although initially quite controversial, this ruling has settled into accepted practice in all Reform Jewish congregations and also in the Reconstructionist community. In addition, the Secular Humanists consider anyone Jewish who wishes to be considered Jewish, and in addition they offer secular conversions.
Your prospective daughter-in-law's skepticism and sense of resignation raises some questions in my mind. First of all, it is possible that she is simply unaware of the concept of patrilineal descent. Depending on the scope of Judaism she has been exposed to, she may only be familiar with traditional Jewish law. Her primary educational source of Judaism--that is to say, your son--may not know about patrilineal descent either! I am often surprised at how many Jews are not aware of this policy.
I also wonder, though, about your prospective daughter-in-law's experience thus far in the Jewish community. Has she been treated as an outsider? Could this be a source of her "why bother" attitude? The fact that she anticipates that her children would be rejected as Jews makes me wonder how accepted she herself has felt so far in the Jewish community.
Where you can help is to direct this couple to a rabbi pronto. They need to know what their options are. A Reform or Reconstructionist or Secular Humanist rabbi can explain what life could look like for this couple if they choose to associate with his or her congregation. These rabbis will be able to point to couples in the congregation comprised of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who are being supported in their efforts to raise Jewish children--and whose children are fully accepted by the congregation. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Secular Humanist movements encourage the participation of the non-Jewish partner in nearly all aspects of Jewish life.
A meeting with a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi will, of course, confirm your prospective daughter-in-law's expectations. Of course, if she were to convert to Judaism, then not only would she be considered fully a Jew but her children would as well. But that isn't required for her children to be considered Jewish in Reform, Reconstructionist or Secular Humanist Judaism.
Education is the key here. The current high rate of intermarriage has presented a challenge to the entire Jewish community. Each of the different streams of Judaism has responded to this challenge in its own way, some by tightening their boundaries, others by loosening them. And, just as each movement of Judaism is grappling with its sense of inclusion, so does each community or congregation have its own degree of openess and welcome. The only way to know whether your Hindu daughter-in-law and her Jewish husband would feel comfortable in a particular Jewish setting (synagogue, JCC, renewal center, etc.) is for them to check it out.
It may also be helpful for your prospective daughter-in-law to do a little reading. Increasingly, there are books and testimonials written by Jews of color, Jews of Asian and Indian descent, adoptive Jewish parents raising kids who don't look like themselves--that poignantly depict their experiences within the American Jewish community--experiences of being Jewish and "different." The archives (http://www.interfaithfamily.com) of this very magazine are filled with lovely stories of mixed marriages that reflect the diversity of today's interfaith population. I would hope that your prospective daughter-in-law could come away with the sense that not only is there much variety within the Jewish community, but also that there is no "standard issue" Jewish family. Should she decide to enter into the mix, to raise Jewish children, her particular background and perspective would only add to the richness of it all. Good luck!