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Innovative Program Offers Support to Non-Jewish Moms with Jewish Kids

Reprinted with permission of the JTA. Visit

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif., May 2 (JTA)--For three years, non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in Atlanta have been able to turn to the Mother's Circle, an array of educational programs, family events, rabbinic counseling and drop-in support sponsored by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. The core element of the project is "Building Blocks," an eight-month educational course for non-Jewish mothers that focuses on the practicalities of creating a Jewish home, such as making Shabbat dinner and Havdalah.

Piloted in Atlanta, the project will be launched this fall in 20 other cities. Noting that 65 Atlanta-area women have completed the course, JOI program director Ruth Decalo calls it "a thank you for the incredible sacrifice these women have made." That kind of gratitude, Decalo says, "doesn't come from the Jewish community. They say, 'We'll accept your children, and we'll send them on birthright,' but there's no acknowledgment of them giving up their own heritage."

Mary Litman took part in Building Blocks the first year it was offered. Raised Protestant, she and her Jewish husband agreed while they were dating to raise their future children to be Jewish. But she didn't know how to go about doing that. When she visited her husband's Conservative congregation, she says she felt "uncomfortable," so after her eldest son's brit, they "didn't do anything Jewish" for two years.

Then she saw an ad for Building Blocks.

"At first it was overwhelming, with all the holidays and customs," Litman says. ``But three years later, I feel I've been doing this forever."

The 15 women in Litman's course formed an alumni group in the fall of 2003; it continues to meet monthly to share ideas and feelings.

Decalo says the women who take part in Building Blocks range from practicing Christians to women intending to convert. Afterwards, some families affiliate with a Reform temple, some join a Conservative shul and some send their children to Jewish pre-schools. The Litmans decided to join a Reform congregation. While Litman says she gets "a lot of praise for what I'm doing, I'm rarely asked, 'Isn't this hard for you? How do you feel?' "

Eight years after her marriage, she says she still feels pulled to go to church, especially at Christmas and Easter. She doesn't go, saying "It's difficult to raise children in one faith and go to another," but sometimes feels that she should.

She knows her decision to preserve her birth faith will become even harder as her children get older and she is called upon to participate in more life-cycle events.

"It will be strange to stand up on the bimah at my son's bar mitzvah and pass the Torah to him," she says.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Yiddish for "synagogue."
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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