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Learning, Living, Community: Interfaith Families Connect to Jewish Day Schools

Nancy Shaich of Brookline, Mass., grew up "very Catholic," with six siblings and a powerful faith in God. "So raising our children with God and strong values is very important to me," says Shaich.

That, coupled with the fact that it's equally important to her husband Ron that their children be raised as Jews, soon found Shaich the proud mom of a Jewish day school student. "I'd never considered a day school and I'd certainly never heard of Rashi," she says now. But, when she began searching for the perfect setting for son Michael's kindergarten experience, she decided to check out the Reform day school. After visiting the school over a three-year period--beginning when her son was just three--"the more I saw, the more I was impressed with the teachers and with what I saw going on in the classrooms." "There was something nurturing and wonderful about the school," she recalls. Not only was everyone "warm and welcoming," but there was always something interesting going on in the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, exuding a creativity that, as an educator, she applauded.

And, rather than feeling alienated, Shaich found the Jewish curriculum "different from the religious education I had growing up, and in a good way. I had learned more out of fear than curiosity and that was not what I wanted for my children. At Rashi they made being Jewish real for the children, adding values and meaning to their daily life."

But last fall, when Michael entered Rashi's kindergarten, though Shaich knew he would thrive there, she admits to having been a little concerned about her own adjustment as a Rashi mom. "I wasn't sure how comfortable I'd feel, but we lucked out, making close friendships with several of the couples we've met there." Much of that initial attraction, she realizes, "began with the values we share in terms of how we're going to raise our children."

Now Shaich helps out in the classroom with holiday celebrations and is active in the school's parent group. "There's a strong sense of community feeling at Rashi," she says. "Now, when my parents ask if I feel comfortable there, I say, "Absolutely. Never for one moment have I felt less than 100-percent welcome."

Indeed, families like the Shaichs--and schools like Rashi--are at the forefront of a trend: interfaith families choosing Jewish day schools for their children. And it's one observers feel is primed to explode over the next ten years.

"Thinking in the Jewish community is beginning to acknowledge the potential day schools hold as powerful portals into living a rich and engaged Jewish life," says Rabbi Josh Elkin, who heads Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a national day school advocacy group based in Boston.

Until recently, day schools were mostly for the Orthodox, he says. "Now they're rightly being seen as a gateway institution for families wherever they are on their Jewish journeys." Many a family--whether in-married or inter-married--"comes to day school on the education piece around a commitment to getting their children a first-rate education in a secure, loving, values-centered environment, even when they might not be ready to come in on the worship piece."

But soon many of these families find themselves drawing closer to the whole of Jewish life, says Elkin--including "a noticeable uptick" in synagogue membership. "As the number of interfaith families increases more and more rapidly," he adds, "they represent a moving target, a challenging opportunity for the community to reach out and pull them closer."

That's exactly what Arnee Winshall, founding chair of JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, had in mind. "In America we no longer view ourselves--nor are we seen--as the 'other,' and the result is intermarriage," said Winshall, who's also Vice-chair of JESNA and Chair of Early Childhood Education at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. "Yet when the Jewish partner says, 'Judaism is important to me, our children need a Jewish family and life,' and the non-Jewish partner agrees, we have to make room for that family in our school, without watering down our Judaism."

Policies differ

Still, PEJE's Elkin admits, the situation is anything but simple. "It can be fraught with complexity. Especially if the mother's not Jewish and the child hasn't converted, it's been an issue."

At Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston in Newton, Director of Admissions Elaine Paisner says her school's policy follows national Schechter standards: the child must be Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law--which can mean that either mom converted prior to the birth or the child has been converted. The exception: the child can enroll with a one-year grace period while plans for conversion are underway, (most common in cases of adoption or when a conversion process has already begun.)

Initially a prospective family meets with staff to explore the options and engage in an open dialogue. In Paisner's experience, the non-Jewish parent is most often the dad--"That's definitely the more common scenario," she says. But, regardless, the families who do take the plunge are the ones most committed to "a stimulating education that goes hand-in-hand with a values-laden Jewish curriculum," she adds.

At Maimonides, the K-12 Orthodox day school in Brookline, the child needs to be Jewish. Period. Interfaith families who inquire--and administrator Mike Rosenberg concedes there have been few--will be told that. As to the kind of conversion recognized, that's a question best addressed in a private interview, he says.

At the other end of the spectrum is JCDS where Helen Quint, Director of Admissions and Community Outreach, says the policy is to consider enrolling any child "whose family wishes to raise that child with a strong Jewish identity." Hers is an "intentionally pluralistic school with a wide range of beliefs and practices represented by its families in both Jewish and interfaith households," she adds. "A culture of respect for differences prevails."

For Quint, that boils down to the position that "children of interfaith families should have equal opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage, with as much depth and the same degree of seriousness as children with two Jewish parents."

Rashi School also encourages interfaith families such as Shaich's to find themselves a home there. "It gives the kids--and the parents--a Jewish community," says Head of School Rabbi Joe Eiduson. Rashi's policy: They ask one parent to be Jewish, or in the process of converting, and they follow the Reform principle that considers a child with one Jewish parent--regardless of gender--Jewish, as long as s/he is given a Jewish home, complete with education. "And our prevailing attitude is: if they enroll their children in Rashi, they clearly want their children to have a Jewish education," adds the rabbi.

Rashi, however, isn't content to leave it at that. To make sure Jewish learning is a family affair, they offer a broad parent education program including resources to help families celebrate holidays at home. Rabbi Eiduson points out that plenty of parents who were born Jewish "grew up without formal Jewish education." Learning what the kids are up to in class keeps parents a step ahead of the game, he adds. "This way, mom and dad don't have to feel left behind. They learn along with their kids."

When it came time to determine its policy on interfaith families, folks at the Gann Academy--The New Jewish High School researched all sides of the issue--and opted for inclusion, reports Director of Admissions Cobi Weissbach. They, too, reasoned that the willingness to enroll one's child in a day school (not an inexpensive prospect, with area tuitions running $6,200- $21,350) denotes a powerful commitment to Jewish learning. "We're not in the business of deciding who's a Jew," he said. With 5-10 percent of Gann students now coming from interfaith homes, Weissbach predicts that number will increase. "And when they do jump in, they join our community, a place where the kids don't see each other as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, but just their friend."

Gary and Mary Rabinowitz of Bridgewater, Mass., first caught the day-school bug at Legoland in California when the man behind them in line raved about his kids' Schechter school. Soon they were visiting the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Stoughton. "I could see the kids get an excellent secular education plus the Jewish piece, so that combination is beginning to make sense for families like us," says Mary, a special needs teacher in a local public school. Now Kaitlyn, eight, and Zara, six, who were converted to Judaism as babies, attend SASSDS. Indeed, the entire family has jumped in with all eight feet, and both girls, their mom says, are thriving.

So are their parents. "Schechter is incredibly welcoming to us as an interfaith couple," says Mary. "Now, when neither Gary nor I know something about one of the lesser-known Jewish holidays, we just ask our girls."

Indeed, what Jennifer Rudin-Sable, Rashi School's Jewish Life Coordinator, has discovered is that the non-Jewish parent is often most excited--and more knowledgeable--about learning than the Jewish one. "To say, 'I'm raising my children Jewishly and I want to learn about it and get involved in the community,' is a real commitment, a deliberate choice that they take seriously," she says. At Rashi, where Rudin-Sable estimates 20 percent of the children come from interfaith families, they encourage questions and comments, including the phone call she got from the dad who said, "Jennifer, you're not speaking my language. Please explain the terms, please give me more."

When the Sinclair family prepared to move to Brookline from San Francisco, and began school shopping, JCDS popped up first on Google. Now that their two daughters have completed second grade and kindergarten, their mom Paula sees the school as "pluralistic, very accepting of non-traditional families and one of the best ways to connect to the community."

What's more, she says, though her husband John doesn't have a Jewish background, he's never once felt like an outsider. "It's his belief that, if we're going to raise Jewish children, let's raise them 150-percent Jewish with a strong identity."

And the fact that day schools are free to offer "values-based education" in ways public schools aren't permitted to, is another strong selling point to non-Jewish parents, says JCDS' Winshall. "Seeing their children grow up with solid values reinforced at home and in school, and a grounding in tradition is often what moves parents. And seeing the joy their child is experiencing is often enough to inspire both mom and dad to embark on a Jewish journey of their own. The secret is learning to welcome them in as themselves, to assure them that there's no need to park their identity--and their questions--at the door."

All of which paves the road for a more vibrant Jewish future, maintains Ginny Wise, who considers interfaith families' move into the realm of day school education an extremely healthy trend. "As the tent expands and becomes more welcoming, it stands to reason that there will be more Jewish choices down the road for these families," says Wise, Chair of Combined Jewish Philanthropies' Intermarriage Task Force. "The result will be future generations who have a broader base of Jewish learning and experience, an absolutely positive sign for the future."

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." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Deborah Fineblum Raub

Deborah Fineblum Raub is Senior Public Relations Manager at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston and a freelance writer whose work is frequently published in The Boston Globe and Hadassah Magazine.

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