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Lessons in Jewish Ways

Reprinted with permission from the Hartford Courant. Visit www.courant.com.

June 8, 2006

At the Chai Center for Jewish Life in Avon, a group of women has been planning Friday's Shabbat dinner celebrating the Jewish Sabbath. But this Shabbat dinner is for members of the Mother's Circle, a group of about a dozen non-Jewish women in interfaith marriages who are raising their children as Jews.

The women have been meeting for the past eight weeks, studying Jewish holidays and rituals, culture and history. At the start of this week's planning meeting, one member walks in with two freshly baked golden-brown loaves of challah bread, a first effort. She smiles as she's greeted with a chorus of praise.

"Wow, it's beautiful!" the members say. "How did you do that?"

Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath that begins every Friday at sundown, is a time for family and friends to come together and to put the busy pace of the week on hold. The mothers' group spends time exploring ways to balance spirituality with practicality to observe Shabbat. This Friday's potluck dinner will include 14 families with activities that also allow children to pitch in.

With interfaith marriage steadily on the rise, an increasing number of Jewish children have a parent who is not Jewish. Raising children in a faith that is not your own can be a challenge, which is why the Chai Center started the Mother's Circle program. The women have been exploring their own feelings about religion and faith and gaining confidence in their ability to transmit the Jewish faith to their children.

Laura Kinyon, a licensed clinical social worker and family counselor from Avon who directs the program, says the women in the group are the "unsung heroes" of the Jewish community, and there are likely hundreds of them in Greater Hartford.

The program is a project of the Jewish Outreach Institute of New York in cooperation with Chai and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Rabbi Howard Herman, who leads Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation, is a consultant to the mothers' group.

"Until our first session earlier this year, there was little or no meeting place or support for these women ... to deepen their connection to the Jewish world in a welcoming setting among their peers," says Kinyon, who is Jewish and whose husband is a convert to Judaism. "I grew up in a non-observant home--most of my Jewish learning took place later in life. I very much understand what these women are going through because I had to do it myself."

While the mothers met in one room, their children played in another, supervised by baby-sitters provided by the program. Liddy Doyle, a mother of two, says she joined the program because she wanted her children to have a greater understanding of Judaism.

"I wanted a comfort level with learning more. I was intimidated to even ask the questions," Doyle says. "Now when I go to the Judaica store or meet a rabbi, I feel like I can put myself right out there to ask questions. You feel a sense of community among these women. We have a common goal."

Rebecca Ruhn says her family is modern Orthodox, and though she was more versed in Jewish tradition than many in the group, she often feels she has more to learn.

"I wanted to be among people who maybe didn't know as much as I did, because sometimes I feel I am just faking my way through," Ruhn says, laughing.

The group has met for eight sessions, and the Shabbat dinner celebration will mark the end of the program for the summer. The women have decided to continue meeting informally at the home of a member this summer until the program resumes for eight weeks in September.

"It's been very comfortable. Everybody is very open," says Barbara Rosenberg of Simsbury, a mother of two. "I think we speak freely and ask questions here in a way that you might not do elsewhere for fear of offending someone or making them feel like you are questioning their background."

Though the present group will continue for another eight weeks, a new one will also start to accommodate a waiting list.

"When this group ends, we have planted a seed so that they can continue on as a peer-support group for friends and family," Kinyon says. "The challenge is how do you have a Jewish home when you didn't grow up Jewish? We're here to let them know that they are not alone."

For more information about the Mother's Circle, call 860-677-1235, or visit www.jewishhartford.org.

© Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant

A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Frances Grandy Taylor

Frances Grandy Taylor is a staff writer for the Hartford Courant.

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