Rabbi Gary Mazo is currently the rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis, Mass. He has worked extensively with interfaith couples in his rabbinic career. His first book, And the Flames Did Not Consume Us: a Rabbi's Journey through Communal Crisis, was published by Rising Star Press and is currently in bookstores.
My Responses to Questions Christian Mothers Have Asked Me about Raising Their Children Jewishly
There are so many challenges that face interfaith couples today. The single, greatest challenge is how to raise their children with a sense of identity and a foundation of faith.
To me, a strong sense of self includes a foundation of faith. It provides kids with a sense of belonging to something bigger, and it brings them closer to God. It provides a system of values, and it sets the rhythm of time in their lives. Faith binds us to our families, God, and to a larger community. Too often, children of interfaith families lack that foundation. Many of the questions that non-Jewish moms ask me deal with this issue.
"Rabbi, how am I, as a non-Jewish mother, supposed to raise a Jewish child?" is a frequent question. My first response is to ask, "Where is the dad in this?" From the mother's question, I can assume that the couple has chosen to raise their child in the religion of the father or Jewish partner. If that is the case, it should be the dad or Jewish partner who becomes primarily responsible for the child's spiritual upbringing. Sadly, this rarely happens. Many, many couples fall back on the system of parenting used by our parents in the sixties and seventies where mom is fully responsible for the schlepping (bringing) to Hebrew school and family services and Jewish activities. What's wrong with this picture? Jewish kids need Jewish role models, and the most important ones are parents. When there is one Jewish parent, in this case, the dad, he needs to step up to the plate and, along with mom, help provide the Jewish influence for the child. So, the answer to the question is: "You are not supposed to raise a Jewish child--alone." With the partnership of the Jewish parent and the community a synagogue provides, together you can raise a Jewish child.
"Rabbi, what do you think about us celebrating my Christian holidays in our home?" is another question I am asked. Again, kids need consistency and a foundation. In too many interfaith families, couples try to raise their kids as a "little of this and a little of that," or they try to expose them to everything in the home. What this does is create very confused kids without a foundation of faith. One cannot be both Jewish and Christian. These are two very beautiful, but very different systems of faith. The best thing to do is to make your home consistent with the choice you make for your child. If the choice is to raise the child Jewishly, then take your kids to your Christian family to help them celebrate their holidays. Teach your kids about their grandparents' holidays and help them understand the beauty of the traditions. But your children should also understand that they are not the holidays celebrated in your home because they (your kids) are Jewish. It takes some time to negotiate this--but in the long run it is so important for their foundation of faith. If parents raise their kids strongly in Judaism, then the kids learn to appreciate the other religion without confusion and discomfort. The parents and the non-Jewish parent's family set the tone for this.
In many of our liberal Jewish communities, synagogues warmly welcome interfaith families and provide auxiliaries and support for them. There are many, many non-Jewish moms out there trying their best to help raise Jewish kids. Seek out the interfaith-friendly synagogues, sit down with the rabbi, know that you are not alone and that the Jewish community will help you raise knowledgeable, faithful Jewish kids.
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.