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Non-Jewish Mothers of Jewish Children Face Some Hard Choices

May 2005

Reprinted with permission of JTA.

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif., May 2 (JTA)--When Teresa McMahon, a Catholic, married Barry Fishman, a Conservative Jew, 11 years ago, they decided to raise their children as Jews. "Barry wouldn't have it otherwise," McMahon says.

But McMahon had no intention of converting. Though she considers herself a "cultural Catholic," her heritage is important to her. It's why she kept her maiden name.

Still, she raises her girls, 8 and 6, as Jews, and the family belongs to Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich. That, she says, was her husband's compromise. McMahon's daughters know they and their father are Jewish, and they also know that their mother celebrates Easter and Christmas. They've never asked her to convert, but McMahon says that when she looks at the girls lighting Shabbat candles with their father, it tugs at her heart.

"I have Jewish girls, and I'm not a Jewish mother," she says. "How can I raise them to be Jewish women when I'm not that role model?"

That's the challenge confronting a rising number of intermarried households. Though the intermarriage rate continues to rise--47 percent of new marriages involving Jews are intermarriages, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001--there is less pressure on non-Jewish spouses to convert, since most Reform and Reconstructionist and some Conservative congregations are finding ways to involve non-Jewish spouses in ritual life.

When it's the wife who is not Jewish, and does not plan to convert, mixed couples tend to flock to the Reform movement, which in 1982 accepted patrilineal descent as long as the children are raised Jewish. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews accept as Jewish a child who has at least one Jewish parent. The Orthodox and Conservative movements demand matrilineal descent--the child's mother must be Jewish.

"I do believe it's possible for non-Jewish parents to raise children with strong Jewish identities if the decision is made with a whole heart," says Kathy Kahn, outreach director for the Union for Reform Judaism.

But, she says, that takes concerted effort.

"Children are very good at reading mixed messages," she notes.

The Conservative movement puts out the welcome mat more conditionally. Rabbi Moshe Edelman, head of the kiruv, or outreach, committee for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says that if the non-Jewish spouse does not convert, the children still should be brought into the fold as quickly as possible.

"We must nurture the conversion of that child even if Mommy is not Jewish," he says. Conservative congregations differ on how far they'll reach out to non-Jewish mothers. At Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, Rabbi Avis Miller insists that the woman take classes on Judaism, and "even if she still practices her religion, the home can't have a Christmas tree."

Miller, who chairs the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on outreach and conversion, says the challenge to create a Jewish home is much greater when it's the mother who isn't Jewish. "With enough commitment by the Jewish father, it can work," she says. "I've seen it work. But I wouldn't make policy on the basis of anecdotal evidence."

Even in non-traditional families, outreach experts say, it's usually the mother who sets the religious tone of the household. That presents complications when the mother is the non-Jewish spouse in the pair.

Such mixed-faith couples often renegotiate the traditional male-female roles. Teresa McMahon says that in her home, "I'm the stage manager: I make sure that when Shabbat starts we're all where we need to be. But when it comes to the actual ritual, it's him. He lights the candles and the girls light theirs with him."

Some non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children continue to practice their own faith. Others do not, but either feel an emotional attachment to their family background or don't want to convert for spiritual or intellectual reasons.

Rena Mello of Cambridge, Mass., always felt that if she converted to her husband's Jewish faith it would have to be a decision she made on her own. But that was before she became a mother.

One day her three-year-old son, who was going to a Jewish pre-school, told her he wanted her to be Jewish like him, his sister and his father. The child's plea took her aback.

"It made me stop and think," Mello wrote in an essay. "I was not expecting my child to set me on a path of profound postulating about my own choice."

But, she continued, "if becoming Jewish would make my kids happy and would bring me closer to feeling the connections they experience with Judaism, perhaps it is a road I should consider."

Many non-Jewish mothers say that if their local congregation isn't welcoming, they shy away from affiliation. Jenny Guttman, a practicing Catholic, went back and forth for years with her Jewish husband before agreeing in April 2002 to raise their three children unambiguously Jewish. Support from her Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif, she says, was "a big reason I gave in. People were so nice to me."

Since then, Guttman stopped taking the children to church with her. They go to Hebrew school "and we celebrate Shabbat with more gusto," she notes.

But her pride in her children's growing Jewish awareness is tempered by a certain sense of loss. Her Catholic friends don't understand how she could give up so much, she says, and while she has Jewish friends to offer "all kinds of help" on the Jewish holidays, she is alone when it comes to practicing her own faith.

"I feel a little separate from my children and husband," she admits. "I know who I am, and they don't need me to change for them. But it's the hardest thing in my marriage."

Those intangible feelings of guilt, anger and loss can linger for years, even in the families most committed to raising children in one faith.

Edmund Case is director of, a Newton, Mass., group dedicated to encouraging intermarried couples to raise their children Jewish. That's how he and his non-Jewish wife raised their children.

Case's wife converted only last fall, after 30 years of marriage, illustrating Case's theory that a more welcoming Jewish community will lead to less isolation of the non-Jewish spouse, and ultimately to more Jewish choices.

But Case was taken aback when his college-age daughter said that while she feels Jewish, it's "not the first thing" she thinks about.

"She said, 'If it were, it would only make me feel more different from my mother than I want to be,' " Case says. "When my wife heard that, she said, 'I thought I gave her permission to be Jewish.' "

It's not enough to call yourself welcoming, Kahn says: The Jewish community should show gratitude to women who have given up the joy of transmitting their own heritage in order to raise their children as Jews.

Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., called all the non-Jewish parents up to the bimah and read them a special thank-you prayer. And in Atlanta, a program called the Mother's Circle offers programmatic support for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children.

But such examples are rare, Kahn admits.

"Women who are not Jewish and who raise their children as Jews are giving us the gift of generations," she says. "Often we worry a lot, we say, 'Don't have a Christmas tree,' and 'Make sure you don't have a crucifix in your house.' "

"They give us this gift and we shake it to make sure it's OK," she continues. "We need to look the giver in the eye and say thank you."

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. 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.
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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