Michael Brent is a stay-at-home dad. He and Melanie have been married for 22 years and have twin daughters in the fifth grade at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School. He lives in Lafayette, Calif., where he is an active participant at Temple Isaiah.
Our Interfaith Reform Family Finds a Comfortable Place in a Jewish Day School
As the year before kindergarten approached for our preschool-aged twins, Sophia and Madeline, my wife Melanie and I began to explore their future school opportunities. The local public school provided a reasonable program and we felt our girls would be comfortable there since their original preschool was next door. The school, however, underperformed compared to similar schools and we felt the girls could get a better education in private school. When we decided to consider private schools, one school we discovered was the Contra Costa Jewish Day School. The day school was leasing space from the Reform temple we had recently joined. We decided to look into the day school although we didn't think we would choose it.
Why not? Well, I was a Reform Jew and where I grew up Reform Jews didn't go to full-time Jewish schools. In addition, Melanie was not raised Jewish, making us an interfaith family. Although we had celebrated Jewish rituals together since we were married (by a rabbi), we also celebrated a secular version of Easter and Christmas that is uniquely American--food, family, and Christmas presents or Easter egg hunts and baskets.
Melanie and I moved our girls to the temple's preschool in order to watch the day school for the year before the girls entered kindergarten. What a year to watch! The school, grades K through 5, was in its third year. The kindergarten class consisted of seven boys--seven boisterous, loud, bouncy boys! We watched as the kindergarten teacher, Miss Alexa, took these boys and molded them into a cohesive group. It was clear that the academic program was excellent, both in general and Judaic studies. Moreover the school seemed to be one big family. We saw the head of school and school staff lavish attention on every current and prospective family. Here was a school where our children would receive personal attention. They would learn a foreign language and lessons on morality and ethical behavior. On these educational matters we were sold, and the children have excelled as we expected.
But what of us as an interfaith family? Would we be accepted? "If you do decide to have children, give them something. It doesn't matter if it's Jewish or something else, but give them something to believe in when they're young." That was the advice given to Melanie and me by Rabbi Sherwood when we got married. We had given our girls something to believe in. It was most certainly Jewish, but with Melanie's non-Jewish rituals included. We were unique as a family.
Many Reform congregations, ours included, expect that families will not celebrate non-Jewish rituals in their homes. These congregations cannot see any celebration of Christmas and Easter as a secular activity. As an interfaith family that celebrates Christmas and Easter in a secular fashion and Jewish celebrations with religious content, we have found greater acceptance of our mixed rituals at the day school. One reason is that many school families, about one-third, are secular. In these families, people celebrated Jewish rituals in the same secular manner as Melanie celebrated Christmas and Easter. This created a tremendously welcoming feeling for her and our entire family. When Christmas came around, other school families recognized what we celebrate and some of our girls' friends chose to participate with us in our version of celebration.
As parents, has our relationship with school been trouble-free? No, but mostly these are problems that could occur at any school, such as dress codes and discipline. One religious issue is the school asks that you not plan events on Shabbat and serve only kosher food when you see classmates outside of school. While many (possibly most) families at the day school do not keep kosher or strictly observe Shabbat, being an interfaith family we have always endeavored to follow those requests. On the positive side, I have always been assured by other parents of the sufficiency of our efforts.
Sophia and Madeline, as children of interfaith parents, have not had any conflicts that I know of. For Madeline and Sophia our Christmas and Easter rituals--a tree, presents, special dinner and foods, and characters such as Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for Christmas; a basket of candy, a new hat, the Easter Bunny, egg hunting and dinner with our neighbors for Easter--are not religious. They are activities we participate in as a family. They are similar to the rituals from the more accepted secularized holidays--dressing up for Halloween, giving valentines for St. Valentine's Day, or wearing green for St. Patrick's Day. When it comes to religion, they see themselves as Jewish and proudly tell anyone who asks. These additional celebrations do not change their view.
The girls haven't been rejected or treated differently by teachers or other families because of their mixed heritage and beliefs. At the day school we've been accepted for who we are, people who celebrate our joint heritages with the religious rituals of Judaism and secular American versions of Christmas and Easter. The day school is more welcoming of the rituals of our interfaith family than even our temple. We are pleased to have been given that reception and to be giving our children a Jewish education.