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Room for Everyone: One Jewish Day School in North Carolina Has Found Strength in Its High Rate of Interfaith Families

October 2005

GREENSBORO, N.C.--All 142 students at B'nai Shalom Day School celebrate the High Holy Days. And Passover. And Hanukkah.

Some celebrate Christmas, too--with the non-Jewish side of their family.

Even the PTA president is Protestant.

"Everybody knows I'm not Jewish, and nobody seems to care," said Barbara Barrett, the president, who was raised Methodist and Baptist.

Administrators at B'nai Shalom wouldn't--or maybe couldn't--have it any other way. About 30 percent of students are members of interfaith families, each of whom have made the decision to raise their children as Jews. And with that statistic comes everything one might expect: Some mothers have never been to a Bat Mitzvah, much less hosted one. A few fathers are shaky about attending Shabbat dinners, knowing neither the rituals nor the meanings behind them.

What makes B'nai Shalom work, according to top administrator Judy Groner, is that parents and kids can openly discuss the joys--and the challenges--of being members of an interfaith family. She said its leaders don't shy away from what other Jewish-school administrators might consider a taboo, including celebrating Christian holidays with Christian relatives.

"Students can come in (to class) and say, 'This is what I did with my grandma over Christmas,' and they can feel comfortable about it," said Groner.

It's impossible to explain B'nai Shalom without first explaining Greensboro, North Carolina's third largest city with a population of about 225,000. There are about 1,300 Jewish families in the city, fewer even than Greensboro's growing Muslim population. There are two synagogues--one Reform and one Conservative, along with a small but growing Jewish high school, American Hebrew Academy.

In fact, it's that small Jewish population that drives many parents to B'nai Shalom, Groner said, since the public schools are so predominately Christian.

"A lot of these students probably wouldn't go to a (Jewish) day school in larger Jewish communities," she said.

Jews are a clear minority in Greensboro, but they helped create the city. The first Jewish residents moved here at the turn of the last century, drawn by the city's history of religious tolerance and its Quaker roots. Central North Carolina grew strong due to the industrial and philanthropic efforts of a few Jewish families, whose names now appear on the city's hospital, its textile factories and its parks.

It's that environment in which Greensboro's Jewish community has stayed small, but extremely active. About one-third of Jewish children in the city attend B'nai Shalom, which accepts students from pre-school to the eighth grade. The school is tucked in a quiet suburb and is attached to the Conservative synagogue, Beth David. Both rabbis teach classes at the school, and many children attend Sunday school at the Reform temple.

Tuition ranges from $9,000 to about $10,500 a year, depending on the grade level. Anyone who qualifies for financial aid receives it at B'nai Shalom, where administrators are awarding $500,000 in scholarships this year alone.

Many Jews in Greensboro have chosen to marry a partner of a different faith, a trend that mirrors national statistics. For 15 years, Groner has watched non-Jewish parents stumble through holiday services and dread hosting Bat Mitzvahs. So she recently formed a support group for the roughly 30 interfaith families at the school. Once a month, the group gets together to eat dinner and discuss whatever is worrying them, whether it be upcoming holidays or negotiating with Christian grandparents about visits from the Easter bunny.

The group's supposed purpose is to teach Christian parents some tenants of Judaism. But Groner's larger goal is making those parents feel comfortable with what they are not: Jewish.

Jerimy Erickson is one of those parents. The Catholic Swede from Minnesota married a Jew, and they recently moved to Greensboro and enrolled their six-year-old Chloe and their three-year-old Maddie in B'nai Shalom. Jerimy neither speaks nor understands Hebrew, and until he joined Groner's support group, had rarely attended a Shabbat dinner. Today, he said he's more comfortable than he had imagined was possible.

"Granted, I still don't understand the prayers, but at least I understand why they do it," he said.

Erickson's Jewish wife, Debbie Erickson, said the school has become their social net, too. When parents gather for meetings, the Jewish moms and the non-Jewish dads tend to gravitate toward each other.

"I can't imagine assimilating into this (Southern) culture as fast as I have without this school," Debbie Erickson said. "There's something about the Jewish day school that's non-religious, more about community. They teach the kids history. They teach them to be a mensch."

Groner said she tries to make it just as easy for students with little background in Judaism to feel comfortable. They accept any student, she said, regardless of whether he or she speaks Hebrew. An eighth-grader with no language skills would be enrolled and immediately given a Hebrew tutor, she said. In other words, students who didn't embrace Judaism until middle school don't immediately fall behind their peers.

"Part of our mission here is to create Jewish leaders," Groner said. "You can't create a Jewish leader without a Jewish background."

That's what Barbara Barrett--the PTA president--decided one day about six years ago, when she heard her then-three-year-old son, Russell Gross, asking what the word "Jew" meant. "Well," she told him. "Your dad is one. Maybe you're going to be one."

Neither Barrett nor her husband, Dr. Ned Gross, had a decent answer.

Barrett and Gross discussed the subject, eventually realizing they both felt a strong desire to raise their children as Jews. Barrett immediately thrust herself into the life of the school--volunteering, joining the PTA, attending religious services. She soon discovered that two-thirds of the faculty is non-Jewish. And she was also shocked that no one at the school expected her to convert to Judaism--something she had expected, since she had watched some of her Pentecostal relatives try to convert non-Christians. Instead, she found that other parents were focused on the same goal as she: Raising great Jewish children, regardless of their background.

"If you go there, you are Jewish," she said. "You love being Jewish."

Jewish parents say the school has managed to make non-Jewish parents feel comfortable without sacrificing the Jewishness of the school. Pam Goldberg, who is Jewish, said she feels that the high rate of interfaith families is one of the schools pluses, since intermarriage is a fact of modern Judaism.

"To be frank, the numbers are against us," she said. "People identifying themselves as Jewish is a good thing."

And the students are clearly being raised as Jews. Groner likes to say that families must commit to raise their children Jewishly; there's no "synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday" at B'nai Shalom. But within those parameters, the school creates a comfortable environment for families who celebrate their Judaism in a variety of ways --including whether they keep kosher or even attend a synagogue, according to Goldberg.

"No matter how "Jewish" we would define ourselves, it is truly a Jewish learning environment," she said.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. 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.
Margaret Banks

Margaret Banks is a staff writer at the Greensboro News & Record, where she was the religion reporter for four years. She is currently one of the newspaper's investigative reporters.

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