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The ABCs of Interfaith: Parents in Mixed Marriages Sending Kids to Bay Area Jewish Day Schools

Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

Friday October 27, 2006

For some families, the "December dilemma" lasts all year long.

Interfaith couples in the Jewish community face more than the normal compliment of challenges as they rear their children. Many strike a balance between Jewish and non-Jewish traditions as a way to create peace in the home. Others believe the dual-faith approach causes confusion for the kids.

Those are the couples that choose only one religious path for their children. For a number of them in the Bay Area, that often means sending their kids to Jewish day schools and raising them strictly in the Jewish faith, whether or not the non-Jewish parent chooses to convert.

"Children are the main thing," says Dawn Kepler, director of interfaith resources at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. "Reasonable adults can make a lot of compromises, but when it comes to kids, it's the King Solomon thing. In any parenting situation you have to make sacrifices."

Her seven-year-old program, Building Jewish Bridges, is designed to help interfaith couples and their children find a place in the Jewish community, with the objective of bringing those families closer into the fold.

Often that means chucking the Christmas trees and Easter eggs, and making the home a Jewish home. It's a process that can take years to unfold. "The easiest thing," notes Kepler, "is to pick one [faith] and everyone get on board with that."

Veronica Sanchez and her husband, Jeff Bornstein, both attorneys, have been married for 14 years. Their son David is now a seventh-grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. "I was raised in traditional Catholic schools all my life," says the Nicaragua-born Sanchez. "That's what I grew up in. Spirituality is important to me."

But when she and her husband became engaged, Sanchez knew they would have to be on the same page when it came to raising children. "Jeff laid down the gauntlet that he wanted Jewish kids," she recalls. "That was hard for me as a Christian."

Attending an interfaith couples workshop and a visit to Israel in the early 1990s helped her better understand her husband's perspective. "I realized the Jewish tradition has some incredibly beautiful things to teach," says Sanchez. "I said, 'Fine, if you want this kid to be Jewish, then I don't want him to be Jewish "lite."' We were going to do this right."

That meant above all sending their son to a Jewish day school. "We needed an institutional structure," adds Sanchez. "It's easier if it's on a daily basis. The school has a strong focus on community values, which was really important to me. I was looking for a place like an extended family. Coming from a Latino family, I'm comfortable with that."

Oakland resident Sally Ann Berk and her husband, James Wakeman, send their son Max, 7, to Oakland Hebrew Day School. She grew up in a Conservative home in New Jersey; he grew up Episcopalian. When Max was born, Berk wanted to raise him in a Jewish home. Wakeman was happy to oblige.

"When we first discussed it," recalls Wakeman, "I said, 'This strikes me as fine, though my involvement would be limited.' I certainly welcome the community that is there for Max, and I'm very grateful for that and embrace it on his behalf."

The family joined Oakland's Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, and Berk now regularly attends services there with Max. Says Berk, "The synagogue and school have become my Jewish parenting partners. Max is still digesting the fact that Daddy is not Jewish. In kindergarten he learned about B'nai Israel--one Jewish family--and that seemed to trouble him. I said, 'We're part of an even larger family: all of humanity,' and he was visibly relieved."

Lori Abramson is head of school at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos. She says her institution makes a strong effort to help interfaith families (about 15 percent of the roster) feel welcome.

"It's very nonjudgmental," says Abramson. "Kids are here to learn about their Jewish heritage. I have found it to be the case that the non-Jewish parent has been eager to learn and to be very supportive of the family's path and the child's education. It comes down to finding a value base that resonates for them."

Sometimes the one leading the charge for that value base is the non-Jewish parent, as was the case with Dave and Cathy Capper of Novato. Dave grew up in the North Bay attending Congregation Rodef Sholom. His wife grew up Catholic in Southern California. Before the two married in 1990 they discussed how they might raise their children.

"Growing up, I wasn't passionate about religion," recalls Dave Capper. "The conclusion was that we should bring up the children in some faith. Cathy liked the idea that Judaism was accepting of other paths to God, and thought it would be appropriate."

Today the couple has three children, the two youngest currently enrolled at Brandeis Hillel's Marin campus. Cathy Capper is very active there, even serving on the board of directors. Though the family still attends Christmas and Easter services in San Diego with the grandparents, up in Marin the Capper home is a Jewish one.

"We feel strong about our Judaism," adds Capper. "Brandeis Hillel has been very supportive of us as a family, nothing but warmth."

Sometimes the families at Jewish day schools don't exactly resemble the traditional Ozzie and Harriet portrait, interfaith or otherwise.

Berkeley resident Jane Kemp is a single mother with a 7-year-old son, Kieran. Because she followed an open adoption process, Kemp has gotten to know Kieran's biological family--Jewish, as it turns out. Though non-Jewish herself (she was raised nondenominational Christian), Kemp has chosen to raise Keiran as a Jew, including sending him to Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. He is now a second-grader.

"The moment we walked on [the campus], it was if we had come home," remembers Kemp. "I felt a real connection. I brought Kieran in for the interview, and he had such a good time he didn't want to leave. I made the commitment to send him there."

With her son at Tehiyah, Kemp has absorbed more knowledge about Judaism than she had previously known. "It opened up my sensitivity," she says. "A lot of my values were very much in alignment with the school: being of service, family, tzedakah. So many people shared my values naturally, I could not believe what an incredible community I had lucked into."

Kemp credits the school with solidly establishing her son's Jewish self-identification, something she sees in Keiran's classmates as well. "The children are by nature big thinkers," she observes. "They have big conversations about the existence of God. Even at this young age they feel they are connected to the world's problems but also part of the world's solution. I don't think [Keiran] could have gotten that in public school. It makes sense that he is where he is."

Thomas Deuel and Ellen Mann-Deuel would echo that sentiment when it comes to their two sons, both of whom attend Oakland Hebrew Day School. In their case, Thomas (a Catholic and former altar boy) is as enthusiastic about the kids' Jewish education as Ellen, a Philadelphia native and self-described "runaway Jew."

When it came time to send their son Daniel to school, the couple considered public schools but was not impressed. Yet the East Bay private school culture concerned them as well.

"Daniel was a unique character even at a young age," says Mann-Deuel. "A lot of schools pick based on quiet intelligence and compliance. I had a feeling he wouldn't be accepted. I remember sitting in the car crying that my son wouldn't get in anywhere. I said, 'Please, God, get him into a school. I'll owe you.'"

Still, she worried Jewish day schools might be too religious for her taste. After visiting Oakland Hebrew Day School, the two felt they had found the right school for their son. "I fell in love with it," remembers Mann-Deuel. "It was very small, very loving. I felt I was giving my child a gem of an education."

Says her son Daniel Deuel, now 12, "I have fun and we learn a lot. I do want to know about my Jewish background."

As for having a non-Jewish father, Daniel is not concerned. In fact, he says his dad is becoming more Jewish every day. "Even though my dad is Catholic, he's got every single book on Judaism. He's Jewish in his own way."

Daniel's brother, Jake, also attends Oakland Hebrew Day School, and the family belongs to Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

"My husband is such a proponent of Judaism," says Mann-Deuel. "Judaism is a religion more open to questioning, and less dogmatic. He likes that."

Because of her son's involvement at Brandeis Hillel, Veronica Sanchez has experienced a similar connection with Judaism. "I started trying to find common ground within the religions," she says. "I realized the Jewish tradition has some incredibly beautiful things to teach. Catholics put $2 in the basket on Sunday Mass. Tzedakah you live every day."

The family belongs to Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and celebrates Shabbat. But Sanchez has not converted. She still attends church, something she says can be "a lonely experience."

Yet she found a way to honor her own Christmas traditions while allowing her family to stay true to their Jewish values, and even bring Brandeis Hillel into the picture. She started a nonprofit foundation that supports an orphanage in Leon, Nicaragua, and the family has spent Christmas there for the past two years.

"We went with another Jewish family," says Sanchez. "On Christmas Day, we were making challah with the kids in the orphanage. The first year we went was special because the Brandeis Hillel kids donated into the fund, donating a refrigerator and bread-maker to the orphanage. So we found bridges to help us practice the values of both religions."

Though even the mere mention of Christmas gives some in the Jewish community the willies, Kepler believes interfaith couples can still rear Jewish children, even with a touch of mistletoe in the home.

"If you send your kids to a Jewish day school," she affirms, "they will be very affirmed in being Jewish. I know a lovely couple that sends their kids to a day school and celebrates both [Jewish and Christian] holidays. But the kids are immersed in Judaism, so I think they will emerge from this saying, 'We get that mom or dad isn't Jewish, but we feel like we are.'"

Capper, who had been relatively uninvolved with Judaism, now attributes his own revived interest to his children's school. "Because the kids have gotten into Brandeis Hillel," he says, "and because my wife and the kids are knowledgeable, they became more passionate [about Judaism], and that caused me to rediscover it."

For Mann-Deuel, whatever obstacles her family may have faced, rearing a Jewish child in an interfaith home has been nothing less than a source of wonder.

"Your children become your teachers," she says, "their journey becomes your journey. You never know where it will take you."

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." Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. 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. 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.
Dan Pine

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany, Calif. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.

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