It was quite difficult, growing up in a small town in Indiana, to develop a Jewish identity. Even with two practicing Jewish parents, being the only Jewish family in the neighborhood was not something of which I was proud. I was always embarrassed to be different from everyone else.
My parents did their best to raise me in a Jewish atmosphere and I never felt better than when we traveled the fifty minutes to our temple where I could feel comfortable sharing this common link with others my own age. My Bat Mitzvah was a joyous event, except that I had no friends from "home" to invite, only those from my "temple" family.
It was not until college, when I discovered Hillel, that I begin to embrace my Judaism. I learned to love belonging to this small group of people. It was a new spiritual experience. I dated Jewish boys and made a group of Jewish friends who are still my best friends. The idea that I would not marry a Jewish man never entered the picture.
Of course, things do not always go as planned. When my husband and I began dating, I made a point of letting him know how proud I was of this part of my life and that I would always have a Jewish home. Though he was raised Catholic, he never made any mention of Catholicism and the role it played in his upbringing. He understood that if we married, our home and children would be Jewish.
The subject never really came up again until we got pregnant with our son, Ethan. It was then that we really sat down to discuss our child's Jewish upbringing. I knew this was going to be my responsibility, but I explained it would be important for my husband to play a role. Although he was willing, we realized that it would be hard for his family to accept that our children would celebrate different holidays and experience different spiritual milestones.
When Ethan was born I was teaching general studies at a religious Jewish school in Brookline, Mass. They had a daycare center in the school to which I took Ethan each day--more for convenience than education. However, as Ethan celebrated holidays and began learning about being a Jew, we realized this was an excellent start to the Jewish life we wanted him to have. As he became older, we enrolled him in a Jewish preschool. It was a school that taught not only about Judaism, but also about Israel. It was filled with all types of families--observant, non-observant, Israeli, interfaith, gay-lesbian, single parent.
We saw Ethan grow and become excited about Judaism, Israel, and the Hebrew language. He made friends from all over the world and with all types of families. He was growing up proud of his Judaism. He did begin to question why Daddy was not Jewish. It was also quite confusing for him at Christmastime. We tried to explain that Christmas at his grandparent's house was like a birthday party for a friend. It is nice to celebrate for that friend because it is an important day, but it is their day, not yours. Unfortunately, my husband's family is still having difficulty recognizing that our children are Jewish. We are working to encourage them to respect this and acknowledge the Jewish holidays, even at Christmas when it is so easy to overlook that Ethan, his younger sister and I do not celebrate this day.
My husband and I talked about what we wanted for Ethan. We recognized that once he finished his preschool, his Jewish experiences would be left up to us. We felt this would be a great loss for him after five years of immersion. How could we possibly continue to encourage the growth of his Jewish identity? The only real answer was Jewish day school.
I have since moved on to teach at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. I have been so impressed with the school. The teachers are talented and enthusiastic and the students have a real love of learning, both in Judaic and general studies. I see that there are families of all levels of observance, and it feels like the kind of community that would be welcoming, regardless of the observance level or family situation. So it was natural that we would consider Schechter for Ethan, and we ultimately enrolled him there. Although we will be one of only about five interfaith families, I believe we will be comfortable and accepted there when he begins in the fall.
It was not until the last day of teaching, when filling out a teacher questionnaire, that I saw something that made me uncomfortable. A question asked how well the school discouraged interfaith marriage. Since I teach general studies, the thought that this was taught had never occurred to me. Nevertheless, the good feelings I have had at the school and my husband's comfort level after attending many open houses and new family functions, as well as the encouragement I have received from others who know our situation, have made it easy for me to see past this question.
When it comes right down to it, Ethan will ultimately be the one who decides what type of Jew he wants to be--but we want him to have every possible experience to help guide him in that decision. We know we will need to work at home, as a family, to make Judaism more a part of our lives and that it is up to us to educate my husband's family so they can appreciate the important events in Ethan's and Andrea's lives and grow comfortable participating in them.