Being Great Grandparents to Children of Interfaith Couples

By Karen Kushner


This is about our families. This is about our kids, our adult children and the spouses they have chosen. This is about our grandchildren.

We are confused. How did this happen in my family?

We are guilty. What did I do wrong?

And we are scared. What do I do now?

What is most important is not to be driven by that fear.

Let’s be clear. For many of you this is not what you expected. You had assumptions of what your children’s families would be like. You probably had fantasies of sharing the cooking for a seder (ritual Passover meal), and sitting together in synagogue for the High Holiday services. All this seems in jeopardy.

These fantasies set you up to be disappointed. If only we could stop fantasizing. Then we could avoid the sadness that comes when reality doesn’t match. The more detailed your fantasies, the greater your sadness.

But that is not the worst of it. When your assumptions about the future are destroyed, you not only feel sad. The loss of that assumed future also creates a sense of panic that is similar to a fear of the annihilation of self. And why shouldn’t it? After all, our grandkids are us in a way. They are us in the future. Aren’t they supposed to be the carriers of our values, style and our genes? When our children don’t feel strongly about having Judaism in their lives, we feel that an important part of ourselves will not exist in the future!

Panic makes people behave in particular ways.

You are tense, restless, worried. Your head spins, your heart pounds and your stomach churns.

Your time with your children and their family becomes awkward because you can’t get rid of your Jewish agenda. You can’t help wanting things to be different. You keep doing and/or saying things, maybe louder, maybe more emotionally, always hoping that this time it will work. It makes them angry.

You may even get frantic and try things you wouldn’t usually do . . . manipulative things like setting up a chance meeting with the rabbi, sneaky things like having your friends act as spies. It makes you feel lousy about yourself, and if they find out, it makes them upset with you.

Or the worst thing, when we feel most desperate: We threaten to break off our relationship with them! The one thing we are trying most to avoid.

It is hard to think when you are anxious, hard to come up with just the right solution. I know you have read or heard statistics about intermarriage rates being as high as 50% and how it means the end of the Jewish people, but I hope you also have met folks who are Jews-by-choice–committed Jews, educated Jews, active Jews. There are lots of them. There are also lots of non-Jews married to Jews who, as couples, are raising Jewish children. If you haven’t met any of these people, you need to go to your area synagogues and find them. Many interfaith couples raise Jewish children.

I can’t give you hard and fast rules to insure that outcome, but I can give you some rules towards making sure your relationship with your children doesn’t preclude that from happening!

1. Get to know your adult child and his or her partner as you would any other new acquaintance. You think that you know your children because they grew up with you, but you may be surprised to find that they have drawn different conclusions from family events than you have. Introduce yourself to them. Many adult children are unaware of the inner life of their parents.

2. Remember, your children are adults and get to make their own decisions. Always respect their choices. If you can’t understand how they got to that decision, then say so.

3. Assume that they have good judgment. If you think they are ignoring something, don’t tell them. Ask them if they have thought of it. You won’t always agree, but knowing that they are thinking things through will help. You want to have these conversations, so do not be judgmental or critical, and don’t lecture.

4. Be scrupulously honest about your feelings for Judaism and talk about them. Let them know why it is important to you. “I get enraged when I read in the newspaper . . . ” “I remembered what the rabbi said when I was in a fight with . . . ” “I am trying to live up to the top levels of giving charity that I learned . . . ” Let them hear how Judaism works in your life and why it has an important place for you.

5. Be honest about your doubts and complaints about Judaism. ” I wish some of this sexist stuff wasn’t there.” “I have a lot of trouble reciting the second paragraph of the Shema . . . ” “For long periods of my life, I found this boring.”

Judaism is not a religion of belief. We have a long history of sages and rabbis who were doubters at some time. Let them know this is more than acceptable in Judaism.

6. Have fun being Jewish. Find ways to really celebrate with friends. Being Jewish is more than liturgy and synagogue attendance. It is a way of life with rich traditions, ways of cooking, and humor.

7. Accept the non-Jewish partner for who he or she is. Pushing people to be different creates resistance to change. Don’t even sigh over them! People change most when they feel respected and accepted.

8. Love them. Appreciate their good qualities and tell them why you love them. “You are such an attentive father.” “You are such a hard worker.” “You are so good to my daughter.”

After all, if your child chooses to love this person, chooses to spend the rest of her/his life with this person, then there must be something very special about him/her. Make it your goal to feel the same way.

9. Get rid of your assumptions about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. Explore the meaning of religion to the non-Jewish partner. Create a climate where he/she can be equally curious about Judaism. Expect that talking to your child’s partner will make you clearer on your understanding of Judaism.

10. Notice any and all similarities between their non-Jewish values and your Jewish values. “We both think religion is an important part of a child’s upbringing” (when they are going off to church).  “We both think reading the Bible is important” (when they quote Bible passages).  “We both think thanking God for the food we eat is important” (when they say grace). “We both recognize how important family is at holiday time” (when they want to be with their family at Easter).

Criticizing and emphasizing differences creates distance. What you want to do is reduce the distance.

Perhaps one day this partner will see him or herself within Judaism. Even if this never happens, you both will have acknowledged all those similarities and you will have reduced your own fears of your values not being carried forward into the next generation.

11. Become a partner in the religious upbringing of your grandchildren. Follow the goals and agenda that their parents design. Never, never, never go behind their backs to promote Judaism by just happening to stop in at the temple during the Purim carnival, or forgetting to wake the children up after a Saturday sleepover in time for church. You are, of course, allowed to live your own life as Jewishly as you would if they were not there.

12. Never compete with the other grandparents. Make them your friends, too. Invite them to your holiday celebrations and make sure they understand what is going on, particularly if the grandchildren are being raised as Jews. Go to their celebrations when you are invited. This keeps the grandchildren from having to feel they need to choose one side over the other.

13. Show respect for other religions in front of your grandchildren. Never belittle or make fun of any practice or belief of the non-Jewish parent. Many children want to avoid any religion because they remember it as a topic of conflict in their family. By discarding both religions they attempt to avoid making anyone sad or angry.

14. Encourage your grandchildren’s parents to chose one religion for their children. Having a religion is healthier than not having a religion. Following two traditions is an enormous undertaking, and most families cannot do it evenhandedly. Better to clearly see the difficulties of children studying two faiths and attending two sets of services and make a choice. This sometimes, but not always, means that one partner converts.

Even if they chose that the children be Christian, you can still find ways to pass down your values–but only if you can keep a warm and loving relationship with their parents. And the children will always know your values as Jewish values.


About Karen Kushner

Karen Kushner is a consultant to, and past Chief Education Officer for, InterfaithFamily. She is known for the workshops, trainings and booklets of the Jewish Welcome Network, which provided outreach consultation and resource to synagogues, Jewish schools and agencies of all denominations and affiliations.