Support Group Helps Grandparents Navigate Interfaith Challenges

By Marshall Weiss

July 16, 2009


Originally published in The Dayton Jewish Observer. Reprinted by permission.

After native Clevelanders Cheryl and Franklin Lewis retired from their jobs, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 2004 to be close to their daughter and her family. Their son-in-law isn’t Jewish and their four local grandchildren aren’t being raised as Jews.

The Lewises also have a son living in Washington, D.C. His wife, too, isn’t Jewish; their children, Cheryl says, “are being raised in two religions.”

Franklin says their grandchildren in Dayton have celebrated Hanukkah with them for the last few years. “We’re thinking about Pesach also, but that hasn’t happened so far.”

grandfather running with grandchild“And we do celebrate the other holidays with my daughter,” Cheryl adds. “We celebrate Christmas with her.”

From January through June, Cheryl and Franklin participated in an education and support program for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried.

Grandparents Circle, an initiative of the national Jewish Outreach Institute, was presented locally through the Dayton JCC’s outreach program, with a one-year grant from the Tala Arnovitz Fund of the Dayton Jewish Federation Foundation.

Simone Lotven Sofian served as Grandparents Circle facilitator. She and Meryl Hattenbach facilitated JOI’s Mothers Circle in Dayton last year.

Simone says the five couples and one single grandparent who participated in Grandparents Circle were looking for ideas on how to deal with interfaith situations and for support from other people in similar situations.

For this first year of the program in Dayton, she says, most participants came from Temple Beth Or and Temple Israel, both local Dayton synagogues.

Simone says the grandparents’ children range “from intermarried couples being very open to anything the grandparents are doing, to some who don’t care, to some who are resistant.”

Over the course of the monthly get-togethers, Grandparents Circle had the participants explore their own identities. They also thought about ways they can introduce Jewish identity, culture and holidays to their grandchildren in non-threatening ways.

“We found it helpful to listen to other people who were having the same experience,” Cheryl says, “and just to hear how they were handling it.”

The Lewises were the only grandparents in the program willing to use their names for this article.

“They really do want privacy on this issue,” Simone says, “and I can understand it. Some of them have their children in town and they don’t know how their children would react if their names were in the paper.”

Another couple, willing to be interviewed without use of their names, say they sought tools to help them share their Jewish identities with their grandchildren–without stepping on their children’s toes. Their child is married to a non-Jew; their grandchild is being raised in both religions.

“We don’t want to be disrespectful of our children in any way,” the grandmother says. “We feel it’s important for them to know who we are. We have Passover seder at our house, and they went to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. They also go to church. It’s very delicate because everyone loves their grandchildren. Everyone loves their kids. You don’t want to alienate in any way.'”

Her husband says that through Grandparents Circle, they came to the conclusion that when they were growing up, their grandparents had a major impact on their development.

“You can have a really big influence on your grandchildren,” he says.

“It’s not like you’re trying to convert them or anything,” his wife adds, “but (it’s about) how you make these things that mean so much to you come alive in them. It could be through foods during the holidays, it can be through family pictures of past events with your parents, it can be through books, stories, letters, e-mails as they get older.”

Her husband says the program encourages them to imbue their home with Jewish ritual items and Jewish life: Shabbat candlesticks, mezuzahs, menorahs, Jewish cooking and plenty of family photos.

“The grandparents should have all those things in their homes, so that when the grandchildren come to visit you, when they walk in the house, it should say this is a Jewish home to them.”

“I wouldn’t have thought of looking at picture albums, stories of great-grandparents,” his wife says.

Some in the group, her husband says, walk a fine line because their children and children’s spouses have told them not to discuss anything Jewish with their grandchildren.

“But the bottom line is, as much as they (the children) have the right to be themselves, they don’t have the right to make you a different person than who you are as a grandparent–and that you have your own identity as a Jew, and you have the right to act like a Jew around your grandchildren.”


About Marshall Weiss

Marshall Weiss is the editor of The Dayton Jewish Observer.