How to Act Jewish to Raise a Jewish Child–The Intercultural Communications Approach

By Deanna Shoss

Sept. 30, 2010

Deanna Shoss' son does Hebrew homework
Deanna Shoss’ son, Dillon, does his Hebrew homework

Good morning! On today’s episode of “The Pretend Jew,” our heroine waivers on hosting the Hanukkah open house in her home because her Christmas tree is still up. And who doesn’t love her confused expression every time she’s in synagogue (she doesn’t speak Hebrew!) and has no idea when to sit down! And here’s your hostess … Deanna Shoss!

Yes, that would be me. “The Pretend Jew,” I like to call myself in conversation. Raised Reform, don’t speak Hebrew, dropped out during my early adult life, oblivious to many intricate traditions that others seem to know innately. Yet I’m also responsible for raising our son Jewishly.

Dillon, now 9, clearly identifies as a Jew. How did that happen?

Intercultural communications can help

These three tenets from the field of intercultural communications can help you figure out how to give your child(ren) an unambiguously Jewish identity without occluding the other partner’s cultural identity:

1. Know and respect who you are. (Embrace your own cultural identity.)
2. Know and respect who others are. (the new Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.)
3. Find the right person/community to teach the details. (E.g. build your cultural competence–even if it’s about your own culture!)

So let’s get started.

1. Know and respect who you are.

As a white woman, this one was hard for me. If I was afraid of prejudice I could simply hide behind my whiteness and omit that I was Jewish. But at the core of intercultural communications is to know thyself first. It started by answering “Jewish” rather than “Eastern European” when asked of the origin of my last name.

When invited to join the Board of Directors of my synagogue as the chair of the Parents Club, I accepted in the Jewish tradition of “hineni,” meaning “here I am,” ready to serve.

I also have carried our Judaism into the home–as simple as lighting the Shabbat candles or getting a challah on Fridays (I try to remember at least once a month), celebrating the major holidays (got that one covered) and going to services while he’s in school on Saturday mornings (I’m at least there for the sermons, and always there when Dillon files in after class.) He knows our Saturday ritual of going to synagogue is the priority.

2. Know and respect who others are

In our family, we are also multicultural, so I view my husband’s Brazilian cultural background as the “counterpart” to my Jewish identity. (He was raised Catholic, but is more agnostic now.)

Honoring that heritage equally helps to balance Dillon’s connection to both of us. I learned Portuguese and serve on the Board of the Illinois-Sao Paulo Partners of the Americas–giving equal weight to our family’s cultural connections.

I am grateful that we agreed what religion to raise our children well before having them (and please note that this is critical to do.) This is not about my spouse becoming Jewish. It’s about unambiguous support from both of us that our child is Jewish, regardless of what we practice individually.

3. Find the right person/community to teach the details

When I set up training for intercultural communications, I introduce the core curriculum–recognizing communications styles, outlining how culture influences value systems and identifying tools for embracing difference. I will then bring in a “country specialist” for those requiring more in-depth knowledge about a specific culture.

The same concept works here. I don’t need to be nervous that I don’t speak Hebrew, even though my son is learning it. Nor do I have to be anxious that I didn’t know how to celebrate Simchat Torah or that there are times of year that you’re not supposed to get a haircut.

Because there are people to do that! I like going to the kids’ service with Dillon because I learn so much. The rabbi is my “Jewish” expert. He (or my mom, who has taught kindergarten Sunday school at two Reform congregations in St. Louis for 40 years) will have the answers to any “How do I?” or “What is it?” questions I have. Or you can check out our rabbi’s 590-plus “how to” videos on YouTube.

So do you have to be Jewish to do this?

If the fellow parents at Ezra Habo are any indication, no. The two moms who are the most active and who take the lead on planning and helping with special events are not Jewish! Not only are they not Jewish, they very strongly identify with their Catholicism–but each had made the commitment with her Jewish spouse to raise their children Jewish.

While gender roles continue to evolve, “because I’m the mommy” usually still means it’s the mom who is setting up the Jewish home. Jewish or not, these moms are the ones carting the kids to Hebrew school, baking challah, volunteering at the mock seder and more.

Bringing it all together

A mutual commitment to raising the children Jewish, confidence in your own and respect for your partner’s cultural identity and access to Jewish cultural experts (e.g. join a synagogue!) all provide a good framework for building your Jewish home.

It may be easier with our families living out of town, but we have celebrated many a Christmas in Brazil. Dillon has received more than one gift book of Bible stories and an overabundance of Jewish books from well-meaning relatives.

But by knowing thyself and respecting others, the correct answer to these gifts is “Thank you.” The gifts were given out of love. We still are raising Dillon Jewish and he knows it, and we are doing it in the context of respect and understanding for all of the faiths and cultures in our home. These instances just offer an opportunity for dialogue and learning about other perspectives.

What about you? How do you negotiate raising Jewish children in an interfaith family?


About Deanna Shoss

Deanna Shoss's consulting firm,"Anthropology Meets Marketing" at Intercultural Talk, Inc., provides training, coaching and experiential marketing strategies for cross-cultural communication, branded internal and external communications for web and print, social media strategies and spectacular events. Shoss regularly blogs about intercultural communications, stereotypes in advertising and intercultural parenting at