Joining a Temple, Finding a Home

By Doree Burstein


This is the story of how a family consisting of a Jewish-agnostic dad and a non-Jewish mom came to join a Reform temple. It began last year when my older daughter Immie, then four, wondered aloud about the difference between Jews and Christians. Her naïve question set off a tense moment between her parents, as my Jewish husband began to grill me on my intentions for our two children.

Feeling pressured, I responded, “I want to raise our children Jewish. I want our daughters to identify themselves as Jewish, even though their mother is not Jewish. I want to do whatever must be done to make this possible.” I spoke quietly: “Even convert.”

I suddenly felt tears streaming down my face. My husband’s fears–that our two young daughters won’t be accepted by any sect of Judaism; that one day they will be confronted by a temple official who would tell them that, according to Jewish law, they are not real Jews–had finally gotten to me. I wondered: Why is this so difficult? Why should we, my children and I, be excluded from the club that my husband was only by chance born into?

The Burstein familyThis is the story of where we, as a family, went from here. At the start of the story, my husband and I had already enrolled our daughter in a Jewish preschool: she was learning about all things Jewish, called herself a Jew, and was even obsessed with Israel. But my husband worried about my reticence–my reluctance–to convert. Despite having virtually no religious background himself, he feared we were setting up our daughter for future heartache when she learned that many Jews don’t consider her Jewish because her mother isn’t Jewish. “When will we end this charade, when will you tell her she is not really Jewish?”

In my heart, however, I knew that our children would be accepted and their Jewish identity embraced regardless of whether I converted. As a regular reader of J., the Jewish news weekly, I knew intermarriage was too widespread–and temple attendance too sparse–for synagogues to simply reject non-Jewish spouses and their progeny. People like me had to be integrated. Deciding to raise my daughters Jewish is a gift to the Jewish community; they should support me, I thought. I also sought to restore a lost Jewish identity in my own heritage going back five generations. (Okay, so the blood is a bit diluted. Nevertheless, my children are half Jewish. They have a Jewish surname.)

Despite my Christian past or perhaps because of it, I longed for involvement in a religious community. And so this past Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) brought a fresh wave of Jewish guilt. Without affiliation I realized that we were adrift. The pressure for me to do something, anything, was particularly overwhelming due to my dilemma: how do I keep Immie connected to Judaism, now that she had graduated from preschool into Kindergarten and attends a public school? The answer was simple, yet hard for me to reach: join a Reform temple.

Enter Sandy, our “Tot Shabbat” teacher. Since meeting Sandy, I’ve come to think of her as a Jewish fairy godmother, one who assuaged my sorrow as I weepily recounted my initial exchange with my husband. “I thought I was doing right by Immie,” I blubbered. Sandy put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Doree, don’t worry so. Here, at a Reform temple, your children are considered Jewish. “Whew,” I thought to myself–“Thank God!”

At last we joined, and just in time to attend the temple’s first interfaith meeting. These days, sitting in our brand new synagogue, I am struck not only by how similar the architecture is to the Lutheran churches of my youth–it is modern craftsman with a few quaint flourishes: exposed beams that criss-cross the raised ceiling; windows of stained glass that flank the ark where the Torah is kept, an eternal flame alight on its top–but also by the faces I see attending our first interfaith discussion group–many non-Jewish, I think.

This is a temple that acknowledges that 70% of their membership is interfaith families. To say I feel vindicated and relieved is an understatement. Fighting my natural inclination toward martyrdom, I now realize I am not alone in this journey. Many women, even Jewish women, struggle to bring Judaism into their homes. To them I say: Help is as close as your nearest Reform temple.


About Doree Burstein

Doree Burstein is a free-lance writer residing with her family in the SF Bay Area.