Raising a Jewish Child

By Leah Oppenzato

February 2009


couple holding hands over coffee

Reprinted by permission of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel (BYFI).

My Catholic wife first suggested raising our children Jewish. We were at a wedding of two friends in which the wife had converted to Judaism. For the previous year or so, we’d been dabbling in Unitarianism, thinking that perhaps its ecumenical approach would blend our traditions in a comfortable way. On the contrary, the Protestant feel of Unitarianism left us, a Catholic and a Jew, both feeling alienated.

Leah, Jeremy and Colleen
Leah, Jeremy and Colleen

So Colleen looked at me across the flower arrangement and said, “Let’s raise the children Jewish.” We weren’t yet married (religiously or legally; we have yet to be married legally, as we live in New York State) and we certainly didn’t have any children. But that conversation was recognizably the start of our path.

We joined a small congregation that meets in a church nearby. The shul is nondenominational and accepts–welcomes–non-Jewish partners, even allowing them to be board members. Our son has been attending Kolot Chayeinu since he was a bouncy little polliwog in utero, where he danced to nigunim. He still loves the singing, and crawls in the aisles. We had his naming there and have felt the encompassing welcome of Jeremy’s Jewish community.

Our Reform rabbi (the congregation itself is nondenominational) said that, ironically, according to the doctrine of patrilineal descent, she considers Jeremy a Jewish child. I function as the Jewish father, and we plan to raise him Jewish. However, we wanted to ensure that he would be accepted as a full Jew in the wider Jewish world, so we chose to convert him. Our first hurdle was finding a mohel who would not write “ben Avraham v’Sara” on his bris certificate – however, as it turned out, our Reform mohel agreed with our rabbi that Jeremy didn’t even need to be converted, and his certificate reads “ben Colleen v’Leah.” His conversion won’t be accepted everywhere, given that the Bet Din was a trio of Reform women rabbis, but we feel we have done what we can to give him a solid base in Judaism.

Jeremy’s Judaism has forced me to grapple with my own understanding of what makes a Jew. I see my child as fully Jewish. And yet, I come from a family of “full-blooded” Jews. I still have a nagging sense that there is a racial aspect to Judaism, that I am Jewish not only because of my upbringing, beliefs, and practices, but my curly hair, my Jewish mother, my Eastern European lineage. I look Jewish; Jeremy looks Celtic. I am glad for this challenge, to be pushed past my own stereotypes.

And yet Jeremy may find himself in places where he is not accepted as a Jew. I struggled in my own adolescence with different forms of Judaism that were less than accepting of my own Reform/Reconstructionist background, or my lesbian identity, but no one can ever dispute my Jewish heritage. It’s my job to pass on my strong sense of Jewish identity, just as my mother passed hers on to me; but unlike my mother, I can’t give him the security of the bloodline.

Being a non-biological mother comes with a host of challenges (different, in my situation, from adoption because Jeremy does have a biological parent). I need to pass my Judaism to him from my heart, not my blood or my genes or my curly hair. That is my challenge. And I accept it fully.

About Leah Oppenzato

Leah Oppenzatolives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with wife Colleen and 9-month-old son Jeremy. She teaches 7th grade at a progressive charter school in Hoboken, N.J. She is a member of Kolot Chayeinu/ Voices of Our Lives, a non-denominational Jewish congregation in Brooklyn.