So You Want to Be a Jewish Mother, but You’re Not Jewish?

By Rabbi Barbara Penzner


So you want to be a Jewish mother, but you’re not Jewish?

Welcome, fellow-traveler! You join a long line of venerated women, including Tzipporah, who was the wife of Moses, and Osnat, who was the wife of Joseph and the mother of Menashe and Ephraim, boys whose names are invoked in the Sabbath evening ritual blessing for our sons. These women receive little attention in our tradition, certainly less than Ruth, who is known for her choice to join the Jewish people. Yet they raised leaders for the Jewish people.

You may be a lapsed Catholic, or non-church-goer, or an active member of your church. You may know a little about Judaism, or have come to accept certain Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday rituals as a part of your life. You may be thinking conversion as a possibility, or you may be firm in your decision not to become Jewish yourself.  Whoever you are, I want you to think about the following three principles:

*Every marriage is an inter-marriage. That is, every couple comes to understand that they bring to the marriage differences in religious and cultural background, differences in family style, differences in educational philosophy. Most of us are not even aware of or attuned to these differences. When a Jew marries someone who is not Jewish, the differences in religion become a focal point, even when you think you agree. When a Jew who was raised Reform marries a Jew raised in a traditional household, often similar issues arise: what synagogue (if any) should we join; which (or whose) rituals should we observe at home; whose parents host the holiday celebrations; who can help with Hebrew school homework; what foods do we serve on festivals? Consider yourself lucky that you are consciously addressing these questions, and they are not lurking in the background, waiting to blow up like a time bomb.

*You are not alone. Help is on the way. Ideally, you can find this help among like-minded people with whom you come into personal contact at work, in your neighborhood, in a synagogue or Jewish community group. Judaism cannot be lived in isolation. It literally requires a community, a quorum of Jews who look out for each other, who teach and model for each other. Don’t be ashamed to talk to a rabbi–most of us meet people like you every day, and are open to listening, to talking, and to referring you to others. Take a class. If your synagogue or Jewish community provides an Introduction to Judaism class, that’s a great place to start. These introductory classes do not usually demand an up-front commitment to conversion, and are often filled with born Jews who are still learning how to walk, or even crawl, as Jews. Consider delving into this rich tradition from whatever perspective most interests you:  history, philosophy, ritual practice, Torah study. You prepared for childbirth, didn’t you? You read books on child development, on caring for sick children, on choosing schools. Visit a Jewish bookstore or website and pick up a Jewish parenting book, or cassette tape, or video.

What if you are not a reader, or you just can’t find time for a class? Even if you can find time, find a friend, a relative, someone who can be a mentor, who can show you how to make latkes (potato pancakes) and matzah balls, talk about how other families handle gifts during Hanukkah, share family bedtime and mealtime rituals. Find other couples or families to share your celebrations, including potluck Shabbat dinners. Most people love sharing their stories and their traditions. Consider this a learning experience on behalf of your children, and for yourself as an engaged parent.

*You are not the only source for your child’s Jewish life, but you are an important one. Whatever your child’s Hebrew school may teach, while it can provide skills and introduce values and ideas, the lessons will not take root without your home support, enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. Unfortunately, the statistics do not bode well for children whose formal religious training is their sole educational source of Judaism. On the other hand, you know more than you give yourself credit for. You can teach your child a lot about what you believe, and do not believe, about the importance of family, about belonging to a community. By taking classes yourself, you demonstrate to your child that Jewish education is not just for kids. The choices you make, about what to do and what NOT to do, teach by example.

You can create a Jewish home even if you yourself do not participate in Jewish rituals or groups. Look around your house. What makes a Jewish home? Ritual objects, art, a mezuzah, parchment scroll containing the Sh’ma prayer, on the door, Jewish books. Does your child have Jewish books, games, art? Does your dinner table discussion include what is happening at Hebrew school, what is happening in the Jewish world? Do you discuss your choices for giving tzedakah (philanthropy) with your children, and do they include Jewish organizations or causes? Judaism belongs in the home, and you can bring it there.

Remember, you are not alone. All of the above advice could just as easily work for someone who was born Jewish. We as a people believe in learning. That includes life-long personal growth. Treat this as one of your parenting paths. To learn to be a better parent, you want to model physical health and emotional wholeness. You also want to inspire your child to respect the culture that is her heritage, to love and connect to the people of the Jewish community, and to seek refuge in the spiritual treasures of Jewish life.

One caveat: you will likely find out that, hard as you try to create a Jewish home and provide a Jewish education for your children, many rabbis will hold to the Jewish definition that the child of a non-Jewish (non-converted) mother is not officially Jewish. In this case, the ritual of immersion in a mikvah (Jewish ritual pool)–usually called a conversion–is a requirement for affirming your child’s Jewish identity. Immersion of infants at six months is routine for many rabbis. Older children, ages eight and up, can have a positive experience as long as they are comfortable putting their heads under water. For boys, the question of circumcision will undoubtedly arise. Reform rabbis will most likely accept your child as a Jew without conversion rituals, as will many Reconstructionist rabbis. Be prepared to have this conversation with a rabbi, particularly if you are enrolling your children in a Jewish school, to prevent any misunderstanding.


About Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rabbi Barbara Penzner is a Reconstructionist rabbi serving Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, Mass. She is also the mother of two children who teach her every day.