We Are the New – and Real – Face of American Judaism

By Susanna Perrett

March 27, 2014


Bar Mitzvah 

More years ago than I care to admit, I married a Jewish man. At the time, we wrestled with how to raise our children: Should they be Christian? Should they be Jewish? Should they be both? We went to temple and I just didn’t feel welcome.  It was very foreign and scary. We went to the Unitarian Church. That didn’t fit. Then we went to a different temple, a progressive temple that openly welcomed interfaith families.

The rabbi at that temple told me that if I chose to raise my children as Jews I would be welcomed and accepted into the community. His expectation was for me to do everything in my power to protect their Jewish identity. I agreed. In turn, he welcomed and included me.

In retrospect I was very naïve; I didn’t understand that he meant his community, not the community at large. But, I signed on, got married and when we eventually had children, we took the steps to raise them as Jews.

When we named our children they were given a Hebrew name that included me.  My children are all sons and daughters of my Jewish husband and me. Their naming certificates reflect this. It was the community fulfilling their part of the deal: I agreed to have Jewish kids, and they agreed to include me. I recently asked the rabbi about why he did this. He said that by fully including me he was doing God’s work.

Life is uncertain, and we moved around a bit. We eventually landed in a new community that claimed to welcome interfaith families. My oldest child had his bar mitzvah a few months ago. As we were preparing for the service the morning of the event, I learned that our new temple was not going to live up to the agreement of our old temple and include me. They changed my son’s name. He was called to the bimah with only my husband’s name and in the stroke of a pen I was eliminated.

Yes, I learned that I was to be eliminated on the day of his bar mitzvah. It was one of the saddest days of my life.

I learned that I was excluded on a day that should have been focused on celebrating what he achieved, and perhaps, on a lesser scale, what I achieved. I lived up to my end of the deal. I created a Jewish child. Now, I wasn’t expecting a ticker tape parade, but eliminating my contribution to that event was indescribable and honestly, unimaginable.

My family’s story—my son’s story about his bar mitzvah—will always be tainted by my elimination. A joyous occasion will always be marred by the sadness of my exclusion. It didn’t just impact me, it impacted our whole family. It was explained that I am not part of the Jewish lineage of my children and that it was inconceivable that I could even expect to have my name included. Yet, here I had naming certificates with my name on them, written out in Hebrew and signed by a different rabbi. It was hard for me to understand why changing this was so easy. Especially when I was told that if I did everything in my power to have Jewish children I would always be welcome. It seemed as if the contract was being violated. This wasn’t the deal and it certainly wasn’t what I signed up for.

I make the latkes, the matzoh ball soup, the hamentaschen. I drive the kids to Hebrew school. I make sure that we light the candles on Friday. I take the kids to services if my husband can’t. I fight with the school when they only want to sing Christmas songs. I read the Jewish bedtime stories. I do these things. Me. I am not Jewish. When the community eliminates me it devalues all those things I do to ensure that my kids are Jewishly identified and are having Jewish experiences.

What we parents who are not Jewish sacrifice and contribute to create identified children should not be diminished. It should be celebrated. We should be thanked for our contributions. At the minimum we should not ever be eliminated. 

I am left to explain this to my children. Why is the temple doing this to their mommy? My middle child doesn’t want to have a bar mitzvah because he doesn’t want to hurt me. Why should I fight vehemently to ensure that my children are identified as Jews now that the contract is clearly broken? What do I do? How do we move on from here?

As a community, there is a lot of dialogue about interfaith marriage, good and bad.  Debate is happening. This is great. I ask everyone who participates in this debate to think about the very real families that are creating Jewish experiences for their children that may not have two Jewish parents. Is it possible that perhaps we are at a time when we should move to truly be more welcoming and open? By that I mean stop worrying about who is Jewish and who isn’t. Let people participate in a way that makes sense to them.

I have a few requests as this conversation continues: Let’s try to include people in the community who are from an interfaith background in the conversation. Please remember that the decisions that are made are going to impact real families. That this is not a theoretical conversation. Show us empathy and grace; those not Jewish in your midst are part of your family. Whether you like it or not we are part of the new face of American Judiasm. If I was your daughter and my children were your grandchildren, how would you want us to be treated?


About Susanna Perrett

Susanna Perrett is a stay at home mom with three wonderful Jewish children and a Jewish husband. They have been learning about the joys and pitfalls of raising children and creating traditions in an interfaith family for over 15 years.