Jewish kids, non-Jewish moms
For interfaith families, a complicated journey to joining community
Rachel Levy — with her family, from left, Olivia, Steven, and Isabel — said she considers her religious identity something that extends beyond herself.
January 25, 2012
Madison resident Mary Fernandez, a Roman Catholic, always went to church on Sundays. After marrying a Jewish man and giving birth to their first child, she “made peace” with separating from the church and committing to running a Jewish home. Now she recites the Sh’ma with her children at night.
Diane Katz of Livingston, who was raised a Presbyterian, sings in her synagogue choir and lights candles on Friday night, but continues each year to decorate her house for Christmas.
Grace Yeung of Short Hills places the candles in the menora for Hanukka, but only listens as her son recites the blessings.
A growing number of non-Jewish parents who have no plans to convert are marrying Jewish spouses, building Jewish homes, raising Jewish children, and playing active, even leadership, roles in the Jewish community. But without plans to join the faith officially, establishing their place in the Jewish community can be complicated.
“I didn’t convert initially because of my parents,” said Katz, who married a Jewish man over 25 years ago. In addition to singing in the choir, she recently served on the social action committee of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, where she also sat on the youth committee. There are mezuzot on the doorposts of the family’s home and Judaica on the walls. She said her synagogue is so inclusive and accommodating that “the need for me to convert lessened” over time.
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing from a Jewish perspective,” she said, adding, “I guess it’s a good thing because it kept us involved in the temple and Judaism.”
Rachel Levy’s husband has never asked her to convert.
“In a sense, I know it would make him happy if I converted. But he has never asked or expected it of me,” said the Summit resident with Filipino heritage who was raised a Catholic.
When people ask about her religious identity, she usually says, “I am raising my children Jewish.” To her, that means leaving work early to celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, attending the Conservative Summit Jewish Community Center, sitting on the religious school committee, and getting involved in Zehava, the young women’s arm of the synagogue’s sisterhood. She was present, she said, when her children were converted.
Because she is not Jewish, she said, “I feel more pressure to accept when honors are offered to me during services because I feel it’s a grander gesture” than when such honors are offered to Jews.
Some of the mothers interviewed by NJJN feel welcomed by the Jewish community; others, however, feel underappreciated for the sacrifices they are making.
Lisa Halpern of Randolph, who is Christian, said people sometimes share a little too much of their own opinions.
“Sometimes I meet someone and they say, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish!’ And I say, ‘Oh, my kids are Jewish.’ And they say, ‘As a matter of fact, you know, your kids are not Jewish’” — referring to matrilineal descent, the traditional Jewish law that says someone is Jewish only if he or she is born of a Jewish mother or undergoes a formal conversion.
“I find that to be very rude,” Halpern said. “Here I am doing what I consider a good deed. And it’s so rude! I don’t respond. I’m so taken aback. Better they shouldn’t be Jewish? I’m raising three Jewish kids who will grow up and have Jewish kids.”
Still, she said, she feels welcome at her synagogue, Temple B’nai Or, a Reform synagogue in Morristown. Since 1983, the Reform movement accepts “patrilineal” descent, which considers Jewish the children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as long as the parents make a commitment to educate and raise the children in the religion.
Rules and choices
A decade ago, 31 percent of married American Jews had non-Jewish spouses, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, the last one undertaken. The study also showed that one-third of children born to intermarried couples are raised Jewish.
With most intermarriages involving Jewish men and non-Jewish women, a lot of non-Jewish women are heading Jewish families.
In both the Reform and Conservative movements, individual congregations set their own policies governing which rituals are open to non-Jews. However, the Conservative movement sets limits on issues ranging from offering congratulations on an interfaith marriage to participation of non-Jewish parents and family members in synagogue celebrations. As a result, Reform synagogues tend to be more inclusive.
Typically in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, non-Jews are permitted to do anything that is not a positive commandment — non-Jewish parents may stand on the pulpit during a child’s bar or bat mitzva, for example, but do not recite the blessings over the Torah. But some Reform congregations permit non-Jews to take part in every ritual, according to Vicky Farhi, lead outreach specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.
In Conservative congregations, non-Jews technically may not be members, and one must be a member to hold synagogue office. But beyond that, there are very few “red lines” dictated by the movement hierarchy, said Rabbi Paul Drazen, special assistant to the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“Each congregation reflects the community within which it is found,” he said. “At the same time,” he added, such inconsistencies can be “inconvenient and confusing.” Last year the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly reconstituted its keruv, or outreach, committee, examining best practices on welcoming intermarried couples within the movement’s synagogues.
Tracy Lobel found Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation in Succasunna, welcoming and forthcoming from the outset. In fact, when she walked into the synagogue for the first time several years ago to enroll her oldest son, who is now 12, in religious school, she was greeted warmly and invited to join the religious school committee. She declined, explaining that she isn’t Jewish. “They said, ‘Oh, that’s okay. Maybe it’s even better because you will bring a different opinion from the rest of us,’” she said.
The rules can still be hard to swallow. As she looks forward to her son’s upcoming bar mitzva, her excitement is muted by what she may not do according to the rules of the congregation.
“I’m allowed to go on the bima, but I’m not allowed to light the candles or say anything in Hebrew. I am disappointed,” she said.
And sometimes synagogue leaders make mistakes, leading to potentially awkward moments. Non-Jewish women raising Jewish children can be mistakenly offered honors that may later be rescinded. Something along these lines happened to Levy years ago. But for her, it was such an understandable error, such a non-event, that the details have blurred over the years.
Even when the rules are clear, and the grownups understand, children can be caught in between. Fernandez’s younger daughter was disappointed that her mother could not join her for the traditional passing of the Torah scroll from one generation to the next at her bat mitzva service. Fernandez said, “I told her, ‘This is not about my choices; it’s about your choices.’ I think she understood.”
‘A huge help’
Among the liberal movements, and even within a few Orthodox congregations, the growing number of interfaith families has been effecting a change in attitudes among synagogue leaders. While policies once reflected a desire to discourage intermarriage, they are now being adjusted under the premise that by welcoming such families, their children are more likely to be raised as Jews.
The same philosophy is behind many of the initiatives and resources that have sprung up to help them, from national groups to synagogue outreach committees.
Tracy Lobel of Oak Ridge in Jefferson Township turned to the Jewish Outreach Institute and its national listserv, Mothers’ Circle, which provides free educational programs and resources for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. Jewish professional Dana Lichtenberg runs a local arm of Mothers’ Circle, offering occasional classes and discussions. Lobel called both “a huge help.”
Raised as a Methodist in rural Michigan, Lobel said her husband was the first Jewish person she really knew. When they decided to get married, they knew they wanted children and would be actively engaged in just one religion — but they didn’t know which one.
“We decided to let God decide,” said Lobel. “If we had a boy, it would be Jewish; if we had a girl, it would be Christian.” Instead of just one child, they eventually had three — all boys.
“It was meant to be,” she said, about their gender-based decision. Today, even though she has not converted, she said, “I want my boys to marry Jewish girls. I didn’t go through all of this for nothing!”
Levy and her husband didn’t decide what religion to raise their children until they went searching for a house of worship. They visited churches and synagogues all over the area. When they came to the Summit JCC, she recalled, “It was a match for us. It was just a welcoming community.”
Their decision was also nudged by their honeymoon in Spain, where they kept stumbling upon relics of the Inquisition. “Catholic history really had an impact on our decision. We could give the world two more Catholics or two more Jews. I felt more like I wanted to do the latter,” she said.
Grace Yeung of Short Hills was raised Buddhist, but she was not involved in religion at all by the time she married a Jewish man and had a son. Although she has had little interest in becoming engaged in Judaism, she has insisted upon her son’s commitment to it, even after a divorce, and her ex-husband’s move to Florida.
Yeung set up a menora and lit candles with her son during Hanukka — though only he recited the blessings. She takes him to a Jewish youth group and services on a semi-regular basis.
“Religion is lifelong,” she said. “It’s not, ‘You have a bar mitzva and you’re done.’”
While Yeung has not embraced Judaism in any way for herself, for some of her peers, agreeing to raise Jewish children is only the first step. After the decision comes a steep learning curve.
Said Fernandez: “I decided I had to commit and educate myself. Jewish homes are very matriarchal. The woman is in charge. So I took over.”
She buys plenty of Jewish books, and has turned to Rabbi Donald Rossoff of B’nai Or in Morristown, where the family belongs, for help and guidance.
For many of these women who have committed to living in a Jewish household, Christmas can be a challenging time of year.
“It’s very complicated,” Katz said. “There are a lot of emotions around Christmas,” particularly when it comes to family traditions and memories. “It’s hard to let go of that,” she said.
They put up Christmas decorations and celebrate with family, but they don’t go to church.
“Christmas is less about the birth of Christ and more about being together with family and building traditions,” Katz said. “It’s one piece of my tradition that I want to share with my kids.”
For Katz, having the flexibility to incorporate Christmas in this way helps keep her marriage solid and grounded. “Everyone has their own solution. But excluding all of my family traditions would have been a mistake,” she said.
Lobel’s family celebrates Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter; they have a tree that her children like to call a Hanukka bush, and they decorate it with snowmen and Hanukka symbols. But Lobel has drawn the line at nativity scenes. “I was given one as a wedding gift, but I’ve never put it up with the kids,” she said.
Similar potentially confusing ritual issues can arise when these Jewish children go to church with Christian relatives. Every year, Levy takes her children to see her family in California for Christmas, and they go to church with family members. This year, she said, her daughter complained when she could not take communion with members of her extended family.
“I had to explain that she has to go to church every week [in order] to take communion,” Levy said. “That was a tricky explanation.”
It got easier, however, when Levy told her daughter, “‘Catholics don’t have onegs, they just leave after services.’ The look on her face when I told her that — she won’t want communion again.”
Being betwixt and between in the Jewish community can be a rough ride for some. But most of these women have made their peace with their decisions.
“It was very difficult to make the switch,” said Fernandez. “But I think it has been a real privilege to have lived fully in two religions.”
With reporting by Sue Fishkoff, JTA