‘Are the kids (of interfaith marriage) alright?’

‘Are the kids (of interfaith marriage) alright?’

A young man recently wrote to me, saying, “I’ve been coming to your High Holiday services for several years. My wife is not Jewish and I now have a 3-month-old, non-Jewish son. I want to raise him as Jewish. What can I do?” 

As others have already noted, whether we rabbis officiate at interfaith marriages or not, the phenomenon of intermarriage is here to stay. Sending our kids to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp is great. But it does not shield them from the “availability of the attractive other,” as the sociologist Egon Mayer once stated. For me the question is not whether I, a Conservative rabbi, should officiate at an interfaith marriage (as of now I won’t, but I wish I could), but rather how is the Jewish community going to hold on to the children of an interfaith marriage? What can we do to get them to grow up Jewish? That critically important issue should be our focus, not endless arguments about halachic standards of Jewish marriage.

If the Jewish parent is interested in raising the kids as Jewish, and the non-Jewish parent is indifferent, the kids may choose to be Jewish. But in many cases, the very phenomenon of intermarriage signifies that the Jewish partner is not that “into” his or her Judaism.

Here, then, is a role for grandparents. Most children of a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew have a set of Jewish grandparents. It goes without saying that they will love their grandchildren. The challenge is for them to model Judaism for the grandkids. Chanukah and Passover are easy. Shabbat is much harder. But even a 5-year-old understands it when you say, “I cannot show you photos on my iPhone right now because it is Shabbat.” She might respond, as my little granddaughter once did, “but I use an iPhone on Shabbat.” To which I replied — in a bemused and loving way —  “but I don’t.” Her comment indicated that she understood, at some level, that my observances and lifestyle were different from hers. That is a good first step. Of course, after Shabbat ended I showed her the photos she wanted to see. And I explained to her a little about Shabbat.

What else can grandparents do to make interfaith grandkids Jewish? Give them Jewish books and read to them, even on Skype. Get them enrolled in PJ Library (which will send them each month, free of charge, a Jewish book). Give them Jewish toys. Cook Jewish holiday foods for them. Arrange for them to have Jewish experiences, such as going to a Jewish concert or even taking a trip to Israel. Maintain an ongoing Jewish presence in their lives. 

If the parents of interfaith kids won’t commit to regular Hebrew school, let the Jewish community provide alternative ways of delivering Jewish education to them. How about a Hebrew school program that would require four or five intensive family retreats each year? Synagogues can make that a prerequisite for a bar or bat mitzvah, which is something most parents want for their kids.  

If a grandparent creates a warm relationship with a grandchild, then the spillover effect is that he or she may come to love how you live. Having taught in the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school for 43 years, I am amazed at the large number of future rabbis who wound up there because of the love of Judaism they saw in a grandparent. This is a little-known fact.

There is no denying that there are delicate matters to negotiate if you want to be a source of Judaism in your child’s interfaith marriage. Will your non-Jewish daughter-in-law suspect that your goal is to get her to convert (when it isn’t)? Will your non-Jewish son-in-law find your Jewish efforts intrusive? Matters like these need to be addressed.

As for the young man who wrote to me about making his non-Jewish kid Jewish, it turns out that he is passionate about Israel, having spent a college semester at the Hebrew University. It therefore seems to me that if he models that passion for his son, and takes his son on trips to Israel, and exposes his son to Israeli culture and food in the U.S., it will go a long way toward making the kid feel Jewish. 

Rather than expending so much energy on the intermarriage debate, we rabbis — and the broader Jewish community — need to figure out how to make Judaism appealing to interfaith kids. It is not their parents’ wedding ceremony that matters but what happens next.

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