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How to Raise Jewish Children… Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself The Jewish Outreach Institute Handbook for Parents of Other Religious Backgrounds in a Jewish Intermarriage Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin

Torah Aura Productions

Isbn 10 #1-891662-39-9 ISBN 13 #978-1-891662-39-4 Copyright © 2010 Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin Published by Torah Aura Productions. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Torah Aura Productions • 4423 Fruitland Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca 90058 (800) Be-Torah • (800) 238-6724 • (323) 585-7312 • Fax (323) 585-0327 E-Mail <Misrad@Torahaura.Com> • Visit The Torah Aura Website At Www.Torahaura.Com Manufactured in United States of America

For Rabbi Lee Diamond Cherished teacher, colleague and friend Who taught me how to approach the peaks of Sinai and to walk down its slopes in silence. KMO For my darling wife Yurika PSG


twenty things for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren to do (and not do)

Who Should Read This Book • Spouses of other religious backgrounds who are partnered with Jews, who are considering or have decided to raise their children Jewishly. • Family members including parents, grandparents, legal guardians, siblings and the Jewish spouses in intermarriages. • Rabbis who want to guide interfaith families as they consider raising Jewish children. • Jewish community leaders who set policy for institutions with regard to children from interfaith families. • Jewish communal professionals who work with interfaith couples, their children and family members.


For the Reader A Note From the Authors Intermarried families represent the fastest growing segment of the Jewish community. Those of you reading this book who are in an interfaith relationship already represent the majority of all married Jewish households. There are nearly one million interfaith families in the Jewish community in America. In particular, we estimate that at least 100,000 mothers of other religious backgrounds are raising their children as Jews, and maybe as high as 200,000. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we welcome all of them. We want to make sure, however, that you understand that our motivation is not primarily driven by numbers. We believe in reaching out and welcoming you in because it is a core Jewish value in which we believe and the foundation on which our organization and our lives are built.


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

Acknowledgments We want to thank all of our colleagues at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Although the words in this volume are ours and we take responsibility for them, we share their expression each day with those with whom we work. It is a passionate labor of love for each of them who join with us to create a more inclusive Jewish community. It is important to acknowledge the mothers from around North America who are part of JOI’s program called The Mothers Circle, for women of other religious backgrounds committed to raising Jewish children in the midst of an interfaith relationship, for sharing their insights and personal stories with us. The entire Jewish people remain in your debt for you have helped to secure its future. In particular we thank you—our readers—who have made a decision to share with us the destiny of the Jewish people through guaranteeing the future through your children. According to the rabbinic midrash (commentary through parables), when God offered the Torah to the Jewish people, asking for a guarantor, they responded that their children would be their guarantors. And so this book is offered in that spirit. We also want to thank our families without whose support our work would have little value or foundation. In particular, we thank Sheryl Olitzky, Avi and Sarah Olitzky, and Jesse and Andrea Olitzky; Yurika Mizuno Golin, Tracy Sklenar, Mary Beth Chazan, Chazan clan, and Susan and Jack Bender. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin Hanukkah 2009/5770


Table of Contents How to Use This Book . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 Introduction: Why Bother? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Section One: Judaism in Your Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Chapter One: Passover: Finding Your Place in the Jewish Journey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 Chapter Two: And Baby Makes Three (Or Four or Five) . . . 39 Chapter Three: Hanukkah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53 Chapter Four: The Jewish Household . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67 Chapter Five: What is Jewish Culture? . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 Chapter Six: Shabbat: The Jewish Sabbath . . . . . . . . . . 83 Section Two: Organizational Judaism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 Chapter Seven: High Holidays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93 Chapter Eight: The Synagogue: An Introduction for Newcomers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105 Chapter Nine: Jewish Education for Your Children and Yourself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125 Chapter Ten: Bar and Bat Mitzvah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137 Chapter Eleven: Jewish Spirituality and God-talk . . . . . . 147 Chapter Twelve: Other Holiday Celebrations . . . . . . . . 157 Chapter Thirteen: The Transformative Power of Israel . . 171 9

Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do)

Section Three: The Issues of Intermarriage Chapter Fourteen: What About My Own Religious Traditions? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185 Chapter Fifteen: Your Parents and Your Jewish In-Laws . . 195 Chapter Sixteen: Motivating Your Jewish Spouseâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; Or Yourself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203 Chapter Seventeen: The Communal Hang-Up about Intermarriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213 Chapter Eighteen: Diversity as Strength . . . . . . . . . . . 221 Thank You for Helping to Build a Jewish Future . . . . . . 231


How to Use This Book There are many excellent books about Jewish parenting and we refer you to them at the end of this book. But what makes this volume stand out from the rest of them is that we take into consideration your specific needs and challenges as the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship, having grown up with little, if any, of the background or religious identity that you may want to instill in your children. In the introduction we address the foundational question of the entire book. It may be the most significant issue you will have to address as a parent, “Why Bother?” It is rarely asked by members of the Jewish community; perhaps they assume it is simply a given. Even for born-Jews, the Jewish community can do a better job articulating Judaism’s meaning and value. You may be holding this book for as many reasons as there are answers to that question. Perhaps this book was given to you by your Jewish inlaws. Maybe it was given to you by your own family members who are supportive of the choices and decisions you have made. You might even have selected the book yourself or chosen it together with your spouse. This book will not provide you with all the answers to the questions you may have but it will answer lots of those questions and offer you insight along the way. As your children grow older, some of these questions will undoubtedly evolve. And we are here to answer them as well. In the first two sections of this book, each chapter is divided into three parts. They represent quick and easily accessible information about the topic addressed by the particular chapter, as well as insights by those living in an interfaith marriage: 11

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

• First Exposure: What to expect about this particular topic or situation, from the angle of being part of a Jewish intermarriage and as a newcomer to the Jewish community. • The Essentials: What you need to know about this particular topic, from a Jewish educational perspective. • Personal Story: Brief, first-person stories from those of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children and their experiences with this particular topic or situation. The chapters in the third section of this book are written in a “Frequently Asked Questions” format for easy access to the information that may be of most relevance to you at this time. While Kerry brings rabbinic perspective to the topics, Paul brings his personal experience through his marriage to a wonderful Japanese woman, Yurika. And we both bring our years of experience at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), where we’ve met with and guided hundreds of interfaith couples of all variations, helping them to navigate the challenges and opportunities in creating a Jewish home. We know for a fact that interfaith families can produce children with strong Jewish identities, because we see it happen all the time. This book will help you participate in—and perhaps even guide—your family’s Jewish journey.


Introduction: Why Bother? “Why bother raising Jewish children?” is really asking (on your children’s behalf) the question “Why be Jewish?” This is a relatively new question for Jews, but it is growing increasingly more relevant. In the past, there really wasn’t much choice in the matter; the society outside of the Jewish community did not accept Jews. Of course, there has always been the option of abandoning Judaism. Many individuals seized this opportunity when it presented itself. Nevertheless, for the most part, the Jewish community has been kept together, somewhat by tradition and family ties but also because there was simply no other choice. Within our own lifetimes, however, that has changed in North America by 180 degrees. It may not feel like it to you, but your intermarriage is part of a sweeping trend with large and complex societal causes. While not the focus of this book, we point it out so you understand that you are by no means alone. During the past two decades, there have been nearly twice as many marriages uniting Jews with those of other religious backgrounds as there are among Jewish-Jewish couples. Not only has the larger society accepted the Jewish community and its members, but in many cases Jews and Judaism are considered attractive and even popular. We find it in entertainment (Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song), in fashion (Madonna’s Kabbalah red string), in food (even Starbucks sells bagels), and in the selection of life partners. Although Paul and Kerry represent opposite chronological ends of the same generation, this turn-around is not something that either of our grandparents experienced or faced. Over the last 50 years, Jews—as the title of a recent book points out—“became white 13

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

folks.” Most Jews appeared to become just like everybody else, yet perhaps more importantly, American society also became more “Jewish” in many ways, thanks to contributions from Jewish leaders (among many others) in the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements. The end result was that formerly clear boundaries are now porous, if they exist at all. Jews are now disproportionately represented in the same Ivy League schools that used to maintain quotas to keep them out; Jewish professionals can work in any company; Jewish doctors can practice in any hospital. All this did not exist in our grandparents’ generation who (if they were lucky enough to be here and not in Europe) usually didn’t stray far beyond the traditional Jewish neighborhoods of the Northeast to such exotic faraway locations as Phoenix, Atlanta, or Seattle, let alone the suburbs of New Jersey. Today, at the turn of the 21st Century, Jews are no more secular—or less Jewishly-educated—than they were at the turn of the 20th Century, when there was almost no intermarriage. What’s changed is the playing field. For the Jews, America has fulfilled her promise as a land of opportunities. We’ve succeeded in America beyond our grandparents’ wildest dreams. But now we suddenly find ourselves in a conundrum. If we are just like everybody else, what makes us different, unique, and special? Do we really want to be different? So it is not only intermarried families who have to ask “Why bother?” Single Jews and so-called “in-married” families must also ask themselves “Why be Jewish?” If you find your Jewish spouse struggling with this question, that’s because many Jews struggle with that question. It is actually part of the Jewish psyche to struggle with that question on a regular basis, a practice that takes some getting used to, especially if you come from a tradition that speaks of a tranquil faith. And not just “Why be Jewish” but “How”? One of the special things about Judaism is that we’ve all got different answers. There’s an old joke: two Jews, three opinions. And it’s true. Since there are two authors of this book, you may even find some of that creative tension in these pages. “Why be Jewish?” Everyone will answer that question differently. Some may be only variations on the 14

Introduciton: Why Bother

same answer or multiples of the same answer. There is no catechism or rote learning that will supply the answer—we can only share with you some of our own insights and conclusions so that you may find your own reasons. As difficult as it is for your Jewish spouse to clearly answer the question “Why be Jewish?”—and that might frustrate you—it will also be challenging for you to answer the question: “Why should my children be Jewish?” But we will help you to do so through the pages of this book and through the voices of the intermarried families with whom we work on a daily basis—many of which are included in these pages. In some intermarried families, that question may actually be easier for the non-Jewish1 spouse to answer than the Jewish spouse! Your partner may have some Jewish memories from childhood that might help answer your questions. Or not, as some of these memories may be negative ones they’ve carried from childhood religious school. It may be because of negative experiences (or no experiences at all) that they abandoned Judaism in their post-adolescence and are hesitant to provide a formal religious education for your children. Thus, some of their explanations may sound simplistic; it is because they are not adult explanations or memories. Or conversely, perhaps it is your spouse pushing you to get involved, because he or she is so eager and enthusiastic about raising Jewish children. We can’t stereotype interfaith families, as every family is unique, but we can try to anticipate what you might need based on shared experiences of others who have gone before you. You may hear a lot of talk about why the Jewish community should welcome in interfaith families like yours. Some may talk about the ideology of inclusion, engendered by texts such as Leviticus 19:34: “The We hate the phrase “non-Jew” or “non-Jewish,” because we understand that nobody uses “non”-anything to describe themselves. We wouldn’t call ourselves “non-Christians” or “non-women,” for example. However, we use it, because we dislike the word “Gentile” even more. (And the Yiddish/Hebrew “Goyim”—while directly translated as “the nations”—is no longer a neutral term but often actually a slur.) A number of people we know who are not Jewish describe themselves as Gentile and feel strongly that it is the correct word to use, but we find it sounds antiquated. Truth is, we haven’t found the right phraseology yet. When not too awkward, we will dance around it by saying “of other religious backgrounds.” We hope you will forgive our language limitations as we continue to search for a more inclusive lexicon.



twenty things for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren to do (and not do)

stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Others may speak of the demographic needs, since the North American Jewish community is rapidly aging and not reproducing itself. Still others may advocate the inclusion of interfaith families in the community because of a personal interest: they want to make sure that there is a place in the community for their own children and grandchildren. Even with all of these persuasive arguments—and there are others (such as general liberalism and even Zionism)—little is being suggested as to why participating in the Jewish community would be good for the families themselves or their children. And that is what this section of the book is about. After all, if we can’t persuade you that it will make a difference in your life or the life of your children to join the Jewish community and raise your children as Jews, then why bother? So let’s try to redirect the Jewish community’s conversation. Let’s move it away from being “what’s good for the community” to “what’s good for you—and your children.” We seldom make decisions about our families based on what is good for someone or something else, even if we can consider that someone or something else extremely important. And those of us committed to a Jewish future certainly consider the Jewish community to be of utmost importance, because Judaism has always been about the peoplehood and has never been a solitary religion you can practice in isolation. Nevertheless, we realize that people evaluate things for their own sake, not for the sake of others. And that is all that we are asking you to do. Make your decision about what is best for your children and family. We think that you will find that raising your children as Jews to be of great value for you and for them. Consider the decision you are making from your own perspective. As difficult as it may seem, try to block out the various messages that you may be receiving about “Jewish continuity” from various people in your life. Some readers may have already made the decision to raise Jewish 16

Introduciton: Why Bother

children before they picked up this book. Others may still be wondering what to do. Some may even think it appropriate to let their children make their own decision when they become adults. They will make their own decisions when they become adults anyway. This doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to them as parents when they are children. Hopefully, this section and this entire book will persuade you as to the value in raising Jewish children. Whatever your decision—and we will work with you and support you whatever decision you make—this book has one message. If you haven’t heard it before, we want to make sure that you hear it loud and clear: We in the Jewish community want you, need you and welcome you with a loving embrace.

Reasons for a Parent Raised in Another Religion to Raise Jewish Children Our responsibility is to help you sort out emotion from intellect; we know that it is nearly impossible to do so when discussing our own children. Nevertheless we will give it a try. We know that the very consideration of raising a child in a religious tradition and community other than the one you were raised in is daunting just to think about. It takes a special person to take on such a responsibility and embark on such a journey. Know that you are not alone in your choice to raise Jewish children. Also know that it is possible—thousands of other parents of different religious heritages are doing so as well. Nonetheless, we recognize that there is not one formula for doing so. It is not “one size fits all.” But there are several compelling reasons for raising Jewish children. Below you will find a number of reasons that have been suggested to us by people raising Jewish children. We have added our own comments, as well.

“My Spouse Really Loves Me and It is Important to Him (or Her)” This is what Susan told us. She would do anything to please Eddie, as he has tried so much to please her. That is why she was willing to raise their children as Jews. Having grown up in the south, Susan comes from 17

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

a Baptist background. Although she recognizes that it was not an easy decision to make, we all want to do things to please our life’s partner. And if Judaism is more important to your partner than is your own religion of origin, the religion in which you were raised, then you may not need to read any further and can simply turn to the next chapter. If you are already married, this may be a condition to which you agreed early in your relationship. In working with interfaith couples, we often find that it is not the issue of which religion will be appropriate for the family or for the raising of children that causes conflict. Rather it is the issue of the practice of religion itself that can bring about friction in a relationship. If you are not particularly religious but religion is of vital importance to your spouse, then perhaps that is enough of a reason to make the decision to raise Jewish children. This is especially the case if your spouse is prepared to support your decision and actively participate in the raising of your children in his/her religion. That is why it worked so well for Eddie and Susan. She was fully prepared to raise their children within the Jewish faith as long as Eddie was really a partner in the process. After all, he had the Jewish memories that he carried from childhood. She didn’t. When we discussed this, Eddie quickly interjected, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is no way that I am going to abandon Sue in this aspect of parenting—or any other for that matter.” While you will create your own memories with your children as the process of raising them unfolds, it will be his or her memories that will provide the foundation for their Jewish family life right now. And for us, religious education is all about creating memories. While it makes it easier when both spouses participate actively and equally in the religious upbringing of children, it doesn’t always happen that way. And yet, parents still manage to successfully raise their children as Jews. But what is it about Judaism that makes it so important to him or her? You may want to actually ask the question if you haven’t already done so. We find that asking the question forces people to think through things that they may have previously taken for granted. It also helps us 18

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to transcend the assumptions we make about our spouse and even our in-laws. The choice to raise Jewish children might simply be a desire to repeat for spouses the fond childhood memories they had as a child. In many cases—and this might surprise you, especially if you were raised in a family that actively practiced a religion and went to church regularly— your spouse may be more concerned about Jewish continuity and community than Jewish faith and religion. Thus, he or she may want to raise Jewish children but not be particularly interested in its regular practice or attendance at synagogue worship services. For the religious Christian who joins the Jewish community through marriage, this is often the most confusing thing to understand. Why indeed would someone who isn’t particularly religious—or why would someone’s parents who are similarly not particularly religious—be so concerned about raising children in a religious that they don’t actively practice? We helped Susan and Eddie explore those challenges, and we also helped Susan get “up to speed” through adult education (JOI’s own “Mothers Circle” program), because it is so much more difficult for one parent to do it alone. Susan became an active member of her own Jewish household, even though she herself is not Jewish.

“I have a spiritual connection to Judaism” When we first met Ben, he told us that he had a spiritual connection to Judaism. That is why he wanted to raise Jewish children. He was intrigued by the story of the revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people. He was a Bible reader and understood that the roots of the three major western religions could be found in Judaism. He had also explored Zen Buddhism and felt that because of Judaism’s spiritual nature, there was no disconnect between Buddhism and Judaism. Ben—and his wife Lauren, who was born Jewish—was relieved when we told them that many people have developed an interest (or renewed interest) in Judaism through an exploration of Eastern religion.


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

There is a great deal of talk today about “spirituality,” a topic that was not very popular when Kerry became a rabbi 25 years ago. Perhaps it is why many rabbis don’t feel comfortable with the term even though many people prefer that the term is not specifically defined. This lack of clarity actually allows a lot of room to define spirituality individually and include many things. For Kerry, as a rabbi, spirituality is about a relationship with God. Religious ritual is used to enhance that relationship. If it doesn’t help to build that relationship, then it is of little value to him. Some rituals, however effective they may have once been, may be broken and no longer able to create that relationship—which scholars like Rabbi Eugene Borowitz like to call the “covenantal relationship” to emphasize its origins in the Mount Sinai experience when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people according to tradition. In the divine light of that relationship we are able to see ourselves more clearly. For Paul, as someone who is not as convinced about the existence of a God who answers personal prayers as is Kerry, spirituality is not Godcentered. It can be transcendent and bring us beyond the routines of daily living, but it is more about thankfulness and appreciation for the good things such as family and friends, their health and happiness, and the everyday miracles of nature and life in general. The word “God” becomes a sort of shorthand for “all that I love and hope for,” and that is how Paul, as an agnostic, has made peace with Jewish liturgy, by embracing the abstraction and even flexibility in the Jewish understanding of God—a purposeful abstraction that is rooted in commandments such as the prohibition against trying to create images of God. Yet he is sure that spirituality can still be experienced, because it is intertwined with love, and for Paul also includes “peoplehood,” a special connection to the Jewish people. Perhaps the phrasing of a “spiritual commitment to Judaism” allows for you some flexibility so as not to abandon your own religious background while at the same time raise Jewish children. Maybe you sense a spiritual relationship between Judaism and the faith in which you were raised even if the actual practices of both religions differ from one another. 20

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“It is good for the kids” This is probably the most important reason for you to decide to make the commitment to raise Jewish children. It is, in fact, good for your children. And it isn’t just about raising children in one religion or with a religion—although we believe that that is probably a better context in which to raise children. Religion can provide a moral foundation for righteous living. And ritual can help us to concretize complex and abstract ideas. This isn’t to say that other religions, including the one in which you were raised, wouldn’t be good for your children. Nevertheless, we want to point out some of the salient elements about Judaism that you will hopefully find relevant and perhaps even inspiring. First, Jewish culture is one in which children prosper. Hilary Rodham Clinton was correct when she said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” The Jewish community has long recognized the validity of that truism. It takes a community to raise a child. So you don’t have to worry about doing it alone even if you are afraid that you don’t have the spousal support to do so. And in the context of that community, your child will learn important values that he or she can carry throughout life, including specific ethical behaviors. Jews are much more concerned with the here-andnow than the hereafter, placing the emphasis squarely on how people relate to one another. Judaism gave the world what is commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, “do not do unto others what you would not want done to you.” The great Jewish scholar Hillel, when challenged to explain the entire creed while standing on one foot, quoted this as the essence of Judaism. He then admonished, “Now go and study!” And scholarship has in fact been a hallmark of the Jewish people for millennia. This combination of caring about others and intense scholarship is perhaps why Jews are disproportionately represented in the medical profession. There is a longstanding stereotype that the highest goal for Jewish parents is to raise children who become doctors, as encapsulated in this old joke: The first Jewish president of the United States is about to be sworn in at the White House. His mother sits between two Supreme 21

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

Court Justices at the ceremony. When her son gets to the podium, she turns to one of the Justices and says, “See that boy, the one with his hand on the Bible? His brother’s a doctor!” If you have young children you are probably not too obsessed about their future careers just yet, but the point is that Judaism is a highly intellectual religion and community, and it’s an intellectualism that is often employed in an earnest attempt to improve the lives of others. The legal profession is another in which Jews are overrepresented, and whatever your feelings are about lawyers, our country and other democracies have embraced the rule of law as the best way to create a fair and just society. Perhaps having been persecuted in the past, many Jews place their faith in the legal code and have been active in the ongoing shaping our country’s legal system. And of course, an understanding of legal wrangling is a key component of Jewish study, as the Torah and Talmud (commentaries) represent literally thousands of pages of “legal briefs,” discussions and arguments over the Laws of Moses that are contained in the Bible. Even in those households where Judaism was not studied or adhered to very strongly, we still see aspects of this emphasis on learning and social justice when examining the sweeping demographics of American Jewry today. For example, a stunning 25% of all Jewish adults hold graduate degrees, compared to 6% of the general adult population. And even though they tend to fall on the higher end of the economic spectrum, Jews overwhelmingly continue to support liberal causes in the hopes of bettering the common good, even in cases where they are directly voting against their own “pocketbooks.” Where does this intellectualism come from? Jews have long been called the People of the Book because of the Bible (that book), but if you visit any fair sampling of Jewish homes you will find that in fact Jews are the People of the Books, plural! Rare is the Jewish home without overstuffed bookshelves. Infrequent is the New York Times Bestsellers List without a Jewish author and/or Jewish-themed book noted, even though Jews are only 2% of the U.S. population. We believe the seemingly unquenchable 22

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thirst for knowledge and learning comes from a positive emphasis in Judaism and Jewish culture on asking questions. In Judaism, you are supposed to ask questions. It is not only allowed, but encouraged. For those who have left other religions (and in our experience especially for lapsed Catholics), this aspect of Judaism is a true revelation and a breath of fresh air. Judaism does not try to simplify life into black and white, good and evil, “with us or against us,” but instead tries to grapple with the complexities of life and its many shades of gray. Religious Jews believe the Law was given directly from God at Sinai, but even they believe that it is up to the individual and the community to grapple with how to put those laws and ethics into everyday practice. And there is no hierarchy to Jewish learning. Rabbis do not maintain secret knowledge or special rituals that are unattainable to the laity. Any Jew (or in the more conservative branches of Judaism, any Jewish man) can lead prayer services and read from the Torah on behalf of his community, which is why literacy became a cornerstone of Jewish life at a time in ancient history when only a tiny percentage of the world’s population could read or write. Perhaps more importantly, Jews are encouraged to interpret the text for themselves and to grapple with the interpretations of the great scholars of generations past. Judaism is a huge, ongoing, multifaceted conversation, and all are invited to participate. The ticket to entry is learning. Even the nature of God is up for debate. The word “Israel” means to “wrestle with God,” and was the name given to the Biblical Jacob after he spent a night wrestling with “a man”—either God, or an angel, or his own inner demon. The story, from Genesis, is a metaphor for the Jewish relationship with God; a constant struggle for understanding, improvement, and self-actualization. Don’t worry that your children will be hit with this complexity on their first day of Hebrew school. Obviously, Jewish pre-schools, kindergartens, and secondary schools have an age-appropriate curriculum that begins with simplistic, moralistic Bible tales. But the underlying struggle trickles down, and you will find that most Jewish children even at a young age 23

How to Raise Jewish childrenâ&#x20AC;ŚEven When Youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re not Jewish Yourself

feel confident asking questions, challenging the world around them, and recognizing that they can contribute in changing the world for the better. Thomas Cahill, in his bestselling book The Gift of the Jews, suggests that the Jews gave the world its understanding of history, that time is not circular but moves from one point to the next. Judaism suggests that we can improve the world around us rather than accept the status quo, and that is a belief you may feel comfortable encouraging your children to embrace. You will also have to embrace the recognition that you and your children are doing something that is not easy. It is a challenge to be in a minority and in our case a tiny minority, especially a minority that has a history of hatred directed toward us. Many of the non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in our Mothers Circle program express the fear that their children may one day face anti-Semitism. While it is safer to be a Jew today than perhaps at any other time in our long history, we cannot pretend that anti-Semitism does not exist. And yet, many Jews will tell you that there is something about their minority status that makes them stronger and also more empathetic toward others who are persecuted or in need of help. Jews give disproportionately to charities, and not just Jewish charities. It is a key Jewish ethic that has been strengthened over the years by our minority experience. Standing just outside the mainstream may give Jews a wider perspective on life that most of us would not trade as adults, even though we can all point to some time as a child when we became consciously aware of our differences. While having the challenge of minority status may not seem like a positive, we list it here because rising to that challenge has indeed proven to be a positive for most Jews. We hope that throughout this book and in your continuing learning about Judaism you will find even more reasons to feel positive about raising Jewish children.


Introduciton: Why Bother

“Being part of the Jewish community will enhance my own life as an individual and as a parent” This book is not about conversion. Yet some people mistakenly believe that even if they are raising Jewish children, if they themselves don’t convert to Judaism then Judaism will not directly impact their lives as individuals or as parents. That is not the case. By marrying someone who is Jewish, you’ve already been impacted upon by Judaism is some way or another. Perhaps you found a draw toward Judaism or Jewish people even before you met your spouse. It may not be religious but rather cultural in curiosity. Perhaps it was always at a comfortable distance—for you and your spouse. But now that you have children and plan to raise them as Jews, you become part of the Jewish community. We believe that being part of the Jewish community will also enhance your life as a parent. There are so many aspects to Judaism and Jewish culture, everyone can find some angle of interest. Some folks stumble upon it, while others actively seek it out. Because you are holding this book, perhaps you are the seeking type. We hope the rest of this book will help you find avenues of personal interest in the Jewish religion, culture, and/or people. Because if you can’t find an interest in it yourself, it will be very difficult to convince your children that they should be interested. Judaism is ultimately about sharing. You can share Jewish life with your family, even though you’re not Jewish. The rest of this book will help you get started.


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself


Section One: Judaism in Your Home


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself


Chapter One

Passover: Finding Your Place in the Jewish Journey Do you remember your first exposure to Jewish ritual? It probably was at either a Passover seder (that’s the special dinner meal on the first two nights of Passover) or at a Hanukkah celebration in the home of your Jewish relatives. It might even have been at a Jewish wedding ceremony or brit milah (ritual circumcision, sometimes just called a bris). Perhaps— although it is less likely the case—your first exposure to Jewish ritual was at a synagogue during the High Holiday services (which include Rosh ha-Shanah/New Year and Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement). We chose to begin this book with Passover because that is, in many ways, where the Jewish people begin. It is also—along with Hanukkah—the most observed Jewish holiday on the calendar. Passover celebrates the journey from slavery in ancient Egypt to the freedom of the desert wanderings as recorded in the Biblical book of Exodus, and then to revelation and the acceptance of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and all its commandments at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago. The goal of the seder is to bring you back to 1250 b.c.e. As a result, you are now there too. It is in the midst of that desert journey where the relationship (what Jewish theologians refer to as the covenant) between God and the Jewish people began.


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

First Exposure: The Passover Mindset You may feel like you stand outside that covenant. Perhaps when you hear the words during the Passover seder “When we were at Sinai,” you find it difficult to picture yourself as part of that “we” or imagine yourself connected in any way to those ancient Hebrews. But you were there. It is what we like to call a “spiritual reality.” Some people prefer the philosophical term “metaphysical” to describe it. Not everybody who awaited the presentation of Torah at the foot of Sinai was an Israelite. Yet they were all there. The Torah puts it this way, “You are standing this day, all of you, before the Eternal Your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the people of Israel, your little ones, your spouses, and the stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of wood to the one who draws water [from the well] so that you can enter the covenant of the Eternal your God and into the Divine oath which the Eternal your God makes with you this day” (Deuteronomy 9:9-11). There are no incidental references in the text. The “stranger” is included for a reason (even if we would have preferred a different term for the English translation of the Hebrew word Ger). The “stranger” recalls the “mixed multitude”—another term used by the Torah—who left with the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. Most who joined them were also slaves. But some of them simply expressed a desire to join the Jewish people at the beginning of its formation. This is how the Bible describes it: “And the Israelites journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them, as well as flocks and herds, even a lot of cattle” (Exodus 12:37-38). From the beginning, even amidst the ancient Jewish people in its formative stage, there were many additional people who cast their lot with them. And they were immediately accepted. As for Passover itself, this holiday is among the greatest gifts that the Jewish people has given the world. It reflects an unbounded optimism that is founded on faith. It is this faith that has propelled the Jewish people 30

Chapter One: Passover: FInding Your Place in the Jewish Journey

throughout its history. And it is this optimism that is retold each year during the Passover seder. Consider the story as retold in the Bible. The Jewish people had been enslaved for 400 years. (Even if 400 is just a metaphor for a long time and is not intended to be a precise number, it represents the passage of many generations.) There seemed to be no end in sight for their predicament. They felt doomed to be slaves forever. Suddenly, God appoints Moses as the leader to bring the people out of Egyptian slavery. Even his selection seems strange. He almost died as a child. He doesn’t speak well in public. With God’s support and direction, Moses is able to lead the people out of Egypt, through the desert and eventually enter the Promised Land—even though Moses himself is not permitted to enter the Land with the people he has shepherded. It’s not coincidental that so many enslaved peoples throughout history—as recently as African Americans involved in the civil rights movement in the United States—have taken this model as their own. It is because of the promise of redemption that it yields. The day before his assassination, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the prescient speech in which he said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.” The Passover story is a universal one that allows it to be translated by different peoples to relate to their own unique situations. But how do we then relate back, from our own situations to the very specific experience of the ancient Hebrews at Sinai, imagining we were there with them? This was the seminal moment, an encounter with the divine so powerful it shaped a people for over three millennia and continues to energize the Jewish community each year during Passover. One way to get into the Passover mindset is to compare it to a particular holiday with which you are most likely very familiar, if you grew up in the United States. While American Thanksgiving is more related to the holiday of Sukkot than Passover since the Pilgrims actually based their first Thanksgiving on the Bible’s description of Sukkot—a direct result 31

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

of their knowledge of the Bible (more about that in chapter 12)—for newcomers to the Jewish community, Thanksgiving can serve as a powerful metaphor to help you understand how to feel like you were “at Sinai” during the Passover seder. Most Americans know that none of their ancestors were in America during the early 17th Century (to the best of our knowledge, Paul and Kerry’s ancestors were in Europe—although yours may indeed have been in America), yet even if you can’t trace your family back to that first dinner between Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, it doesn’t diminish our enjoyment and celebration of Thanksgiving. It also doesn’t diminish our relationship to those Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers). We can relate to those newly-arrived Pilgrims and appreciate their desire for freedom and a fresh start, regardless of when our own families first arrived in the U.S. As Americans, as religious pilgrims of our own, we all take on that shared narrative—even if we are only first-, second- or third-generation Americans. Then we add to it our own family stories of immigration, plus the stories of current immigrants. As Americans, the history of Thanksgiving becomes ours. As part of the American Jewish community, the memory of Passover becomes part of our own. While the Torah may record the experience from the individuals who directly received revelation—depending on your theology and personal perspective on the Sinai event—even born Jews can’t actually trace their family tree directly to Moses. Nevertheless, the common narrative that we share is real. It speaks directly to our own desires for connection to the collective experience of the Jewish people. Some people put it this way: Jews don’t have history; they have memory. And in the case of Sinai, as the text from Deuteronomy cited above illustrates, by virtue of your decision to raise Jewish children, it is now part of your collective memory. You become part of it and it is now yours, as well.

The Essentials Passover (Pesah in Hebrew) is a springtime festival (usually in April) that celebrates the redemption of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian slavery. This eight-day holiday starts with a special dinner meal (seder), 32

Chapter One: Passover: FInding Your Place in the Jewish Journey

usually shared on both of the first two nights. The word seder comes from the Hebrew word for order, a reference to the particular order that outlines the Passover evening meal. A special book (haggadah) is used during the meal and guides the table rituals. Haggadah literally means “the telling,” that is, the telling of the Passover story. The central symbol is unleavened bread (matzah) said to represent the hasty exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, preventing the opportunity of the bread to rise. It is a mix of flour and water that contains no yeast. Matzah also represents poverty and is said to be the “bread of our affliction,” eaten by the ancient Israelites because they were impoverished as slaves. Since matzah is the primary symbol for Passover, no products with leaven are permitted during Passover. In order to make sure that their houses are free of leaven, observant Jews spend days or even weeks before Passover “spring cleaning” their homes to rid them of leaven (called hametz in Hebrew). The Rabbis also say that we are weighted down by spiritual hametz and should take the opportunity in the days before Passover to rid ourselves of the puffiness of our souls. At the center of the table that you set for seder is a plate that contains the various symbols used during the seder meal. While you can use any plate for this purpose, many people take the opportunity to buy or make a special plate for this purpose called a seder plate. Besides matzah, the following items are placed on the seder plate: maror—bitter herbs (usually horseradish) which symbolize the bitterness of the Israelite slaves’ lives; haroset—a sweet mix of wine, nuts, and raisins (although there are lots of various recipes with different ingredients from Jewish communities around the world) symbolizing the mortar the Israelite slaves used in their building; an egg—to symbolize rebirth; karpas—parsley or celery to symbolize spring; and a shank bone (or a roasted beet for vegetarians)—a reminder of the Passover sacrifice that used to occur when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. 33

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

During the middle of the seder, after dinner but before the second half that concludes the seder, there is a tradition to search for the afikoman, a broken piece of matzah that was hidden during the seder. While this was probably developed as one of many means to maintain the attention of children during the seder, there are a variety of customs regarding it. Most North American Jews hide the matzah and children search for it. Once it is found, it is “ransomed” by the children to the person leading the seder, often a senior member of the family, who eventually relents with gifts, usually cash. While the haggadah is probably the best example of a self-contained teaching unit that is embedded in Jewish ritual and liturgy, there are five highlights from the seder worth mentioning: four glasses of wine (or grape juice); the four children; the four questions; the ten plagues; and the cup for Elijah the prophet. Four glasses of wine (or grape juice): God makes four promises in the book of Exodus to redeem the ancient Israelites. These promises are recalled during the seder by a glass of wine—with appropriate blessing. No need to drink the entire glass. Just add to it a little each time. The four children (wise, wicked, intellectually-limited, and too young to ask): These four children (“four sons” if your haggadah is non-egalitarian) exhibit characteristics that represent the entire Jewish people. Some say that we all exhibit these characteristics at various times in our lives. The one who is wise knows it all, the rules and regulations and the entire story of Passover. The one who is wicked sees no relevance for him/herself to Passover. He wasn’t there so why care! The one of limited intellectual ability is only interested in rules and regulations for the holiday and not the “big picture” of the holiday. And for the one who is too young to ask, we tell the entire story. But we actually tell the story each year so that we might all hear it—even those of us who already know it. All of 34

Chapter One: Passover: FInding Your Place in the Jewish Journey

us need to be reminded of God’s presence in our lives and the promise of redemption that is implicit in the daily world in which we live. Four questions: While there are four standard questions included in the haggadah, these are really culled from many possible questions and focus on the unusual elements in the seder. They are traditionally “asked” (or sung in Hebrew) by the youngest person in attendance who is able to ask—a bit of a cross-reference to the four children. For families with several siblings, this is an annual point of contention to determine who is youngest (usually in good humor). The repeated refrain is: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” (It should be read, however, as How different is this night from all other nights. Then you really have only four questions.) The seder attempts to answer all of the questions. The answer comes through reading of texts that have been selected for the haggadah. Most families take turns around the table reading. For some passages, everyone assembled around the table may be asked to read aloud together. Ten plagues: In revealing the story we learn that the Pharaoh was not anxious to allow the ancient Israelites to leave Egypt. They were a slave workforce that was building his store cities of Pithom and Ramses. So working with Moses, God sent forth ten plagues to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave. It was the last one—the death of the first born of Egypt—that was the most convincing. We read how the Angel of Death came into Egypt but “passed over” the Israelite homes, and this is the generally accepted origin for the name of the holiday. Traditionally, we dip our pinky in the wine and put a drop on our plate as we name each plague. The cup for Elijah: this cup stands full, undisturbed, waiting for the prophet Elijah to herald in the Messiah. Thus the cup is a symbol of ultimate freedom and redemption. It is a tradition towards the end of the seder to open the door and symbolically let Elijah into your home.


How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

These are the central elements of a Passover seder, though the meaning of the holiday can also be mined much more deeply, and has been by countless great scholars and writers if you are so inclined to delve further.

How to Make Passover Meaningful for Your Family Like fingerprints or snowflakes, no two families’ sedarim (plural of seder) are exactly alike—though many individual families do the exact same seder year-in and year-out, for better or worse. When Paul was a young child, he attended seders led by his paternal grandfather that seemed to drag on forever. Every single word of the haggadah was read, much of it in Hebrew (though few at the table understood it), and there was no snacking until the text specifically called for the meal. And while we hesitate to say there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do Passover, if your guests are bored and disinterested and unengaged in the seder, then something is wrong with the seder not your guests! The seder is designed as an educational spiritual exercise—to simulate the metaphysical memory of the Exodus from Egypt. There are two ways to forget this: by seeing the occasion simply as a family get-together like any other, or by getting so caught up in doing the rote rituals out of obligation that we lose site of the holiday’s importance and meaning. Of course, if you are the guest rather than the host, there’s only so much you can do about it—or suggest, depending on your relationship to the host. Even a great seder can still take a long time. That means that it usually runs past bedtime for young children and is hard even for older children—and some adults—to stay awake and engaged for the entire seder. That is why it is important to include enjoyable activities along with the readings and prayers. Since the seder is divided into two parts—one before dinner and one after dinner—we recommend that the first half begin in the living room or family room. After all, one of the directives of the seder experience is that we are no longer slaves and can eat leisurely. And don’t forget to 36

Chapter One: Passover: FInding Your Place in the Jewish Journey

include crudités or something to munch on during the early part of the seder—the appropriate blessings for vegetables are in the early pages of the haggadah. If you are nervous about attending your first seder or want to brush up on what to expect when attending Passover at your Jewish relatives, one thing you can do is ask the host weeks ahead of time to borrow a copy of the haggadah that will be used. You can read through it and become more comfortable with the liturgy, and also determine what you find most relevant and discuss it with your own family in the days before Passover. Many of the songs are available as audio files on the Internet so you can learn the melodies ahead of time as well.

Preparing Your Own Seder The best way to insure your kids get the most out of Passover is to do it yourself. It might seem like a daunting task to prepare your own seder¸ especially the first time. But it isn’t so difficult. And there are plenty of well-illustrated books to guide you through the process. (Some of these are included in the appendices of this book.) Try not to give into the temptation of allowing Jewish celebrations such as the seder to always take place at your in-laws’ home, even if they live close by. Kids need to know that Jewish holidays are not the exclusive domain of their Jewish grandparents. Also keep in mind that the tradition in Jewish communities outside Israel is to hold a seder on both the first and second nights of Passover (due to concerns about the certainty of calendars from before time was marked so precisely), which gives you the option of attending the “first seder” at your in-laws or other friends or relatives, and doing the “second seder” in your own home. Because you may not want (or be able) to rely solely on your Jewish spouse to lead the seder, this will require some homework in terms of deciding which parts of the seder to include and emphasize. You may also have to determine what kinds of traditional Jewish foods your family and guests might expect. (Depending on where you live, there may be 37

How to Raise Jewish children…Even When You’re not Jewish Yourself

kosher delis or restaurants nearby that do a huge catering business during Passover.) Be sure to communicate with your partner, as sometimes people become fixed in their ways and may feel like “we’re supposed to do it this way because that’s how I’ve always done it.” One thing many families do to personalize the Passover experience, beginning weeks ahead of time, is create their own haggadah. This is one area of Jewish liturgy where people are encouraged to be creative. That’s why there are more haggadot (plural of haggadah) published than any other Jewish sacred text, including the Torah. Gather a variety of sources, including physical haggadot as well the growing treasure-trove of material available on the Internet, then cut, paste, photocopy, and (have the kids) color. While the seder outline is fairly standard, how you fill out that outline is up to you. If recreating the entire haggadah is too daunting a project, start by purchasing a set (and you’ll want to do some research to find the haggadah that best speaks to you, as you’ll need to buy enough for all your guests and the expense will encourage you to use the same set year after year) and augment it with a few sheets from other sources. For example, after reading the traditional version of the ten plagues, there are many additional versions of “modern plagues” (such as destruction of the rain forests, ethnic strife, poverty, etc.) that people read to raise social awareness during their seder. The haggadah is also intended to include the story of your family’s Jewish journey along with the main story of the journey of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt until they settle the land of Israel. You can start with some of the basics from a standard haggadah; then add readings that reflect the journey of your family. Include pictures and stories, things that will help those who participate recall the journey of the Jewish people and the journey of your family—both sides of it. As the kids get older, include things that they have written (stories, poetry) that reflect the themes of the haggadah. You may want to even invite them to write something specifically for your family haggadah. Ask them to write something about what it means to live in a free land, 38

Chapter One: Passover: FInding Your Place in the Jewish Journey

for example. And don’t be afraid to ask your own parents to contribute. After all, they have been on the journey too. For younger children, the goal is to make the story as engaging as possible. As you know (even if you’ve only watched the Charlton Heston version on TV), there’s a lot to work with. Today more than ever, there are “props” you can purchase to make the seder fun. For example, you can buy a “Bag of Plagues” online that illustrates each of the ten plagues as cute, plush toys. Paul’s sister Tracy is a professional dog trainer, so after doing the traditional dipping of our pinky in wine as we named the plagues in order, Tracy then had one of her dogs take a different stuffed “plague” out of the bag at random and we all named that plague, to the great delight of Paul’s three-year-old niece. Kerry recommends that families can even go so far as to invite people to come in costume. This allows individuals the freedom of participating in the seder and add the perspective of the person whom they are impersonating, such as Moses or Pharaoh or Miriam. Let that character comment on the various developments in the Passover narrative as the story unfolds over the course of the evening through the reading of the haggadah. He also suggests that invited guests or groups (such as families) be given responsibility for one section of the seder. Then you simply have to invite each person or group to share their section of the seder without the responsibility of actually leading the entire seder. If you were raised with the understanding that Jesus’ Last Supper was a seder­­—a position most Biblical scholars have rejected—it might impact your feelings about the seder experience. People might also expect the “Christian angle” from you. While Passover seems like one of the most complicated holidays in the Jewish calendar, it is the easiest to approach as a newcomer. It is part of the tradition to invite newcomers to the seder table. As a result, many families often have large groups of people sitting around the table (which may even spill into various rooms in the house) from many backgrounds. Questions are encouraged, as is the retelling of the story in great detail. Debates ensue. Comment on what you’re reading. Have lots of singing 39

How to Raise a Jewish Child Even When Your're Not Jewish Yourself  

Rabbi Olitzky and Paul Golin work for the Jewish Outreach Institute. They have worked with thousands of intermarried families, and they brin...

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