The Bintel Brief

Bintel Brief: Blu and Yitz Greenberg Say ‘Think Twice’ Before Wishing the Kids Had Married Non-Jews

By Yitz Greenberg and Blu

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Dear Blu and Yitz,

All of my daughters married Jewish boys. But sometimes I think it might have been better had two of them married non-Jewish boys who would at least have been supportive of their wives trying to bring some form of Judaism into their homes and into the lives of their children.

One of my daughters, to the chagrin of her husband, has enrolled my granddaughter in a Jewish Sunday school, and both attend holiday services. Her husband works on the High Holidays and will put up with attendance at secularized Jewish celebrations. My granddaughter may or may not become a bat mitzvah.

My other daughter informed me that her husband said he has better things to do with his money than to put it into a synagogue and into my other two granddaughters’ religious education. He also does not honor the holidays nor does he attend religious functions other than family events that he is expected to attend. My daughter has made it clear that she will do whatever it takes to keep peace in her home. She did say that she will take the girls, now 6 and 8, to see what Hebrew school is all about, but if they don’t like it, she will not insist they stay. Can you imagine leaving such a decision up to children that age?

Both my sons-in-law are talented, decent men who are good providers. All had bad experiences while being forced to become bar mitzvahed. As far as Judaism is concerned, they have never evolved beyond the age of 11 or 12 and are still angry.

I continue to send my grandchildren holiday greetings, books about holiday celebrations, invitations to celebrations, letters explaining the significant Jewish concepts, etc.

My wife, who is very secular, tells me not to push. But I see my grandchildren and my descendants being deprived of their religious heritage, their Yiddishkeit, and their civilization because of their Jewish fathers who find the faith into which they were born irrelevant to their lives and possibly an unnecessary burden.

I want to make this an issue, and my wife is against it. What do you advise?

FRUSTRATED FATHER

Blu and Yitz reply:

You are between a rock and a hard place. Legitimately, you want your granddaughters to receive a positive Jewish education that will enable them to carry on the chain of the intergenerational covenant of the Jewish people. Yet their fathers do not care, and your daughters are willing to placate their husbands. You are considering intervening, yet your wife is not with you. Adult children can be highly sensitive to parental intervention in their child-raising decisions. You do not want to be rejected as overbearing, nor do you want to cause negative fallout in your daughters’ marriages.

In essence, your letter raises the question: What is the legitimate role of grandparents in transmitting our Jewish heritage? This question is particularly salient for a generation in which there are many intermarriages without conversion, and one set of grandparents and parents may be incapable of transmitting — or not want to transmit — Jewish heritage. As for your ruminations that perhaps it would have been better if your daughters had married supportive non-Jews than alienated Jews, think twice. While it is true that a supportive non-Jewish spouse might inspire a child to be Jewish more than does a hostile born Jew, your daughters’ chances of finding such a husband among non-Jews are quite low. The statistics show that only a minority of intermarried couples raise their children Jewishly, let alone support higher levels of Jewish education. Of course, if there is intermarriage, Jewish parents and grandparents should reach out and try to bring the children into the community. But be mindful that there are thousands of Jewish grandparents who would happily trade places with you, and it would not hurt to show your daughters appreciation for their basic choices to marry Jewish men.

So you must be proactive yet also tread gently. The tone and spirit of your approach is particularly important. A judgmental tone would be counter-productive, certain to evoke a negative response. Nor should you be over-anxious or press for immediate results. Keep in mind that the permanence of family bonds offers you a unique portal; there will be a thousand points over the course of a lifetime when you can naturally offer Jewish values to your children and grandchildren.

Second, it is important to come to a joint understanding with your wife about a positive approach to your daughters and their families. Perhaps you need a third party to continue this conversation, for if your wife gives negative messages or ones that contradict yours, your intervention will almost certainly not succeed.

What about your role as grandparents? Grandparents can enormously enrich the parenting experience, including the Jewish dimensions. We were fortunate to have had fathers who learned with our children and inspired them by their religious model. Savta Sylvia — Blu’s mother — is alive and vibrant at 94 and in daily contact with many of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Never mind the occasional critique of our child rearing or intervention in certain parental decisions — the overall impact is like having a second set of parents; it is a great experience for all three generations. We have always said that a parents-to-child ratio of 4-to-1 or even 3-to-1 is barely enough to be able to cope with raising children, as well as educating them properly. If you approach your task wisely and lovingly, you can make your involvement equally constructive and welcome.

What can you do? Sit down with your children and communicate how much being Jewish means to you and what important and good values are at stake for them and their children. If you can afford it, back up your urgency with an offer to pay for school — or for a Jewish summer camp. These experiences might motivate them to ask for more Jewish education and home ritual.

Invite your grandchildren to your home regularly for Shabbat or holiday celebrations, or special Jewish events that are spiritually rich and inspiring. Take them on a (well-planned) trip to Israel. Such a trip can be life transforming. Take them as teenagers on a roots-discovery trip to the places of your family origins.

Go for it, positively — not in a spirit of complaint, or by blaming your children for their lukewarm loyalties; that is the surest recipe for coldness, rejection and failure. As loving grandparents — with your children’s blessing — you can add extraordinary depth to the personal lives and Jewish growth of your grandchildren.

Blu Greenberg was the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She is the author of “On Women & Judaism” and “How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household,” among other books. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the founding president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and served as the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. He is the author of “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” “Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World” and “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.”


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Comments
Jeffrey Blustein Wed. Nov 14, 2007

Excellent piece, I wish only that I could have read it 21 years ago

Mark Werfel Fri. Nov 16, 2007

The essential issue is not framed well, while the response intrinsically has some good advice for those who wrote in. The core problem is, as the above cites was the case for both sons-in-law, religious education's abject failure. Given this problem was known to exist 45 years ago when I attended Talmud Torah (and persists until the current day) without resolution (but with no shortage of funding), it reflects negatively on the leadership of Jewish organizations involved and also those which purport to help on a consulting basis, including CLAL. The recent invitation (by Michael Steinhardt?) to discuss the core matter of "Why Be Jewish" was a suggestion I made a little over a year ago to my rabbi, not that I can link it to that conference. However, I also pointed out that those who failed before should not be expected to succeed now, and hoped to engender a discussion in Washington DC, where I live, which leads to support for an approach which I've formulated at the conceptual level. I'm not willing to disclose it unless I can control its use, and will not involve those who only seek to protect turf. Working within Jewish organizations has been nonproductive, but was attempted. For personal credibility, readers are welcome to visit my website: www.markwerfel.com which reflects my career as a change agent highlighted with service on a Presidential Commission and then to e-mail me at ajcwerfel@yahoo.com

Nina Gardenstein Thu. Nov 15, 2007

Good suggestions, in addition it is important to engage the father. My brother-in-law's sounds similar to the two son-in-laws. We realized that other than negative experiences as a child, he had never been asked about the positive aspects of Judaism in his life. Once approached, he shared a wealth of responses. My sister noticed that many of his happiest childhood memories were actually connected to religious events - family gatherings before holidays, special guests on shabbat, and so on. She asked her husband to help recreate these experiences for their children. He now has a role to play in transmitting Jewish memories which is wondering for our entire extended family.

Jim Thu. Nov 15, 2007

Great advice! I am having the opposite experience, having dated someone for a year who is not Jewish (but very supportive) and having a difficult time integrating her into my Jewish (shul, kid's school, friends) life. I love her, and she's very supportive of my Judaism (despite being an atheist) and extremely supportive of my reliationship with my kids. Neither has been true of any of the Jewish women I dated after my divorce, but maybe I didn't look long enough for the right person.... As it stands now, I have two compartmentalized lives, one Jewish and one not-as-Jewish. Having a partner/spouse who is not Jewish, even if very supportive of the Jewish aspects of your life, can subtly pull you away from your Jewish involvment. It's not their [the non-Jewish partner's] fault any way you look at it, but it still happens. I wish Frustrated Father all the success in being a positive, knowledge-transmitting Jewish role-model for his grandchildren. Work with your children and their spouses to create a positive Jewish experience for the grandkids, and it will turn out well.

David Ebin Thu. Nov 15, 2007

There was one thing that might have been added to the Greenbergs' response. They did not mention that if one doesn't give ones children any Jewish education, then the children are likely to be enticed by an extremist Jewish group or a foreign cult.

David S. Levine Sat. Nov 17, 2007

What made "Frustrated Father" think that his daughters marrying out would be a better option. If either of them attempted to bring up their children as jews there would more likely be an even more difficult conflict. The current issue of "Commentary" has an excellent articly of what a Christian father of a Jewish daughter feels at her Bat-Mitzvah, and the author-father is supportive of his wife and daughter. All the foregoing article proves is that the public schools, where I presume the daughters' husbands were educated, are the greatest threat to Jewish survival in america today!

dorothy Fri. Nov 16, 2007

This is similar to my experience. My husband has no use for religion or any of its trappings. I would suggest finding a program where the children enjoy themselves and make friends. Then you will be surprised how efficiently the kids can get their dad to show up, first just to show support for his daughters, but in my husband's case he was surprised how friendly and open-minded the other parents were with him. After a while he would look forward to seeing those who had become his friends. As a baby boomer I have been amazed how much parenthood made my generation re-examine our own religious roots.

MM Sun. Nov 18, 2007

Among the four kids in my family, three married non-Jews, two of whom converted. These three are by far the most Jewishly involved of the 4 of us. The one remaining non-Jewish spouse is extremely supportive, while the one Jewish-from-birth spouse resembles the husbands of the writer in being alienated from Judaism and none of their three children have any relationship whatsoever with Judaism-- not for lack of their mother's efforts, but all was undermined by their dad. I am proud that I am an observant Jew who has also brought appreciation & tolerance to my in-laws. There is something to be said for intermarriage if only that it means non-Jews have the opportunity to be exposed to and admire our values. In my experience as well as observing at my synagogue & elsewhere, support from the non-J spouse is the rule rather than the exception.

Robin Margolis Thu. Nov 22, 2007

Dear Rabbi and Rebbetzin Greenberg: I would respectfully suggest an additional resource for the Jewish grandfather and grandmother you were responding to. The Jewish Outreach Institute is in the process of setting up an internet listserve (email list) of Jewish grandparents who are trying to teach their grandchildren about Judaism, so they can network with each other and share ideas. Now, these grandparents mostly have children who intermarried, but they have many concerns about assisting the grandchildren in developing Jewish identities that are exactly similar to those of the Jewish grandparents in your article. For more information about the Jewish grandparents' outreach program at the Jewish Outreach Institute, please contact: www.joi.org I would also like to respectfully suggest that you may wish to reconsider your view that interfaith couples are deliberately not raising their children as Jews. As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I have heard from many descendants of intermarriage. Large numbers of them report that their non-Jewish parent would willingly have agreed to have them raised as Jews, but their Jewish communities treated their intermarried parents with such coldness and hostility that their parents gave up, opting to raise them as "both" or "nothing" or as members of other faiths. I have heard the same story from many, many interfaith couples. The Jewish Outreach Institute has set up a listserve for the non-Jewish mothers in intermarriages who are trying to raise their children as Jews, and the listserve is filling up very rapidly. The Jewish kiruv and outreach programs instituted in the last thirty years are slowly reaching maturity, but they are still not on par with heavily-funded, centuries-old Christian and Islamic welcoming programs. Many Jewish communities are still resisting outreach to interfaith families, and refuse to adequately fund outreach programs. That's why many adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage are not being raised as Jews. Where Jewish communities are willing to put modest amounts of money and communal support into interfaith family programming, very spectacular results have been achieved, most notably in Boston and San Francisco, where many children of intermarriage are being raised as Jews. For more information about improving Jewish communal outreach to interfaith families, I suggest people visit: www.joi.org and the excellent programs for Jewishly-oriented interfaith families at: www.interfaithfamily.com For information about outreach to adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage -- who now constitute nearly 50% of all Jewish-identified college students -- please visit: www.half-jewish.net In closing, I would like to respectfully salute Rabbi and Rebbetzin Greenberg for their decades of work on Jewish unity and education issues, with the hope that they will extend their warm and Torah observant perspective to helping and guiding interfaith couples and adult descendants of intermarriage. I am personally a great admirer of Rebbetzin Greenberg's book, "To Run A Jewish Household" and her role in founding the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Both projects have made a huge, huge difference in many Jews' lives, including my own. Rabbi Greenberg's work on Jewish education and unity is too well-known for me even to be able to enumerate all of his projects. Yasher koach, may you have strength, and may you each live one hundred and twenty years. Warmly, Robin Margolis Coordinator, Half-Jewish Network www.half-jewish.net

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