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?
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.”