Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families and helps them negotiate religious and cultural choices. “Mixed & Matched,” which appears every four weeks, offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife is not Jewish but is totally on-board with raising our kids as Jews. We belong to a Reform synagogue that is wonderful to our entire family. Our children go to preschool there and are being raised with all the Jewish holidays. My concern is that Conservative and Orthodox Jews don’t see my kids as Jewish. I don’t see any reason to have our kids go to the mikvah, but I know that in my parents’ Conservative congregation, my kids can’t have an aliyah. Why can’t they understand that in today’s world we are all postdenominational Jews? — Dad of Two Great Kids
Dear Dad: You have raised a very important point — whose rules are we going by? You and your wife have decided to do things in a way that meets your needs and your view of a shared Jewish American life. You may think the Jewish world should change and reshape itself to better match your view. The trouble is that Jews who adhere to traditional Jewish law feel you should see things their way. In fact, every other Jew out there has an opinion and is as unlikely to modify it to match yours as you are to match theirs. Thus, we are at a standstill.
Too often, an interfaith family has that very American belief that they should be able to have things as they wish. We are all vulnerable to thinking within our own paradigm. One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that many opinions can be held or at least listened to and validated, even if they are contradictory.
Learn more. I invite you to learn about the views of non-Reform Judaism. Take a class, possibly with a rabbi, from another stream of Judaism. You can check out the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog to find classes and teachers from all backgrounds offered all around the Bay Area. Additionally, you can go online to see what adult education classes are offered at synagogues near you.
Suspend judgment. Go into the class with the mindset of an explorer — what do the Jews at this shul teach and believe? Note that they don’t all agree with each other, but it is likely that they hold certain views across the congregation. Just as your Reform synagogue believes that the child of a Jewish man can and should have a bar or bat mitzvah right there on their bimah, the members of other shuls will have different shared views. A common Reconstructionist saying — followed by the more liberal streams — is that the past (i.e., tradition or halachah) has a vote, not a veto. However, in other movements halachah has a great deal more than a vote.
Meet other Jews. Make an appointment with a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi. There are many friendly ones in the Bay Area and I’d be happy to help you identify someone with whom you could speak.
What am I hoping for you? Well, there are several possible outcomes.
One, you would come away with a clear understanding of the halachic reasons for your children’s status and you will agree to disagree. In this case, you will need to develop a message that you will give to your children, and wife, about their status. The message should be honest and supportive of your children’s identity as Jews. You will also want to develop a message for the community at large for times when your children’s Jewish identity is questioned.
Two, you may decide that you want your children to be recognized by your parents’ Conservative congregation and therefore you want to take them to the mikvah. Here you’ll need to explain this to your wife without insulting her. Arranging the details will require talking to your rabbi.
Three, and this is the one I hope you avoid, you may simply be upset and do nothing.
Many members of our community want to be angry and sullen toward the Jews who don’t agree with their views of patrilineal descent. Please don’t get lost in this dead-end position. Discuss things with your wife and your rabbi. Make some affirmative decisions.
Finally, Dad, you have time, but not forever. Call me if you want to discuss your options. I can help you find a class and/or a rabbi for an informational interview.