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mixed & matched |  No follow-through on agreement to raise Jewish kids

by Dawn Kepler

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I’m Jewish, my wife is not. I told her before we got married that I wanted our kids to be Jewish, and she agreed. But she’s not doing anything — she’s not even trying to teach the kids how to be Jewish. How can I get her to move on this and keep her promise?Frustrated Dad


Dawn_Kepler“Mixed and Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. It will appear every four weeks. Send your letters to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Dear Frustrated Dad: Let’s take a step back. When you were courting and you told her you wanted your kids to be Jewish, what exactly did you say? Did you articulate a clear plan of what that means to you? Did you tell her that any male child would have a bris, the children would receive Hebrew names, you’d join a synagogue, the kids would attend Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah, you’d practice the specific holidays at home and you, the parents, would attend Jewish religious services at least X times a month?

Or did you simply ask her whether she “agreed” to “raise the kids Jewish”?

I’m betting it was closer to the latter. How could your wife know what you meant when I’m not sure you know what you meant? I’m concerned that you are expecting her to be a mind reader. Or, perhaps you are secretly hoping she will embark on a study of Judaism in her spare time so she can create a Jewish home for your children.

Additionally, do you know whether she has any emotional attachment to her own traditions? Does she want the kids to observe holidays from her own childhood? Have you discussed her feelings?

Even if you had given her a clear-cut contract that she signed before your wedding, the reality of parenting is that it is full of surprises, many of them being what we discover about ourselves.

I encourage couples to make general plans but not to view them as written in stone. You simply don’t know how you will feel when you hold that newborn in your arms, or when you see your sister’s kids at their kindergarten consecration or your niece being christened.

You must be gentle with yourselves and keep the communication going. Many adults have profound personal discoveries regarding their own identity and their attachment to their tradition or religion of origin when they experience a powerful life event like the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

I must point out one huge obstacle to your plan: You appear to expect your non-Jewish wife to do all the work. You are the Jew in the family and you must lead the way. She was not raised Jewish. She has no warm memories of Jewish holidays. She may not be very comfortable in a Jewish environment. She has generously conceded the religious identity of her children to your desires. Now it is your turn to step up.

Find a quiet spot and make a list of what it means to you to “raise Jewish kids.” Which of the tasks on your sheet are you able to do? Begin with those.  You could say, “Honey, I realize I never spelled out what I meant when I said I wanted the kids to be Jewish. I guess I wasn’t so sure myself. But I’ve done some thinking, and I’d like to talk to you about my goals. I also want to know how you are feeling about my ideas.”

It would be lovely if you felt able to add, “In fact, I would like to take the initiative and begin by …” Pick something you can do. One idea would be to start having Shabbat dinner. You could offer to pick up a pizza on the way home from work on Friday and ask that she have a white tablecloth on the table. It can begin that simply. The next week you could bring her flowers with the pizza and let the kids add a bouquet to the Shabbat table. Then buy a pair of candlesticks and get a transliteration of the blessing — and you read it.

Now, Dad, I realize you may not know where to go with things from there, so why don’t you and I have a conversation so this can be presented in a loving way to your wife? I can help you with planning gradual steps and introducing them to your family while keeping the  communication open with your wife.


Dawn Kepler has worked with interfaith families since 1990. She developed and leads the Berkeley-based organization Building Jewish Bridges for Lehrhaus Judaica. She has served on the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund’s interfaith advisory committee and is a member of the Alliance of Jewish Interfaith Outreach Professionals.


Comments

Posted by David Waksberg
01/21/2014  at  04:49 PM
Dawn - thanks for sharing

Dawn - thanks for sharing your wisdom.  This is such an important issue; so glad the J is offering this platform to leverage your expertise.  No doubt it will be helpful to many.

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Posted by Patricia Munro
01/21/2014  at  04:51 PM
Walk the walk

Your advice is clear and to the point. I will say that the expectation of Jewish men that non-Jewish wives will raise their children has a reference as far back as Zipporah and Moses (Zipporah being the one who actually circumcised their children).

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Posted by lisabravermoss
01/21/2014  at  05:03 PM

I like the concreteness of your advice. As a life coach whom I once saw on TV said: whatever you want to accomplish, “start small, start now.” Your message is just that.

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Posted by jstamperdahl
01/21/2014  at  05:13 PM
Prenuptial Commitments and the Best of Intentions

I got my non-Jewish husband’s agreement to have a Jewish home and raise our child(ren) as Jewish during our brief world wind courtship. I knew he couldn’t possibly fully understand what I was asking even though I tried to be explicit about things like synagogue attendance and how a significant amount of our hard earn money going to synagogue membership. I wouldn’t have married him without that commitment so I asked him and he agreed.

My husband is an amazing person and he has been extremely supportive and involved in our Jewish home and our son’s Jewish education but as Dawn suggests, I have definitely taken the lead.  I dragged him to Dawn Keppler’s couples classes and to our Rabbi’s kashrut class. I tried to explain my vision of a Jewish home and how I want Shabbat and the holidays to go.

Nevertheless, there have been many places where we have had to accept that reality doesn’t match our prenuptial ideals.  He agreed to go to shul once a month but in reality, Shabbat morning ends up being the only time he gets to himself. I could insist he go with me but I can tell it is best for our family if he takes that time to take care of himself. I also had this vision of us reading Jewish texts and learning together and even though I tried to explain that while we were courting, that turns out to not be his thing.  On the other hand, he never misses Shabbat dinner and he ended up being the co-chair of our son’s nursery school two years in a row and then, he was the chair.  He went far above and beyond what I would have expected from a Jewish partner.

I am not sure what I am arguing here, maybe just that reality is different than one’s idealistic vision of life but it is worth figuring out what is important and making those things happen.  Our life is very Jewish and very sweet and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

Good luck,
Juliet Stamperdahl

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Posted by MizKatz
01/21/2014  at  05:22 PM
Does she pick up his socks too?!

I have no sympathy for the husband…what is there to say? (1) If this is a real rather than hypothetical couple, they clearly have a communication problem and (2) as the Jewish member of the family, it is HIS responsibility to make sure the kids get the education he desires for them.

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Posted by RevKyle
01/21/2014  at  06:56 PM
Excellent Nuanced Response, Dawn

Aloha Dawn!  Thank you for articulating a clear, strong response to the Frustrated Dad.  I deeply appreciate that you call out his responsibility to both communicate clearly and to take the lead and demonstrate what he says he values.  Your ultimate gentleness - acknowledging that things change as we age and also offer to meet f2f to provide guidance - make your strong critique easier to embrace.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom in this publication.  We all benefit!

~Kyle in Hawaii

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Posted by ortalisa
01/21/2014  at  08:09 PM
Don't assume

When my partner and I agreed to raise our children Jewish, it was on me, the Jewish partner, to educate my non-Jewish partner about what that meant to me, and it was on me to foster conversations about what that might mean to her and to our growing family. These two need to establish what a Jewish family looks like to them. I was raised by a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father - I observed first-hand that these negotiations are personal and private and stem from the love of family, faith and community.

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Posted by annenic
01/21/2014  at  08:22 PM
Continue the Conversation

Dawn, the best part of the good advice you gave was that Dad should contact you to continue the conversation. It sounds a little as though he expected there to be traditional roles in the family, with Mom raising the kids. I know some really dedicated non-Jewish women who have been the guiding force behind making sure their children had a great Jewish life, but surely all of them first had to have some introduction into Judaism themselves.

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Posted by bpg
01/21/2014  at  08:43 PM
May be best for non-jewish partner to "lead the way"

I agree that the Dad needs to get more involved but I would not want him to necessarily “lead the way”.  I am not Jewish but raising my children Jewish.  I don’t take a back seat to my Jewish family members and would not want them to “lead the way” in my children’s spiritual upbringing.  I think instead it is important for the non-Jewish parent (who has agreed to have a jewish home) to determine how best to embrace judaism in a way that resonates personally with him/her.

In fact, I chose the Jewish preschool that felt most comfortable to me.  I chose our temple.  I go to the schools to spin dreidles and host parties for the jewish holidays.  I have one chance to raise my children and their spirituality is important enough to me that I want a central role in guiding my children (rather than deferring that to others). That is why, when I learn of Jewish traditions, I determine which ones are meaningful to me and have the most parallels with my own upbringing.  And then I embrace these traditions and weave them into the fabric of the family that my husband and I are building, together.

I would suggest that the husband ask his wife what spiritual traditions were meaningful to her growing up.  For instance, did she say a certain prayer?  Can she weave elements of this prayer into Shabbat?  Make date nights to go to services and let her choose the temple that feels best to her.

As you point out, his wife agreed to raise their children in a religion that is somewhat foreign to her.  As much as possible, he should let her take the lead in defining elements of a jewish life that resonate with her—including choosing a temple and adopting meaningful traditions.  I believe this is the surest way for her to embrace Judaism, and therefore their family to embrace Judaism.

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Posted by Emily Blanck
01/21/2014  at  10:38 PM
Great advice Dawn. Many times

Great advice Dawn. Many times we don’t realize what we want until it doesn’t happen. Stepping up and taking the first step can make a Hugh difference

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Posted by Tanya
01/21/2014  at  10:52 PM
Good Advice

Good advice. Like most things in marriage, communication is critical. When we married, I told my husband it was important to have him engaged in raising Jewish kids, and that I wanted him to take the intro to Judaism class so that I would not be the sole source of information and I wanted a “no tree” rule in our holiday home. It’s important to define what “raising Jewish kids” means to you, and lay out your deal breakers up front.

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Posted by catattack
01/21/2014  at  11:33 PM
Fantastic column! I loved following

Fantastic column! I loved following your logic, right down to what he and his wife should be saying to each other. I look forward to future J columns!

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Posted by msnyder701
01/24/2014  at  05:22 PM
Great article!

Wow, fabulous advice!  It’s about time that the j brings the issue of interfaith relationships to the forefront!

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Posted by Peter Gardner
01/25/2014  at  03:22 PM
Reposting My Perspective

(I originally tried to post this a couple weeks ago, but it may have been lost in technical problems with the site.)

As the non-Jew in a interfaith marriage, I appreciate your advice about making these things explicit.

My wife and I agreed to raise our (future) children Jewish. We have talked about it pretty extensively and laid out the expectations for the most part, but I’m still not sure that we’ve made it explicit enough.

As the non-Jew, I’ve been imagining that my wife will set the tone for the level of Jewish experience that our children will have. It seems like she should take the lead because if she, as the Jew, isn’t making it a priority, then why should I?  I realize that that isn’t fair, especially because it hasn’t been said out loud.  On some level though, we have to admit that my enthusiasm for having a Jewish household doesn’t come from within me, it comes from my love and respect for my partner and her commitment to Judaism.  It is that commitment that makes me excited about it.  So, I like that you recommend that “Frustrated Dad” lead by example.  Hopefully, his enthusiasm will show his partner how important it is to him.

I think many people in my position have some anxiety about raising our children in a tradition that isn’t our own.  When we get there, if my wife is stepping up and making it clear that she wants an active, rich Jewish experience for our children, then I’ll have to step up too.  When that happens, I’m worried about how much will be required of me and what I’m going to have to learn and do.  For example, I have anxiety about my ability to create a strong Jewish experience for my children.  I see the way that my male Jewish friends interact with their children during prayers and blessings.  They are deeply engaged and that engagement must carry through to their children’s experience of being Jewish.  It’s difficult to imagine that I’ll be able to generate that level of enthusiasm for a tradition that is not my own and if I can’t generate that level of enthusiasm, how will I be able to engage my children in that way?  If I don’t, will my children see me sitting out from them and think it’s okay not to engage in their (our) traditions?  On a more practical note, how will I learn the songs and prayers? 

Is it fair of me to expect her to take the lead?  We both made the commitment.  Isn’t my commitment raising our children Jewish as valid whether or not she’s stepping up?

Having said all that, it is important to note that most of what I’ve said about my expectations about raising our children are things that I’ve been thinking about, not things that I’ve been talking to my wife about.  Your article made me realize that it’s time to actually talk to her about it and make sure that we are on the same page because I’m not sure she realizes that I expect her to lead by example and having thought more about it, maybe I need to figure out if that’s even fair.

Both positions in the interfaith relationship have their anxieties.  Ultimately, it will be clear communications, commitment to our values, and compassion that will make it work.

Thanks for a thought provoking article.

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Posted by Laurie Leiber
01/26/2014  at  09:30 PM
Gentle but firm

Dawn:  Love your new column and I am looking forward to more.  I especially appreciate the gentleness with which you give advice.  The husband does sound a bit petulant, yet rather than chastise him you ask a series of useful, revealing questions so he can figure out it isn’t just his wife’s responsibility to raise his children as Jews.  You are gentle, but you are also firm.  No, he can’t sit back and blame her.  And here are a few ways he can started.  So practical, so human, so real.  Yasher koach!

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Posted by Jane r
02/15/2014  at  11:19 AM
Good advice, I think.

Good advice, I think.  I promised my spouse to SUPPORT my children being raised Jewish.  That means I agree with the plan, and to be gracious and helpful, and do what I can (drive them to Sunday school, drive them to Hebrew school, etc) to make things easier.  But the agreement isn’t for me to take the lead.  It isn’t my religion, it isn’t POSSIBLE for me to raise them to be Jewish…  If it is important to my spouse that his kids be raised in his religion, then I would hope/expect that he would do so.  Putting the responsibility on the non-Jewish spouse to do more than the Jewish spouse seems (to me) inappropriate and unfair.

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