Dear Dawn: My husband, Bob, and I are Jewish and we raised our two boys Jewish at a Reform synagogue. Now our youngest has married a lovely Catholic woman and they are planning to raise their children Catholic. I feel that I did my part and raised my own children Jewish; I don’t care that our grandchildren will be Catholic. My husband is distraught. He joined our old synagogue and goes every week. I don’t want to go with him, which is a bone of contention between us. He has refused to talk to our son about it so there is a silent weight in our family. What can I say to him to get him over this? —Worried about my family
Dear Worried: Your husband is experiencing self- blame and regrets because things did not turn out the way he assumed they would. There is nothing you can say that will magically change his state of mind. Additionally, the more you say that you don’t care, the more alone he will feel and the more his grief will build.
I suggest that you focus on what it is that your husband is now reclaiming for himself and that you support him in meeting this need. Calmly sit down and sincerely ask Bob about his sorrow. Is he the child of Holocaust survivors? This legacy can make your son’s choice feel like a fundamental betrayal. Does he regret not being more involved in Jewish life as your son was growing up? His regret may be that he missed out on Jewish activities with his son and he hadn’t realized that he always expected to get those experiences back with grandchildren. Or he may be blaming himself for not doing enough.
Is he worried about the survival of the Jewish people? Jewish tradition refers to the necessity to not break the chain of Judaism. It is a powerful message that is repeated in services over and over: from generation to generation. This may be troubling Bob. For many Jews, the idea of Judaism ending with themselves is a difficult one. In the Jewish community it is often seen as a source of shame when one’s descendants leave Judaism. Your husband may be experiencing embarrassment — even if no one has said a word to him.
Whatever your husband tells you, try to understand his perspective even if you don’t share it. You are sad that he is upset; let him know that.
Try to support his renewed Jewish interest. Can you go to services occasionally with him? Is there a class at the synagogue that you could take together? What about talking to your rabbi together? No doubt there are other members of the synagogue whose grandchildren are not being raised Jewish. Speaking with them can help him to feel less isolated.
I have seen a number of parents in his situation who carry a sense of loss and failure. I hope we can alleviate this for Bob. First, it isn’t over: I have seen many young adults who choose to become Jews like their grandparents despite being raised without Judaism. Please tell your husband that the future is an unknown and his grandchildren may choose to be Jewish.
There are two things Bob should do. First, he needs to find his Jewish practice and engagement level. Observing Shabbat, learning to chant Torah, ushering at services, serving on a committee — all of these things can make him more aware that he is contributing and valued in the Jewish world.
Second, your husband must start living the life that he believes in. What is it that he wants for his grandchildren? Well, he can be a role model, the “book” through which your sons and grandchildren learn about Judaism. How he — and you — live is much more meaningful that any pedantic instruction. When they are born, your grandchildren will see how Jews live, and behave and celebrate through you.
If your son is startled by the changes in your lives and begins to question you and your husband, tell him the truth. Bob can honestly tell him that seeing his lack of interest in Judaism made Bob reconsider how he feels about it. Through his love for his son, Bob realized how important Judaism is to him, and that has changed his life. Your son should be flattered at the profound impact he has had on his father.