Review of Book for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren

At JOI, we were thrilled to read Rabbi Charles Sherman’s pulpit review of Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Interfaith Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, which he calls “a very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for grandparents to whom the advice is most directed.” You can read the full text of his sermon below.

JOI’s programs like The Mothers Circle and the Grandparents Circle help to build more welcoming communities. But JOI does not work alone; we are supported in our work by communities across the country — communities like Rabbi Sherman’s Temple Israel of Tulsa. There is still a lot to be done to make all of our communities more welcoming. Rabbi Sherman’s community is clearly on that path. We at JOI hope that other communities also start along that path.

Pulpit Review by Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
September 26, 2008

Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin

The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) is a national independent, non-denominational organization dedicated to creating a more inclusive Jewish community. The Schusterman Family Foundation has been a major supporter of JOI. JOI works especially with interfaith families by creating new programs to help such families, to change the culture of the Jewish community, and even to transform the institutions in our Jewish communities where necessary. Its Executive Director is Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform colleague. JOI’s Assistant Executive Director is Paul Golin. Together Olitzky and Golin have written this short volume with the long title — Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren. It was published last year.

Friends, there is an important distinction between simple and simplistic. As I began this book I thought it was simplistic—and I was wrong. It offers direct, straight-forward, tachlis—which means “nuts and bolts,” down-to-earth—advice. But it is not simplistic. It is not, as I even wrote in the margin of one page, simply “a pep talk for readers.” Rather it is a very sensitive guide which does not pull punches or try to disguise threats and challenges. I believe it is as valuable for parents in an interfaith family as for the grandparents to whom the advice is mostly directed.

This evening I would like to provide an overview of what Olitzky and Golin are saying and urge you to read the book yourself, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, or a great-grandparent, who want your offspring to have a strong Jewish identity.

In the introduction, the authors offer a phrase I do not often hear—“so-called interfaith families.” The distinction they are raising is that some families are not practicing any faith at all. They have not made a decision to raise children in one particular religion. Therefore, this book advises that your participation in the religious upbringing of a grandchild may be no more welcome than that of the child’s other grandparents, who presumably are not Jewish. The authors caution: “In such cases, as well as those in which your grandchildren may be being actively raised in another religion entirely, you will have to deal carefully with some of the recommendations in this book, since they may appear to be clandestine and you will want to be sensitive to your grandchild’s other grandparents who may be experiencing some of the same doubt and anxiety you are feeling.” (page 2) The authors also offer concrete examples based on extensive experience they have had with interfaith families.

The first category of grandchildren born to intermarried parents is those who are being raised as Jews, and they simply call this a Jewish family, since that is the religion of the family, irrespective of the faith of origin of the non-Jewish adult partner. I believe that is mainly the group we are particularly honoring tonight. Families in which one of the parents is not Jewish but is supportive of and an involved participant in rearing children whose religious and cultural—if not ethnic—identity is Jewish. Unquestionably, this is the easiest group for grandparents to work with, but this book suggests never giving up, even when this is not the case.

And there is a solid reason for the advice to never give up. Religious identity is not something that is fixed in time; it can take a circuitous route throughout one’s life. Consider the Jewish path you have traveled. Many people who grew up in minimally identified Jewish homes are some of our most actively involved congregants today. Some who grew up in a very observant, practicing Jewish home, took time off from Jewish life during college and early married life, only to return when they had children. Others, frankly, have rediscovered their Jewish attachments during their more leisurely retirement years. So regardless of how children are raised, they eventually make their own decisions about religious practice, and how they one day will raise their own children. Therefore, the authors are saying: keep at it and do not expect a straight, smooth road from A to B to C.

The authors provide us 20 suggestions, each as a short chapter. The first is absolutely the most important. Be the best Jew you can be. We teach anything most effectively by example. Therefore, we have to be committed Jews, not for the sake of the kinder or the grandchildren, but because Judaism has come to be an important part of our life. And if Judaism is not yet an important part of our life and we want to be role models for our grandchildren, then start simply.

And that is where I began to worry about this book, because the first suggestions were to wear a Star of David or a chai necklace. But Olitzky and Golin understand our reaction: “For some this may seem trite and inconsequential, but it quietly represents a public display of Judaism, Jewish allegiance, and Jewish identity. It unabashedly tells people—including your grandchildren—who you are and where you see yourself in relation to the rest of the world. Moreover, it might be something they will eventually want to wear because it is yours.”

Wisely, the authors instruct that holidays are an easy entry point and that Jewish identity is nurtured through the creation of Jewish memories. Think of yourself as an ambassador into Jewish life, Bubbe and Zayde. Remember, communication is expressed through thoughtful words and deeds, but also through body language and unspoken cues. The goal is to help our children and grandchildren make connections and find meaning in Judaism, not to force them to go through the motions of Jewish ritual in order to make us happy. We are facilitators, cheerleaders, and most importantly, role models.

Specific examples are offered: “The Best Holiday Parties Ever,” “Jewish Children’s Books,” “Sharing Personal Stories and Mementos From Our Jewish Past,” “Making Our Homes Obviously Jewish,” “Traveling To Jewish Points of Interest, Or Finding the Jewish Points of Interest in Our Travels.” Even financial incentives such as tuition in a Jewish early learning center, Temple dues or membership in a JCC, an Israel experience, Jewish summer residential camp or day camp, rewarding behaviors which are important to you. If financial assistance smacks of being a bribe, so be it; Olitzky and Golin prefer the word “incentive.” Then the authors have a great sentence: “The goal is to ‘nudge’ in the English definition of the word (give a gentle push) without becoming a ‘nudge’ in the Yiddish definition (a pushy person).”

Let your children and grandchildren witness your tsedakah contributions and the thought process which goes into making your philanthropic donations. Let them understand your Jewish priorities without trying to impose them on anyone else. My years of experience in working with interfaith families have taught me that too many parents and grandparents are shy about, reluctant to, even fearful of, sharing their priorities with their children and grandchildren—to say “these are my values,” “this is what is important to me,” in a non-imposing, non-threatening way. We are entitled to our values and priorities, just as are our adult children and grandchildren. The best course is “let’s talk; let’s share our feelings.”

For example, when we make a financial commitment to our local Federation Campaign, UJA, United Jewish Communities, whatever it is called and however modest our contribution is, it demonstrates our affirmation of some basic Jewish principles-–-a belief in community, a belief in our responsibility to support the community and its members, a responsibility for helping worldwide Jewry, and almost half that worldwide family resides in Israel and has special needs. We ought to be discussing those beliefs, values, and priorities with our children and grandchildren.

Where we choose to devote our volunteer efforts-–-working for the Temple, and working for cultural and civic causes-–-these are reflections of our values. But often we do not stop long enough to point out to our children and grandchildren why we are doing what we are doing. What is our motivation? Where does our sense of responsibility to give back come from?

I feel that this brief volume has some important gems. It reminds us, as members of a Jewish community and of Temple Israel, that most interfaith marriages are not an acting out of adult children against their parents, nor are they a rejection of Judaism or the Jewish community. I hope and pray that at Temple Israel we have created an atmosphere which does not support the antiquated stigma of seeing intermarriage as “marrying out” of Judaism and therefore “betraying” the Jewish People.

I recognize that some people are still embarrassed to publicly acknowledge or talk about their children’s interfaith marriage. But I sincerely hope that our Reform Movement’s, and especially Temple Israel of Tulsa’s, outreach to warmly welcome non-Jewish spouses into our Temple Family to the extent that they desire to be involved; our support of those non-Jewish spouses in the upbringing of Jewish children; and our appreciation, our celebration-–-such as tonight-–-of non-Jewish spouses and extended family in making the continuity of Judaism from generation to generation possible has drowned out the kaddish-sayers, finger-waggers, and other critics.

I am not as optimistic as Olitzky and Golin that interfaith marriages may end up being a way of growing the Jewish People, but I do believe that we-–-all of us-–-Temple and Jewish community leadership and membership, as well as parents and grandparents, must be advocates on behalf of Judaism-–-sharing what we love about it, providing guidance and encouragement and modeling through our own life and actions-–-welcoming, thanking, nurturing nascent Jewish identity wherever it exists. There are no guarantees that our efforts will always succeed, or even often succeed, but if we do not try, there is no chance of success.

So really what Olitzky and Golin are subtly and sometimes not so subtly suggesting is not just advice for grandparents dealing with their own grandchildren, but rather a change in the culture in our synagogues, in all of the agencies of the Jewish community, and in our homes. I must tell you after reading this book and re-reading parts, I feel pretty good about what we have been doing for some time at Temple Israel. So I recommend this volume to Jewish parents and grandparents and, frankly, to non-Jewish parents and non-Jewish grandparents as well. It can help us keep on keeping on.

And please know that is why your Rabbis, Cantor, and our Temple Outreach Committee are here-–-to help you keep on building strong Jewish identity in all of our young people. Kayn y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will and ours.

Let me turn now to a special blessing which I hope many of you will want to participate in tonight. Traditional Jewish law says that membership in the Jewish People is matrilineal-–-that is, it is passed through the mother. Matrilineal descent means that if the mother is a Jew, the children are automatically Jewish too. But if the father is the Jewish parent, the children are not Jewish (unless converted), regardless of the practice in the family home.

Reform Judaism historically broke with that tradition. In our Reform Movement we believe that a child’s identity can devolve from either parent-–-mother or father-–-and we will recognize the child of a Jewish father or mother as a Jew if they are raised and educated exclusively as Jews. In Reform Judaism, Jewish identity for children is a matter of parental decision.

Tonight, as the spiritual leader of this congregation and speaking for the Temple Israel Family, I want to recognize and publicly acknowledge some very important people in our congregation. They are part of Temple Israel because somewhere along the way they fell in love with a good Jewish man or woman, and that decision changed their life. In a few moments, I am going to ask all non-Jewish spouses and their non-Jewish family members-–-if they would like-–-to come to the bima for a special blessing of thanks and appreciation.

I sincerely hope that you will not be embarrassed to be singled out in this way. God only knows, the last thing we want is to make anyone feel uncomfortable. What we do want is to tell you how much you matter to our congregation and how very grateful we are for what you have done.

You are a very diverse group of people. Some of you are living a Jewish life in virtually all respects. Some of you are devotedly committed to another faith. Some of you do not define yourselves as religious at all. You are at all points along the spectrum and we acknowledge and respect your diversity.

What we want to do this Shabbat eve is to thank you for your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish People by becoming part of this congregation and for the love and support you give to your Jewish partner and family. Most of all, we want to offer our deepest thanks to those of you who are parents and who are raising your sons and daughters as Jews.

In our generation, which saw one-third of the world’s Jewish population destroyed, every Jewish child is especially precious. We are a very small People, a demographic blip, and history has made us smaller. Our children mean hope and they mean life, so every Jewish boy and girl is a gift to the Jewish future. With all our hearts, we want to thank you for your generosity and strength of spirit in making this ultimate gift to the Jewish People.

Please, please-–-do not be shy and do not feel uncomfortable. It is important that we show you how much you have our appreciation and respect. I invite you now to come forward to this bima, (or if you really prefer to stand in your place) and receive the heartfelt gratitude of your Temple Family.


You are the moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, who drive the Hebrew School carpool and help explain to your kids why it is important to get up on Sunday morning and learn to be a Jew. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding so that you can help to make a Jewish home. You learn to make kugel and latkes, even try to like gefilte fish. You learn to put on a seder; some of you even put up a sukkah. You join your spouse at the Shabbat table; in fact, many of you even set that table and make it beautiful.

You come to services even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that different language. You stand on this bima and pass the Torah to your children on the day of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah and tell them how much you love them and how proud you are to see them grow into committed young Jewish men and women.

We realize that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have sacrificed the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope and pray that your children and grandchildren, your spouse and in-laws, tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude and our love and gratitude will bring you great joy and satisfaction.

I ask our congregation now to rise in your honor. Will those on the bima please turn and face the congregation. Members of the Temple Israel Family, will you please join me with the blessing on the reverse side of the song sheet.

May you always be yourself and may we always respect you for who you are.

May our congregation recognize our diversity and celebrate it.

May God bless you with health and joy, your homes with harmony and peace.

May Judaism enrich you as you enrich our People.

Long ago the Prophet Isaiah said in God’s name; “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” To you who have so richly blessed us, we say: let our Temple be yours. May you always feel at home here. Amen. (please be seated)

I acknowledge with respect and gratitude the pioneering creativity of Rabbi Janet Marder whose words I’ve incorporated into this message, as well as a blessing by Rabbi Karen Bender.

Pulpit Review reprinted with the permission of Rabbi Charles P. Sherman.

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