After nearly twenty-five years of existence, it is often gratifying for us at JOI to look back and see the changes in the Jewish community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the shifts in the Jewish community around intermarriage, and the way that families from interfaith backgrounds relate to Judaism. In this story in Tablet magazine, Jeffrey Sharlet reflects on his early experiences navigating a world in which interfaith families were emphatically not the norm, and it is nice to see how much has changed.
To me, the most poignant part of this story is the author’s complete ignorance, at age five, about the story and meaning of Hanukkah. It is interesting to me that Sharlet says, when speaking about the Christmas story, that, “this was an answer we all knew.” And yet he had never heard the word Judaism in his young life, let alone the story of the Maccabees.
Up until his lack of knowledge is revealed, Sharlet is very proud of being Jewish, and therefore different. However, once he realizes how little he knows about that part of his heritage, he is no longer willing to wholeheartedly embrace the label of “Jewish.” Because Sharlet’s father did not teach him the stories of his heritage, Sharlet’s relationship with Judaism became shaky.
When the Jewish community thinks of interfaith families, it often equates interfaith with the lack of knowledge and connection displayed in stories like Sharlet’s. However, times have changed quite a bit since he was a young child. I contrast Sharlet’s story with the experiences of the women in JOI’s Mothers Circle program. These women of interfaith families take their children to Hebrew school, celebrate Shabbat, and engage with their children in a wide variety of Jewish activities. This is because these families are provided with the education and support they need to feel welcome in the Jewish community.
In order to raise children with a strong sense of pride in their heritage, parents must feel competent to teach their children about Judaism. For this reason, the Jewish community has a duty to support those in their midst who are raising Jewish children, whether in the context of interfaith marriage, or in-marriage, or co-parents who no longer live together. It is only through educating parents and building their ease and comfort within the Jewish community that we can create children who feel wholly and authentically Jewish… and not “half.”
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