But Will the Chicken Soup Taste
Gentile Mothers Raise Jewish Kids
2008; Page W11
A couple of months ago, Christina Aguilera snagged tabloid
headlines when she hosted a bris for her 8-day-old son, Max Liron Bratman.
The Catholic pop star apparently plans to raise her child in the faith of
her Jewish husband, whom she married in a Jewish ceremony in 2006.
While Ms. Aguilera may be the most famous example these
days, she is hardly the only gentile woman who has, in effect, become a
"Jewish mother." Every Friday night, Abi Auer -- an Atlanta mom of two
small children -- makes a special dinner for the Jewish Sabbath, often
with homemade challah. Kim Stiglitz, who lives in San Francisco, recently
began marking the Sabbath by avoiding computer use on Friday nights and
reserving Saturdays for family time with her husband, Marc, and 2-year-old
For thousands of years, only children born to a Jewish
mother (or who underwent a conversion) were considered members of the
tribe. But while Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to adhere to the
law of "matrilineal descent," for the past quarter-century the more
liberal Reform movement has fully accepted the children of Jewish fathers
and gentile mothers provided that the parents give their offspring a
Today, with intermarriage increasingly pervasive in the
American Jewish community, it is no longer unusual to see gentile moms
coordinating the Hebrew school carpool and hosting Passover seders. In
fact, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) -- a New York-based group
seeking to make the Jewish community more welcoming and inclusive --
estimates that there are over 200,000 households in the U.S. in which
gentile mothers and Jewish fathers are raising Jewish children.
The Mothers Circle, a national program sponsored by the
institute, aims to give these women the know-how and confidence to pull
this off. "Even though this is the 21st century, it's still for the most
part left to women to make educational decisions for the children and to
raise the children," explains Paul Golin, associate executive director of
JOI, which has brought the Mothers Circle to 26 synagogues and Jewish
community centers across the U.S. since a pilot program opened in Atlanta
Participants receive a basic Jewish education with an
emphasis on holidays and life-cycle events, like naming ceremonies and bar
mitzvahs. (And no, for you fans of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, there are
no lessons in guilt trips or overfeeding.) In addition, Mothers Circle
serves as a support group for women as they struggle to adjust to
unfamiliar traditions and find acceptance as outsiders in a frequently
"We had assigned someone to bring snacks each week, and
then we started assigning someone to bring tissues," says Ms. Stiglitz,
who joined a Mothers Circle group this fall. "There is lots of crying.
It's very therapeutic." According to Ms. Auer, "It's a group of people you
can identify with and have safe conversations with."
While many participants ultimately decide to become Jewish,
organizers insist that this is not the goal of the Mothers Circle. Ms.
Stiglitz, who was raised with no religion, recently began taking
conversion classes. Ms. Auer, a lapsed Catholic, says that she doesn't
"foresee ever converting because I don't feel it in my heart."
Nonetheless, she says that she is comfortable raising her children in
Judaism -- even if it is "a letdown" at times not to share things she
fondly remembers from her own childhood, like her church's stained-glass
windows or the voices of the choir.
In addition to holding face-to-face meetings, women in the
Mothers Circle are encouraged to interact on a national Listserv, where
discussions have touched on everything from how to prepare for Passover to
feelings about giving up (or not giving up) a Christmas tree. Just under
400 women have participated in Mothers Circle so far, but the number of
people affected is much greater, says JOI's Mr. Golin, who notes that each
woman "represents at least two additional people: a spouse and at least
Ms. Cohen, who has led Mothers Circle groups since the
program's inception, says that she has been impressed by the participants'
dedication, although she notes that they are often stymied by "their own
husbands, who are often ambivalent about Judaism." Participants frequently
report, with a mixture of puzzlement and frustration, that their husbands,
though insisting that the children be brought up as Jews (or at least not
as Christians), are often reluctant to attend synagogue or participate in
Jewish activities. Ms. Stiglitz says that she came home from her first
Mothers Circle session "gung ho" about celebrating Shabbat every week,
only to have her husband say, "No way."
For Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary
Jewish life at Brandeis University and the author of "Double or Nothing:
Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage," that's why the Mothers Circle is "a
good idea" but inherently limited.
The main problem the Jewish community faces, according to
Ms. Fishman, is not that there are so many Christian mothers but that
Jewish fathers tend to be so disengaged from Judaism. "Men in general are
much more skeptical about the necessity for religion in raising children,"
says Ms. Fishman. "Women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are much more likely
to say that religion is a useful tool in raising moral and ethical people
and that it's better to raise children with religion than not with
Indeed, while Jewish women intermarry as frequently as
Jewish men, studies show that interfaith couples in which the Jewish
spouse is female are far more likely to bring up their children as Jews.
Maybe what's needed next is a Fathers Circle.
Ms. Wiener is a columnist for the Jewish