A "Jewish mother" doesn't have to be Jewish anymore.
Not according to the Jewish Outreach Institute, a New
York-based transdenominational group devoted to making the
Jewish community more welcoming and inclusive.
One way of expanding the Jewish tent, JOI contends, is by
stretching the definition of Jewish motherhood to accommodate
non-Jewish women who are interested in creating a Jewish home
and raising Jewish children. A national JOI-sponsored program
that serves as a guidebook for training this new breed of
"Jewish mothers" recently alighted at several sites in the
Known as The Mothers Circle, the six-year-old initiative
seeks to address the reality of intermarriage in America by
teaching non-Jewish spouses (particularly moms) the basics of
"doing Jewish," regardless of whether they intend to convert
"A lot of people, both Jews and non-Jews, feel marginalized
in the Jewish community," said Sheri Brown, a Mothers Circle
facilitator at Conservative Congregation Sha'are Shalom in
Leesburg, where she estimated that 50 percent of the families
include an intermarried member, although some may subsequently
have converted. "Even when the spouse is Jewish, they're not
comfortable engaging with the Jewish community."
However, Brown (who also directs the preschool at Sha'are
Shalom) added, "They see Jewish values and they want their
kids to have Jewish tradition, and for whatever reason, they
are not comfortable giving up their faith background. This
program is aimed for them."
Brown herself is married to a practicing Episcopalian,
although their three children (ages 13, 25 and 26) have been
raised Jewish, she said. "I do have sensitivities in this
area," she added. "I have a personal interest.
So does Arlington resident Lindsay Levy, 42. She is one of
an estimated 15 participants in The Mothers Circle program at
Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, which meets
roughly twice a month. It began in September and is scheduled
to continue through May.
Levy's husband is Jewish, and their children, ages 8 and
11, are being raised Jewish in accordance with an agreement
the couple reached before they were married.
"We wanted to have a strongly spiritual home with a sense
of belonging to the Jewish community," Levy said last week
during an interview following a session at Rodef Shalom. A
member of the United Church of Christ, Levy said she knew many
Jews while she was growing up in Bethesda.
Noting that "I still go to church with my parents," Levy
said her children identify as being Jewish despite the
family's celebrating some Christian holidays "somewhat" in the
home. "We have a Christmas tree, for example, but we
appreciate it for its beauty and not for its religious
significance," she explained.
Levy said although her goal is to create a Jewish home, she
has no intention of converting, adding, "I don't want to
abandon that which I was brought up with."
Barely two hours earlier, Levy led the 12 attendees as they
practiced various Friday-night Shabbat rituals -- including
the blessing over the candles -- under the direction of Donna
Schwartz, a licensed social worker who serves as the Rodef
"You can't stop people from practicing their own religion,
but it's very challenging to do both," Schwartz said in a
subsequent interview. "To me, you can only practice one. Our
goal, however, is not to exclude people, but to educate them
and include them so they feel more comfortable."
Guided by the JOI curriculum, the participants spent the
rest of the session seated in a circle and discussing Jewish
values, practices, gastronomy and memories-in-the-making they
thought were particularly important to nurture in their homes.
Among the leading offerings: making the holidays and Shabbat
special, protecting the environment, learning more about
Jewish history and being honest.
"And not gossiping," added attendee Roseanne Geisel, a
Catholic resident of Arlington who is married to a Jew and
raises her 9 1/2-year-old daughter as a Jew. "It drives me
absolutely nuts in carpool to hear these little people slicing
and dicing their classmates."
In addition to Sha'are Shalom and Rodef Shalom, the
program, which is free, also is being offered locally at
Conservative Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon and
(Independent Liberal) Bethesda Jewish Congregation. In the
next few months, it is expected to be offered at the Jewish
Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax and the
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
Although JOI provides the curriculum and consulting help
for The Mothers Circle, the Jewish Federation of Greater
Washington is contributing $25,000 to pay for facilitators and
babysitters and to cover local marketing costs. The federation
has funded a variety of interfaith outreach programs over the
years, but The Mothers Circle may be noteworthy in that it
specifically targets the non-Jewish spouse rather than the