08th of June 2010 / 26th of Sivan, 5770 Serving Oregon & Southwest Washington since 1959

Mothers Circle helps non-Jewish moms raise Jewish kids

By Jennifer Willis

article created on: 2010-06-01T00:00:00

How do you raise a Jewish child? Navigating the bris, Hebrew school, holiday traditions and bar and bat mitzvot can be a challenge for any Jewish parent. Now imagine doing all of that when you’re not Jewish yourself.

The Mothers Circle is a national program organized by the Jewish Outreach Institute for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in the context of intermarriage or a committed relationship. The Portland chapter has just celebrated the completion of its second year.

“The only prerequisite for joining this program is that you have to be committed to raising a Jewish family,” says Caron Rothstein, coordinator for The Mothers Circle in Portland.

Mothers Circle participants are a diverse group. They are gay and straight; single, partnered and married; parents and step-parents. But they have two things in common: They are not Jewish, and they are raising Jewish children.

“I’m in awe—I mean truly in awe—of people who say, ‘It’s not the religion of my birth, it’s not the religion I was raised in, but I fell in love within somebody who’s Jewish, and I’m going to do this,’” says Rothstein, who is also program coordinator for Congregation Neveh Shalom.

Two-hour classes facilitated by Jewish educator, author and life coach Lois Shenker are held twice monthly, October to May, and cover everything from holidays and challah baking to perspectives on Jewish values, parenting and life cycle events.

“It’s a wonderful, safe place for people to ask questions, to learn, but also to vent if they have concerns and they don’t know where to take them,” says Shenker, who believes non-Jewish women raising Jewish families face some tough hurdles, not the least of which is the dichotomy of their own beliefs.

“Probably their biggest challenge is that they don’t have the information. Many of them have children who are attending Jewish pre-school or Jewish day school. They want to keep up to speed with their children,” she continues. “So I think those are the challenges, keeping ahead of their children and being knowledgeable enough to feel comfortable with this path they’ve chosen.”

“It’s been an amazing support group for me, far more so than the educational component,” says Mother’s Circle alumna Betsy Richter, mother to two Jewish children. “Although there have been things that I’ve learned, which is what you do when you’re involved in learning more about what it means to be Jewish.”

Portland’s Mothers Circle program was launched two years ago with an Innovation Impact grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, with additional support from the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation and the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation.

Beyond the program’s upcoming third year, however, there is no concrete funding. The program’s contract with the national Mothers Circle program prevents charging tuition and requires that free child care be provided.

“The need for the program clearly will not diminish,” says Rothstein. “But the future is totally uncertain.”

Fifteen women have completed the Portland program in each of the past two years. Although The Mothers Circle doesn’t promote conversion, several participants each year have chosen to become Jewish.

Beginning this fall, the program will expand to include Jewish moms and moms new to Judaism. Rothstein also recommends Mothers Circle for women who are not yet mothers.

“I think if more people took this kind of class before they had kids, it would avoid some of the heartbreaking conflicts that we’ve heard about,” she says. “You can’t anticipate every challenge that you’re going to come across, but I think (Mothers Circle) would make for smoother sailing along the way if people did this.”

For Richter, The Mothers Circle was a perfect fit.

“As you have children, you start looking ahead to what it means to educate and raise a Jewish child. You learn more yourself,” she says. “Is it as your kid’s old enough to start approaching bar or bat mitzvah? Is it as you have a relative who’s approaching the end of their life, and you’re talking more about what death means to the community? You say, OK, how is this done? Who can I learn from? And that’s what The Mothers Circle is about.”

“It welcomes people who would otherwise maybe not be welcome,” says Shenker. “It helps them to feel more comfortable with their role of being a mother to Jewish children. It’s good for the Jewish people. It’s good for the children. It’s good for us as a community to have these people feel more welcome and knowledgeable and a part of who we are.”

Information sessions for the next session will be held in August and September, with the next Mothers Circle course beginning in October. For more information, contact Caron Rothstein at portland@themotherscircle.org.

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