A Grandmother’s Story
This is a guest post by Sharon Morton, Founder and Executive Director of Grandparents for Social Action.
I grew up in a completely Jewish neighborhood – Jewish except for the neighbors on either side of my home. I really loved both sets of neighbors, having either decorated their Christmas trees or spent time on their porch waiting for my parents to get home after work. My relationships with these neighbors proved to be crucial, as I grew up both loving my Judaism and respecting those of other traditions.
As an adult, I married an assimilated man, whose mother had converted to Christian Science when he was young. While he had no Jewish or Christian background, his family did display a Christmas tree. I enjoyed his family’s tree when we were dating, but once my children were born, I was less than thrilled to have them participate in the tradition. We had chosen to raise our children to be Jews. Nonetheless, my husband and I later divorced, and he married a Catholic woman. In the end, my children grew up participating in both religions. Two of them married Jews and have Jewish homes. One married a Christian and her children are being raised as Christians. As the Director of Religious Education at Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois, the reality of my children’s religious upbringing was not always easy for me. Interfaith issues began to arise once my daughters began to date.
When my youngest daughter, Cindy, began dating a wonderful young man in high school, I thought she could not have asked for more; he was a mensch. I had been divorced for many years, so I was quite thrilled to witness my daughter with such a fine person. To be sure, while they were dating, I told Cindy that I would never be sad about her marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish, so long she chose to raise her children as Jews. Following our conversation, I assumed that she would do so.
I turned out to be wrong. On a subsequent trip to Florida with Cindy, she informed me that she and her boyfriend would marry, attend church together, and send their future children to church as well. Though she assured me that she loved me dearly and never wanted to hurt me, she had chosen God, as she knew Him.
Of course, I was devastated. It pained me to think I would not have Jewish grandchildren. I did not tell many people about her decision, nor did I tell my friends that she wanted to be married by a minister. Instead, feeling conflicted, I met with the rabbi of my congregation and offered to quit my job as the Director of Education. How could I possibly stand up each day and tell people how to raise their children to marry Jews when I could not even make it happen for my own family? The rabbi gave me answers that put me at ease. First, he asked me, “What is really important to you as a mother? What do you want most for your daughter?”
He knew my answer even before I said it.
“I want a daughter who is honest, ethical and good to her toes, who has a sense of self esteem and delights in doing good for others.”
“And you certainly have that. When she gets married and goes to church, she will still be all the things you wanted the most. And if she walks on the other side of the street from you, while you continue go in the same direction [as before], then that is not so bad.”
Then, the rabbi addressed my professional role in the Jewish community. Rather than encourage me to leave my position, he argued that by staying I would be better able to help members of my synagogue. With these new experiences, I would understand the issues of my congregants better. Having Jewish grandchildren is never a guarantee, no matter what you do. He then reminded me of a story from the rabbis of long ago:
A rabbi went to God and told God that his son was marrying outside the faith. God asked him, “Do you love your son?” “Of course I do,” said the Rabbi. Then, God said, “Love him even more.”
In the midst of this big family development, I went to see the movie, “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.” During the film, there is a scene depicting the father harassing his daughter for her intention to marry out of the faith – demanding that she break up with her fiancé. In the following scene, the mother and daughter sit together on a bed, and the daughter asks the mother how she feels about her marrying a non-Greek. The mother’s answer was simple and profound, and it hit me right between the eyes. She said, “My daughter, I did not give birth to you so you could be me. I gave birth to you so you could grow and become your own person, and you are a beautiful person.” I knew that was true for me too.
In the end, my daughter and future son–in-law were so understanding of my feelings that they chose to forgo marrying in a church, deciding that an outdoors wedding would be easier for me to handle. This decision allowed me to begin accepting their choices as a couple. In turn, I explained that wanting them to have a Jewish home was slightly selfish on my part. I wanted my daughter’s family to celebrate my holidays. I wanted to attend the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of my grandchildren and tell my friends about my children’s Jewish lives. These desires were really about me.
Today, Cindy’s children are beautiful, fun, loving and delightful boys. They respect me, my religious beliefs, and even attend all of the Jewish holidays at my home. The boys have made Shabbat challah covers and other Jewish gifts for me. They participated in Shabbat blessings when I babysat every Friday night. They know the blessings and are proud to say them.
As a grandparent, I have chosen to take an active role in my grandchildren’s spiritual growth and journey exploring their self-identities. I took them on Jewish grandparent/grandchild retreats and now, being at the ages of 13 and 16, I answer their questions as honestly and respectfully as I can. I am indeed, blessed by my child and her family exactly as it is.
Now the question is: what is the legacy that I can leave to my grandchildren? What is the greatest gift that I can give to them? My choice has been to start a very small philanthropy fund for each of them. Additionally, I have founded an organization called Grandparents for Social Action, which helps grandparents find ways to commit to social action projects with their grandchildren. It has always been imperative for me as a Jew and grandparent to teach my grandchildren the importance of social action or employing acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
This collaborative social action work with my grandchildren has helped my grandchildren and me immensely. At this point in my life, I am truly content with the life decisions my daughter had made. She has a wonderful husband who is kind to me and to everyone he encounters. More importantly, he teaches this same kindness and generosity of spirit to his children. My daughter, son in law and I have a beautiful relationship. As I become older, I am aware that they are all truly a blessing in my life.
If you find my story and organization dedicated to tikkun olam inspiring, you too can commit to social action with your grandchildren, no matter their religion. You can find social action projects for you and your grandchildren, by visiting grandparentsforsocialaction.org and signing up for a free once-a-month e-newsletter. The newsletter
provides ideas to empower your grandchildren to be social action activists and philanthropists.