The weekend before Purim, Caroline Rosengarden and her daughter, Lucy, made groggers. Sitting in the breakfast nook in their Westchester home, they decorated paper plates and stapled them almost together, then filled them with dried beans and finished closing them up. At the end of the project, Lucy, 2, had a homemade noisemaker that thrilled her when she later used it at the Pleasantville Community Synagogue’s Purim celebration.
With the craft project Rosengarden hoped to teach Lucy about Judaism, and as they worked, the mother explained to her daughter the story of Purim and the meaning behind the groggers, just as she teaches her how to light candles and what blessings to say each Friday night.
Grogger-making and Shabbat-candle-lighting are definitely not something Rosengarden grew up doing with her Episcopalian family. But since taking a course with the Mothers Circle, an education and support group for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children and a project of the Jewish Outreach Institute, Rosengarden feels confident and comfortable teaching Lucy about Purim and other Jewish holidays and rituals. She even sometimes finds herself the most knowledgeable about Judaism when with a group of Jewish friends.
“I feel like we can sit down to do our grogger project and I can explain why we’re doing them and what they’re about instead of having to look to my husband who, God love him, can’t always answer,” says Rosengarden.
This Mother’s Day, many Mothers Circles around the country are finishing their courses for the year, and the mothers who have attended since last fall say that they are prepared in new ways to deal with their children’s questions and the Jewish community’s opinions about where they fit into the larger Jewish mosaic.
The classes teach about holidays, life cycle events, death and dying, all from a Jewish perspective. They also give mothers a place to discuss the balance between coming from a different religious faith and committing to raising Jewish children. As Jennifer Failla, a mother from Austin, Texas, puts it with a deep breath of relief, “It’s kind of like, oh, I’m not alone.”
The Mothers Circle started in Atlanta in 2002, and has quickly spread all over the country. The largest increase was seen over the last year, growing from 573 participants in October 2008, to 783 today. There are currently 51 active circles and 28 slated to begin in the next year, and a listserv for mothers has nearly 600 participants.
“It’s really put this population on the map and communal radar to recognize that there are families where the mother is not Jewish but willing and capable of raising Jewish children,” says Paul Golin, associate executive director at JOI. “The Mothers Circle is free [of charge] as a kind of thank-you for the sacrifices these women are [making].”
Each Mothers Circle uses an eight-month curriculum provided by JOI and is led by a facilitator, a Jewish professional or lay leader.
“It’s so much more than a class,” says Nicole Nevarez, a rebbetzin and facilitator for the Westchester Mothers Circle. “They’re together with other women in their same situation and learning from a woman who knows more organically how to raise a Jewish family.”
The Reform movement officially accepted patrilineal descent in 1983, and it is recognized within Reconstructionism as well, easing some tensions about whether the children of non-Jewish mothers are “real Jews” in the community’s eyes.
The harshest attacks leveled at the Mothers Circle come in the form of anonymous comments on the group’s Web site from people criticizing the JOI for falsely convincing these parents that their children are Jewish, says Golin. But overall, opposition to the Mothers Circle has been minimal, he says.
The groups are confidential, and the conversations can grow emotional and often tearful, with women discussing the painful choices they’ve made to leave the churches they grew up in or to turn their backs on family traditions or their own parents’ desires for them.
“Fundamentally, they’re there to talk about their mothering,” says Nevarez. “Even if it’s to learn about Judaism and how to make a Jewish home, issues come up about how they feel about themselves as parents.”
For Lisa Apfelberg, who facilitates a 28-member Mothers Circle in Austin, one of the most charged topics was what she calls “the December Dilemma,” all the thoughts and feelings around whether or not to celebrate Christmas in the home and how to explain the choices to young children.
Apfelberg says the mothers in her group sometimes bristle because they feel they are giving up their religions in order to impart a new one to their children, only to confront husbands and partners who are as ill-prepared as they are to teach any meaningful Jewish tradition.
“Some of [the mothers] never heard of cultural Jews, some want a religion,” she says. “They don’t care if it’s not their religion, but they don’t want a culture instead of a religion.”
Mary LaMotte Silverstein, one of Apfelberg’s students, grew up Unitarian and says she and her husband, Jake, never talked much about religion or childrearing until she gave birth to a boy and they were faced with whether to have a brit milah.
“He realized he felt more strongly about it than he’d understood,” she says of Jake, adding that after their son Leo’s bris and their decision to raise him as a Jew, neither knew exactly what that entailed. “It’s common, and we talk about it in the class, that our partners and husbands want to raise Jewish children but don’t really know what to do, how to enact that in their lives.”
LaMotte Silverstein’s own parents have been supportive of her choice — her father is even taking a class about Judaism — but she worries about the reception her son will get from Conservative and Orthodox Jews, who believe one must have a Jewish mother or convert in order to be considered a Jew.
“You don’t want to raise your kid as a Jew for years and then have some rabbi tell him he’s not a Jew when he’s 25 and have him be heartbroken,” she says.
Christine Benvenuto, author of “Shiksa: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World,” says that the majority of the work of creating a home and imparting religion usually falls on women, and that Jewish educators and rabbis often see the non-Jewish mothers more frequently than the Jewish fathers.
Benvenuto, who converted to Judaism, says she gets upset about the communal focus on matrilineal descent, and pointed to one woman she interviewed who said she wanted to raise Jewish children but felt turned off by a Jewish community that wouldn’t accept her children anyway.
“I feel there’s a taint on women and their children,” she says, adding that the Mothers Circle is a great antidote to some of the alienation women feel. “The No. 1 great thing about [it] is acknowledging that these women are here, trying to make a contribution. Let’s give them a safe space where they can talk to each other and get practical information.”
Jennifer Failla, the Austin mother, grew up a devout Roman Catholic in an Italian family where “every family member had grottos and saints.” She struggled to understand how her husband could call himself a Jew when he didn’t attend synagogue, study the Bible or say prayers.
She finds it challenging raising her son, Noam, in the overwhelmingly Christian Bible Belt, but has found comfort in the Mothers Circle and finds herself talking up the group to other non-Jewish mothers she meets.
“I walked in and found there were 20-plus women like me who had the same story,” she says.
Failla no longer puts up a Christmas tree or celebrates Easter, so as not to send mixed signals to her son, and though she privately mourns her family’s rituals and traditions she tries to translate them, especially those around food, to making seders, holiday meals and Shabbat dinners. And she speaks to her son in Italian so he can learn about her culture linguistically, if not religiously.
While getting non-Jewish mothers to convert is not the goal of the Mothers Circle, many participants grapple with the idea and end up coming to it on their own.
LaMotte Silverstein says that her decision to raise Jewish children was made in response to her husband and son’s needs, but that she tries to find ways to make it more hers as well. She flirts with the idea of conversion, and plans to try the local Reform congregation.
“I wouldn’t necessarily have said I want to go do this, become a member of a Reform congregation,” she says of her life before the Mothers Circle, “I wouldn’t have thought I’d wanted that but now I realize that maybe I do.”
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