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The Gifts They Give: Non-Jewish Parents Helping to Raise Their Jewish Children

It was a Friday night a number of years ago when the congregation was small. It was Family Service night. This meant many rugrats, frazzled parents and, unfortunately, no Rabbi. He seemed to have forgotten to show up. Noise levels were mounting until two moms looked at each other, shrugged, said, “We can do it” and walked to the front of the gymnasium where we met for services. The moms were clapping and singing “Shabbat Shalom” as slowly, but surely, everyone drifted to their seats, relaxing as they realized that lay leaders were going to take on the Shabbat evening service. “Not unusual,” you may say, for a Reconstructionist congregation. “Certainly not,” I reply, “except that the moms were both Roman Catholic, married to Jewish men, but learned in Jewish practice because they had wholeheartedly entered into the process of raising their children as Jews.” They knew what they were doing because we had taught them what to do.

I could stop there and feel my point was made. Actively including non-Jewish parents who choose to be engaged in the educational life of their Jewish children is of course what all progressive Jewish schools should be doing. Unfortunately, for reasons ranging from thoughtlessness to bigotry, that is not yet the case, and it's a shanda, as my grandmother would say. For reasons good and bad, Jews often stumble over how to treat the gentiles in our midst.

Let me state my bias up front: For over twenty-five years I have been married to a believing Christian - a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and a former pulpit minister who currently is CEO of a large social service agency. We've raised two Jewish children together. We're both members of our synagogue and active participants in an almost ten year old Interfaith Havurah. My husband's faith has informed my own. His questions have made my search more profound. His agreement to have a Jewish home and Jewish children is one of the greatest gifts he has given me and to demean that by isolating him or any other non-Jew who has agreed to participate in the raising of a Jewish child indicates a lack of sensitivity that amazes me.

As Jews we have an obligation to not only accept the gift our non-Jewish parents give us when they say they will help raise Jewish children, but we should celebrate it as well. As educators we must assist our non-Jewish parents by answering their questions, offering them information, demystifying the things we just take for granted, and acknowledging that their role is a crucial one in ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people. When we hear that over 50% of young Jews today are marrying “out,” how can we possibly do anything other than welcome the non-Jewish parents into our schools and help them however we can? The opportunity is immense - challenging and exciting and we ignore it at our peril. We either close the door on our own children or we make room for new kinds of families who may need to learn from scratch, but are at least showing up. How can that be wrong? How can we do anything less then offer them our support?
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