Can we raise our child Jewish without a hard commitment?

(This letter originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly on July 7, 2020.)


Dear Dawn: I need some objective advice. My husband is Jewish but no longer feels connected to Judaism. He openly states he has no interest in meeting with the Jewish community in our area. I’m a second-generation atheist; religion has never been part of my life. We are planning to have a baby and talking about whether to raise our child in Judaism. Mike says he doesn’t care, but he would like our child to have the option of having a bar mitzvah. We’re both introverts, so meeting new people stresses us. Neither of us wants to seek out Jewish community. I don’t want our child to feel like we forced a religion on them, nor do I want to force Mike back to a religious community that he doesn’t want. On the other hand, I don’t want our child to feel like they missed out. I also know that religious communities can be wonderful sources of love and support. I like the idea of my kid having that support, especially when they grow up, and I don’t want them to feel like they don’t belong just because we didn’t teach them about Judaism when they were younger. What are some ways we can introduce our child to Judaism without committing them to being Jewish before they’re old enough to have input into that decision? And what can I do given that my husband isn’t interested? He’s intimidated by the idea of having to meet a bunch of new people and trying to fit into a new community. I share that feeling, but I don’t want to find my future self explaining, “Your dad and I chose not to introduce you to the religion of half of your family because we’re shy.” — Wondering

Dear Wondering: You are not alone with this question. I think Judaism’s rich tradition piques the curiosity of many non-Jewish spouses. However, you are right that neither you nor your husband can state that you want to take the steps necessary to give your future child a sufficient education in Judaism to allow him to make the decision to be a Jew.

Judaism is a communal tradition. You don’t do Jewish alone.

Much of our tradition is based on the interaction between humans and a structure for how those interactions are to take place. The Commandments are a rulebook for human engagement. You may have heard of a minyan, the Jewish term for a quorum of 10 that’s necessary for some Jewish activities, including daily prayers.

Since neither of you have a solid education in Judaism, you would have to access a Jewish community for help.

I can see the following challenges to that:

Neither of you want to get to know a bunch of strangers.

Any community you find will have their internal way of functioning and they will expect you to conform. (Examples of conformity are, if you went to my friend, Ali’s house, you would be required to remove your shoes. If you came to my house you could not bring pork inside.)

Any educational program you put your child into will be teaching Jewish values that you and your husband may, or may not, agree with.

Your child would need to know a lot (years of education, perhaps) to make this decision for himself in an informed way.

I have found that parents who say they want to give their child the choice rarely mean it when it comes into practice.

You could be setting your child up for some uncomfortable interactions with children whose families are solidly Jewish.

Nothing about what you would need to do sounds fun for you given your shyness.

In order to have a bar/bat mitzvah, a child typically learns Hebrew, the prayer service, how to chant and how to give a teaching on a Torah portion. That’s a lot.

It isn’t free to engage a teacher for your child, nor to join a synagogue.

I suggest sitting down with your husband and making two lists. No. 1, all the things he likes about Judaism: Food? Music? History? Hanukkah? No. 2, what Jewish practices he has done and would like to do regularly in your home: Eat bagels or Shabbat challah? Light candles on Friday nights? Watch Jewish films? Play Jewish music? Read Jewish books?

Ponder these two lists and decide, between the two of you, which of them would add to the richness of your home life. They should be things that bring you delight, things you look forward to doing.

When your child arrives, do these things with him or her, explaining what they are and that they are part of Daddy and Daddy’s heritage. If the day comes when your child wants more, they will tell you and you will respond.