This is a from my column, Mixed and Matched, at the J weekly. It was published October 2014 under the title, Naysayers undermine non-Jewish mom’s spiritual efforts.
I am a spiritual person with my own concept of God. I am not Jewish. I am fully committed to raising my children in the faith of my husband, as Jews. I am annoyed that many people assume that I can’t do as good a job raising Jewish children as a born Jew. I have made an effort to learn about Judaism and I often know more about a particular holiday than Jewish parents at my synagogue. Why is this an issue that I keep reading about?
— Committed Mom
Dear Committed Mom: First I want to tell you how wonderful it is that you are devoted to giving your children a Jewish upbringing. Please accept my sincere gratitude for all that you are doing.
You and the parents at your synagogue appear to be confusing ability with identity. Are you, a non-Jewish parent, able to teach and role model the tasks necessary to raise a Jewishly identified child? Yes, and it sounds to me like you are doing that loud and proud.
However, the ability to do something does not necessarily change who one is. Yes, if I go to medical school I can become a doctor. But knowing how to do something does not always alter your identity.
Your situation reminds me of those radio ads for temporary accounting professionals. They may be expert consultants. They can work for years in a particular company and become intimately acquainted with its functions. But all this knowledge and involvement does not make them employees. So, too, non-Jewish parents can become knowledgeable about Judaism, live in the home they have made Jewish, teach the children how to practice Judaism and yet remain non-Jews. Many Christians, Muslims and secular individuals are happily doing so.
Your efforts in raising a Jewish child may be no less effective in imparting Judaism than those of a Jewish parent. They may be far superior to some. Yet, this does not change your identity as a non-Jew.
Does your personal non-Jewish identity impact your child’s Jewish identity? It may. So, you may reasonably ask, what are you getting at?
Being Jewish is a state of existence. You can be born Jewish or you can convert to Judaism. According to Jewish law, a Jew can never stop being a Jew. Note that I said, “according to Jewish law.” For those who adhere to halachah (Jewish law), the cultural beliefs of the dominant culture don’t change anything. You yourself don’t have to accept these concepts, but be aware that traditional views of identity retain their authority in the lives of many Jews. You will find that even nontraditional Jews have areas of Jewish law to which they absolutely adhere.
So why does it matter that you are not Jewish, and how might this impact your child’s Jewish identity? Individuals born to two Jewish parents, even if they receive no Jewish education, we are told, are Jews. It enters the child’s awareness as an absolute. I have known Jews who didn’t want to be Jewish but don’t believe they can alter their identity. That kind of certainty is what two Jewish parents typically impart.
I can’t be certain about how your child will see his identity — and yours. He may perceive that Mom isn’t Jewish and, as much as she loves Judaism, she doesn’t love it enough to become Jewish. He may feel the need to protect you since you are the minority in the family. He either has or will be told, at some point, that if his mother is not Jewish, he isn’t really Jewish.
We can fume or we can work to level the playing field; I say, take action! You can certainly have your child converted. I have been surprised by how incredibly affirming that is for many children. You can continue your active participation in synagogue and make that a second home to your children, imparting a tremendous sense of ownership. Talk openly with your kids; address any negative messages they hear. Give them the words to combat naysayers. Casually explain to your children why you choose not to convert. (Call if you need help finding the words for this.) Finally, stop reading negative media; they don’t deserve your attention.