(This article first appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.)
Dear Dawn: My daughter is 4 and we are raising her Jewish. My husband’s Christian parents attend a very progressive Presbyterian church. We have all attended services with them on occasion. However, our daughter is getting to the age where we need to explain the difference between Grandma and Grandpa’s church and Christianity and our synagogue and that we are Jewish. We are planning for Leah to attend a day of Sunday school at their church, because her dad is doing a small teacher presentation. The class has a candle lighting and prayer, and the topic will be the Ten Commandments (I think there will be a story and maybe a song). How do we prepare her for what she will experience? Am I doing the wrong thing by even letting her attend the class? I am nervous about it, but I think it will be OK if we use the right language to explain things to her. I just don’t know what words to use. How do we explain the difference between her grandparents’ church and our synagogue? — Worried Jewish Mom
Dear Worried: It is extremely normal to be confused about what to say and how to explain the different religions in your family.
At 4, your daughter can understand a lot; she thinks concretely and cares deeply about her family members, including her grandparents. She learns readily from stories.
With this in mind, I suggest that you explain to Leah that your immediate family goes to the synagogue and learns the Jewish stories about the Jewish people. Mention some of the stories that she will remember.
Maybe she just learned about Purim, or can recall stories about Hanukkah. These are Jewish stories, her stories. Grandpa and Grandma have different stories. As Christians, they love some of the Jewish stories, too, but their main story is about Jesus.
If she asks who Jesus is, you can explain that he was a nice Jewish man who lived a long time ago. After he died, Christians decided that he was God and they have a lot of stories about him. Jews don’t believe that a person can also be God, not even a nice Jewish person. But it’s OK that other people have these stories.
Just like her favorite Disney movie might be “Frozen” and a friend’s favorite might be “Cinderella.” You can have different ideas and accept that you don’t totally agree with people you love.
Tell her that when she goes to church she may hear stories, including about the Ten Commandments, that sound sort of like ones she hears at synagogue. Encourage her to ask questions about whatever she finds different or confusing. If it is permissible, she can ask there. Or she can whisper her questions to Dad and he can help her remember to talk about them at home.
Observing your religion is similar to how you celebrate your birthday. Leah may like to have a lemon cake for her birthday, but at her friend’s party, she’ll eat whatever kind of cake is served. Her friend might want a doll for a present, while Leah prefers a fire truck. Both things are presents but they are different because different people like different things. We don’t make unkind remarks just because something isn’t our preference.
As for membership at your shul, you can tell her that you are members and that her grandparents are members of their church. She’ll probably understand. You can compare it to going to a particular preschool — that one is “yours.”
Additionally, you may want to tell her that she is part of all the Jewish people, so any synagogue she ever wants to go to, she can. You could tell her the story you told me: When you were hiking around Europe, you looked for a shul so that someone would help you find a place to stay. You can describe this as one big family.
So if someone came to your house and said, “I’m Cousin Joan,” you’d bring her in and make her welcome. That’s what you do with family.
Don’t worry about her visiting the Christian Sunday school. As she grows up, she will learn about many Christian sites. This one is special because it “belongs” to her grandparents.