January 25, 2001
Finding Middle Ground
Arlene Chernow teaches Jewish educators how to support interfaith children.
First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child's religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it's vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.
Unfortunately, says Chernow, "we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously." In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child's enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can't articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.
Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he'd emerge, saying, "I'm Jewish now."
When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they're covertly seeking to establish the fact that they're truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are "support, respect, refocus." If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family's individual choices, and -- for the benefit of the rest of the students -- refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees. When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it's only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children's excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher's best friend.
Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents' guide called "Celebrations." This looseleaf notebook -- which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings -- was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to "try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child."
Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, "I really see a child's Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they're educating the children, the stronger the child's identity will be."