Grandparents Circle in on Continuity

Program Aims To Educate Grandchildren Raised in Interfaith Homes

By Rebecca Spence

Published September 04, 2008, issue of September 12, 2008.
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Los Angeles — When Barbara Mindel wanted to help instill Jewish traditions in her grandchildren — the offspring of an interfaith marriage who were raised without Judaism — she took a simple step. Mindel moved a dreidel and a Hanukkah menorah, which had been perched on a high shelf in her home, to a lower shelf so that her young grandchildren could see them in plain view.

The strategy worked. Her grandchildren, ages 2 and 4, marveled at the menorah, and Mindel was able to teach them the basics of the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Mindel, 67, was tipped off to this approach at an Atlanta meeting of the Grandparents Circle, a new group for Jewish grandparents grappling with how to pass on Jewish traditions to grandchildren who are growing up in interfaith homes.

“Some of my grandchildren are not being brought up with any religion, and the others are being brought up with both,” explained Mindel, a resident of Alpharetta, Ga., who has two children married to Christians. “It bothered me, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I wanted to approach people in similar situations to see what they did to allow Judaism into the kids’ lives.”

Originally piloted in 2007 in the Los Angeles area, the Grandparents Circle program expanded to Atlanta and is set to launch in more than 10 additional cities across North America by 2009. Little more than a year after the first group began meeting in the heavily Jewish San Fernando Valley, San Francisco, Baltimore and Cleveland, among other cities, will soon have their own groups.

A Jewish grandmother initiated the six-session course, which is based on a curriculum designed by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. While searching for ways to impart Judaism to her interfaith grandchildren, Bettina Kurowski, a health care consultant and Jewish federation lay leader who lives in Encino, Calif., stumbled upon the book “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren To Do (And Not Do) To Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren.” Co-authored by JOI executive director Kerry Olitzky and the institute’s associative executive director, Paul Golin, the book lays out practical ways to teach Jewish tradition without stepping on any toes.

When Kurowski — who is chairing this year’s $50 million Annual Campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — was introduced to the book just before its publication in 2007, she was so impressed with its content that she wanted an interactive program to complement its teachings. Kurowski, 62, ultimately gave JOI some $30,000 in grant monies to create a curriculum that could be used in California and beyond. The ensuing pilot program, which was free for participants and was funded with a $10,000 grant from The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance — the Northern Valley arm of the L.A. federation — met at one of the L.A. area’s largest Conservative synagogues, Valley Beth Shalom.

The program, designed for all the movements, was not a sure-fire bet. Intermarriage is a highly controversial subject in Jewish circles, and of all the movements’ rabbis, only those who are Reform and Reconstructionist are permitted to perform interfaith nuptials. “It’s a traditional Conservative synagogue in its liturgy,” Kurowski said, referring to her synagogue, VBS. “So we weren’t sure how many takers we’d get.”

To her surprise, Kurowski said, the pilot group filled up immediately. About 20 grandparents — some in couples, some singles — came together each week to hash out the challenges of fostering grandchildren from mixed marriages. “It was a combination of talking about how you feel about being in this situation and how to deal with your own feeling in a way that facilitates the relationship rather than making it worse,” she said. “Everybody needed to talk about that.”

Kurowski noted that she and her second husband — who have four children between them — had no other friends in similar situations, and therefore, no one who could understand the particular challenges they faced.

One challenge came several years ago, when Kurowski threw a Hanukkah party for her daughter, a mother of three who lives in Denver. To Kurowski’s dismay, her daughter — whose husband is Christian — hung three Christmas stockings on the mantel. When Kurowski asked for the stockings to be taken down, her daughter was offended. As it turned out, the stockings had been handmade by the children’s other grandmother.

“When I talked about it in the Grandparents Circle, I came to realize it was my problem,” Kurowski said. “And instead of focusing on what I didn’t like, I should be thrilled with the fact that they were having a Hanukkah party.”

JOI’s Golin said that one of the goals of the course is to help grandparents stop blaming themselves for the fact that their children are intermarried. Through the sessions, he said, they come to understand that it is simply something that happens in modern American society. “Intermarriage is still taboo for their generation,” Golin said. “They may have felt isolated, but to put them in a room together and let them know they’re not alone has been pretty powerful.”

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