Grandparents and Intermarriage: Learning to Accept Their Children’s Choices



by Marcia Frezza

Like me, most of my fellow congregants at Congregation Beth Yam, located on a Barrier Island in southern South Carolina, came to Hilton Head Island for the beauty of the location; we later found a true home here with a very active Reform congregation and a wonderful community., Today, this 200-plus member congregation, has a new building and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Just two and a half years ago, Beth Yam formed an Outreach Committee, making it the newest of our committees. Like most committees, it was formed when it became clear that there was a need – and that it was time – to address the concerns of our growing interfaith population. Those among us who choose to affiliate with Beth Yam and are in interfaith marriages represent a variety of age groups, from very young to the elderly. Outreach, therefore, means addressing the needs of each age group through a continuum of service. With this in mind, this year’s outreach programming is focused on dealing with young interfaith families raising Jewish children; last year, we focused on grandparents whose children and grandchildren are in interfaith relationships and/or raising interfaith families.

Some of the grandparents in our community had expressed concerns that they had somehow failed in their role as parents because their children had chosen intermarriage. Our Outreach Shabbat proved a perfect opportunity to invite Vicky Farhi, co-director of the URJ’s Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice, to present a talk about the role of grandparents in Jewish life. This led us to begin a series of workshops on Grandparenting Jewish Children being brought up in interfaith families. We hosted four workshops in all, serving a total of 120 people who ranged in age from 50 to 80.

Prior to the events, we presented each group participant with Sunie Levin’s “Mingled Roots: A Guide for Jewish Grandparents of Interfaith Children” and were pleased to later discover that every grandparent read the book and came prepared for the discussion. Together, we talked about how to reach their resistant children, as well as how to tread lightly without upsetting children or grandchildren. We looked at projects we could do with our grandchildren that would let them know more about Judaism and holiday practice. For our second meeting, two Christian members of our congregation discussed how and why they had chosen to raise Jewish children. At the same meeting, a member of the group presented a review of Jim Keen’s book, “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family,” for our second meeting, which gave new insight and understanding about the process the author went through before choosing to raise his children as Jews. His very human story helped our participants to understand that how their grandchildren are raised is not a grandparent’s decision. While they can participate in the conversation with their children, they cannot lead the discussion.

The third workshop was made up of a panel of three interfaith couples who were raising Jewish children. Each talked about how they had made their choices in very different ways. Some had chosen conversion, however, in most cases, the non-Jewish parent retained his or her own religion. We explored how in-laws played a critical role in supporting their children’s decision, often when parents were critical they were no longer included in discussions about religion.

All four of these workshops gave us the opportunity to present the spectrum of issues that are facing interfaith families, and particularly Jewish grandparents. Our grandparents realized that there was another side to their story and seemed quite receptive to exploring options to achieve better communications with their children and grandchildren. There were extensive question-and-answer periods, allowing our grandparent congregants to discuss their pain and frustration. They wanted their Jewish children to follow in their footsteps and marry Jews, and they also expected that their children would then raise Jewish children, as they had done. The goal of the presentations was to help grandparents be more accepting of their children who had chosen interfaith marriages. In effect, it served that purpose and as an educational forum for older congregants to look at a bigger and changing picture in Judaism.

Marcia Brandt Frezza is a clinical social worker with a private practice on Hilton Head Island, S.C. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Clark University in Worcester, MA, and Yeshiva University, Wurzweiler School, NYC. She is chair of the Outreach Committee and Board of Directors of Congregation Beth Yam, and is the volunteer liaison and Board of Trustees member of Lowcountry Legal Volunteers.

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