A game plan for intermarried men

A game plan for intermarried men

I’m Jewish and my wife Yurika, born and raised in Japan, is not. Like many intermarried couples, our engagement lasted longer than average, and we are enjoying an even longer-than-average married life before children.

Still, we do plan on having kids, and I’ve always made clear my requirement to raise them Jewish. That’s fine with Yurika as long as they also grow up steeped in Japanese culture and language.

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. There are still a few little details to work out, like what it actually means to be Jewish. And determining “how Jewish” our family will be. And which parts of Judaism will we observe, which will we forgo, and which of us will do what. And so on.

In-married Jews end up answering the same questions, but for them it can happen more organically; for intermarried parents who want their children to identify as Jews, it requires out-loud and ongoing deliberation. (It may be one reason intermarried engagements last longer.) The Jewish partner must clearly articulate why it’s so important for him or her to raise Jewish children.

I have struggled at times with this articulation. “I’m just as Jewish as you,” my wife sometimes teases me. “We both celebrate Chanukah and Passover with your family, we both enjoy gefilte fish and herring, and we both never go to synagogue!”

Indeed, theologically I am much closer to my wife’s agnosticism than to my own religious heritage. At the same time, Jewish culture, history, and peoplehood are so important to me that I’ve dedicated my professional career to work in the Jewish community – albeit at a nontraditional organization.

I work at the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is committed to helping the Jewish community better reach and engage intermarried and unaffiliated families. Part of our work is to help intermarried families find positive answers to the question, “Why be Jewish?” If I sometimes struggle to articulate my own answers to my wife after working on the issues for 40+ hours a week, I can certainly appreciate the challenges faced by so many other intermarried Jewish men who do not spend all their time thinking about it.

Through my work at JOI, I’ve heard of countless intermarried couples where the Jewish man is adamant that they raise Jewish children, but then basically tells his non-Jewish partner to “go do it.” This creates a potentially difficult family dynamic. To help, JOI runs an educational program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, The Mothers Circle, which has spread to nearly 100 communities throughout North America since it launched five years ago. But that’s only half the equation; what about the men?

We are excited to be piloting two new programs in Bergen County beginning in the next few weeks, supported by an innovation grant from the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, an education and leadership program funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation.

One is in partnership with Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and is called “How Should I Know?” for Jewish men with non-Jewish partners. Men who participate in this free three-session course will come away with a game plan for clearly explaining to their partners why they want a Jewish home and/or Jewish children (beyond just replying with the title of the course). They’ll anticipate and strategize about potential challenges, like navigating their extended families, or establishing which of their partner’s religious traditions they are comfortable allowing in the home, if any.

At the same time, we will also pilot another free three-session course, in partnership with the Bergen County YJCC, called “Answering Your Jewish Children,” for men who are not Jewish who are helping to raise Jewish children within the context of intermarriage. Much has been written about the important role Jewish women play in raising Jewish children in intermarriages (which they do at a rate approaching 70 percent), and even as our society becomes more egalitarian we must admit that the bulk of childrearing often still falls to the mother. But none of that means there aren’t important roles for non-Jewish dads to play in raising Jewish children. This program will help non-Jewish fathers anticipate what questions about Judaism their kids may ask and learn how their own experiences and beliefs are relevant to their children’s Jewish education.

Both courses are for men only, in recognition that there are unique challenges in being a good husband and father, and therefore it’s up to men to come together to troubleshoot those challenges. And both courses offer a series of quick, clear steps to develop concrete answers and strategies. The programming lessons we learn in Bergen will inform a national rollout of these courses.

I continue to draw strength in my own Jewish intermarriage from the stories I hear from others who are in my same situation, which is one of the great perks of my job. These courses are a way for men in all intermarriages to experience that same benefit.

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