Support group for parents of intermarried children
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Support group for parents of intermarried children

While Jewish organizations continue to argue over the precise number of Jews who intermarry, “arguing over numbers is irrelevant,” says Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel.

“My guess is that there are quite a few,” he said, adding that whether it’s 40 percent or more than 50 percent, as reported in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, “the numbers just give us a ballpark figure to work with.”

Beginning in early October, Roth’s congregation – together with Jewish Family Service of North Jersey – will co-sponsor “Under One Roof: Interfaith Connections,” a six-week program targeted to parents whose children have married outside the faith.

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Rabbi Ronald Roth

According to social worker Ellen Masnaghetti, who will lead the sessions, the program “will address some of the adjustment and transition issues couples go through when their children intermarry.”

The issue of how to deal with a child’s intermarriage has come up many times in her work with families, she said, sometimes as a corollary to other problems.

“But it may be the primary issue,” she said, “especially if a couple is divided in their reaction.”

“There are many permutations in what can happen,” said the social worker, citing, for example, the family’s level of religious observance, circumstances unique to the particular intermarriage, or factors such as the reaction of the other (non-Jewish) family.

While the program is slated to run for at least six sessions, the precise number will depend on the needs of participants, she said, noting that she expects some 10 people to attend. “But even when people come as couples, they may have two different voices.”

At the first meeting, participants will be invited to discuss their own circumstances. Some, said Masnaghetti, have only recently seen their children intermarry. Others, now grandparents, have children who intermarried some time ago.

In subsequent meetings, Masnaghetti will discuss issues involved in the “blending of traditions” and how these may manifest at the wedding, in the raising of children, at holiday celebrations, and during other rites of passage.

“The focus will be on how [participants can] allow themselves to bridge that gap more effectively,” she said. “The goal is to make dealing with the situation less stressful for the couple. For some, it’s unknown territory, with [feelings of] frustration, fear, and anger. For all of them, there’s a massive concern about the future of their child and their grandchildren.”

“Most people want to maintain their tradition,” she said.

Leah Kaufman, JFSNJ executive director, pointed out that while many parents are facing these issues, she does not know of many other support groups designed specifically for this population.

“I don’t see this being offered,” she said, explaining why she felt such a group was necessary. “People can hear how others have dealt with these situations.”

Kaufman added that “this time of the year is tougher. Their kids may not be with them. It’s a reminder.”

She said that she had been talking to Roth about this issue for more than a year.

“He knew that some people in the congregation were struggling with this issue,” but he wanted a group that was open to the community, she said.

“Part of the role of a synagogue as a spiritual home is to afford people comfort,” said Roth, who previously held a pulpit in Nashville, Tenn. “Having a trained social worker facilitate the group will make it a supportive place for all the participants.”

The rabbi noted that the intermarriage rate in Nashville was significantly higher than it is here. In northern New Jersey, which has a significantly higher Jewish population, there’s more of a chance of finding a Jewish marriage partner, he said.

In counseling families about intermarriage, Roth said that in addition to the common problem of celebrating holidays when the family of one partner is not Jewish, he has also seen examples of “what Paul and Rachel Cowan called the time bomb,” issues that arise down the road as the family encounters new situations: for example, having children, relocating, or losing parents. (The Cowans – the late Jewish journalist and his rabbi wife, a convert from Christianity – wrote extensively about their own marriage and commitment to Judaism.)

“These issues bring up [intermarried families’] differences,” Roth said.

“I’ve sat with parents who feel guilty or have a sense of failure, worrying that the Jewish background of the family may now end,” he said. “Some people have a sense of loss, asking themselves, ‘Where did I go wrong?'”

For information about the program or to register, call Masnaghetti, (973) 595-0111.

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