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Widening the circle: Who will raise the next generation of Jews?

By Erin Cohen
of The Chronicle staff

May 12th, 2006

By all accounts, many Jews are marrying non-Jews. The question left for the Jewish community to answer is how to respond.

Create a circle that invites in the non-Jewish spouses, many suggest. Create a community that is welcoming and warm, one that offers opportunities for interfaith families to explore Judaism.

A program at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center aims to do just that. The Mother’s Circle reaches out to women who, whether Jewish, non-Jewish or Jews by choice, have chosen to raise their children as Jews.

According to the JCC, some 250,000 mothers of other religious backgrounds are raising Jewish children.

“In a way, these women are the lifeblood of the Jewish community,” said Idy Goodman, program facilitator. They have made the dramatic decision to raise Jewish children in spite of their own minimal or non-existent Jewish education.

The Mother’s Circle is offered through the JCC and is an initiative of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a national, independent trans-denominational organization that seeks to welcome all members of intermarried and unaffiliated families into Jewish life, through various programs and services.

Though the “JCC has been working on outreach for a long time,” Goodman said, this 13-session series was launched last September. That first series met during the day.
Recently, the program started an evening group, Goodman said.

Each session has a different focus, and includes discussion, and occasionally, a guest speaker.

“I come prepared with topics,” Goodman said, “but where the discussion takes us we go.”
Some topics are about making Jewish choices, the principles of Jewish parenting, Jewish holidays, making a Jewish home, and values and goals, among others.

Outside of the regular sessions, participants have gathered for a special Shabbat dinner, a Havdalah program and a gathering at Goodman’s home to make gefilte fish.

Incorporating traditions

Kim Brofsky, of Menomonee Falls, whose husband is Jewish but was not raised Jewish herself, said she signed up for the course because “it seemed like a good way to incorporate more Jewish traditions in our family life.”

Mother of two young children, Brofsky said, “As the kids get older, there is more that I want to teach them and be able to do with them.”

Her favorite part of the course so far has been “learning kid-friendly ways to incorporate holidays” into her family life and “hearing how other families do it.”

Most of the mothers involved with the program learned about it through their other activities at the JCC.

Sandra Gines, of Milwaukee, said when she found out it was run by Goodman, she knew she wanted to participate.

“We’re the classic [interfaith] family,” Gines said. “I was not raised Jewish but we had decided to raise our children as Jews.”

“My husband was not raised very religiously,” Gines said, and “I certainly didn’t have the religious background to bring a tradition fully to my children.”

“I think the [Mother’s Circle] has been a really excellent program for my family [that enabled me to] learn as much as I could about the practical aspects of Jewish living.”

Gines said her favorite aspects of the class include those that discuss “broader topics” such as “ethical values in Judaism,” she said.

“As a non-Jew I have always been attracted to the Jewish tradition and practice of debate and dialogue,” she added, so “those classes where we take on some heavy topics are always interesting.”

Also, said Gines, “[Goodman] is a fabulous facilitator. She is so warm and open and sincerely enthusiastic about Judaism.”

Jean Bernstein of River Hills, who converted to Judaism, said she has been practicing it in her home for as long as she and her husband have been together.

But the Mother’s Circle classes give her “another good way to reaffirm things I have learned but haven’t put to practice,” she said.

“It’s been fun and it’s really a great group of women,” said Bernstein. “It’s about music, fun, art and expressing yourself,” she said, but in the Jewish tradition.

Goodman said the open group setting of the program provides “an opportunity for people who have similar issues and who are in similar situations to talk about things they don’t talk about with other people and to meet people in the same situation.”

Gines agreed that the “small group setting is ideal. There are other people with whom we can compare our ideas and get support.”

The day group includes “women like me,” Gines said, and even a Jewish woman “raised in a fairly observant household still wanting to deepen her understanding.”

“We found the mix has been really good,” said Susan Roth, family services director at the JCC. “There’s nowhere else where people can sit and feel safe and talk about the issues they have.”

But regardless of religious affiliation, the group is “not an intimidating place … just somewhere to explore things that may be really new,” Gines said.

According to the Jewish Outreach Program Web site, www.themotherscircle.org, “The Mother’s Circle” began as a pilot program in Atlanta but it is now a national program.
The program is free but there is a small materials fee. For more information about the evening program or for the day program, for which a new session is forming, call Rachel Greenspan at the JCC, 414-967-8343.