By Zohar Rotem
Think about the moms in your life – the ones you will celebrate this Mothers Day. How have they made a difference in your life? In the lives of those you care about? Our parents have done so much to make us the adult individuals we have become, but moms are special. When it comes to childrearing, and especially when it comes to instilling a religious and cultural identity in children, moms still carry the lion share of the burden. Even after decades of great strides toward gender equality, it is mom, more often than not, who drives her children to Hebrew school, who coordinates play dates with Jewish peers, who plans and executes holiday gatherings and celebrations. So when it comes to the Jewish identity of our next generation, we have only two words for the moms in our lives – thank you!
But wait a minute. What happens when mom did not grow up celebrating Shabbat, or Hanukkah, or Passover, because mom is Christian or comes from another religious tradition? Based on the latest data from Pew, there are over 300,000 Jewish households where the mother is not Jewish and nevertheless the children are being raised with a Jewish identity. From our research, we know that many of these moms lack the basic know-how of cultural fluency to bring Judaism to their children’s lives. Making things more difficult, these families are still considered pariah in some quarters of the Jewish community. Even in institutions that are more welcoming of intermarried couples, finding what you want can often be tricky for an outsider, even more so if you are not Jewish.
This is why we at Big Tent Judaism have created The Mothers Circle – a suite of programs designed to serve mothers of other backgrounds raising Jewish children. Over the past decade, we have brought The Mothers Circle to 191 partnering Jewish organizations throughout North America, offering education, a supportive network of peers, and a welcoming embrace by the Jewish community to 433 small groups of non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children. Put together, these groups have impacted nearly 12,000 individuals.
This impact is considerable. We know from our research that participating moms exit the course with a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to raise Jewish children and to navigate the organized Jewish community. Many take on new Jewish practices (91% start reading Jewish books; 83% light Shabbat candles), and choose Jewish education for their children (80%).
Still, until recently we were not sure to what extent this impact lasts after participants exit the program. Now we know. Our recent study of program alumnae one to seven years after exiting the program has taught us that participants’ Jewish journeys continue in the direction of greater Jewish involvement and participation – both for the participating mothers and for their children. For example, four to seven years after the course, the great majority of alumnae report that their children are enrolled in Jewish education (93%), celebrate Jewish holidays at home (93%), and have a network of Jewish friends (91%). A majority (85%) of children celebrate Jewish holidays in the context of Jewish institutions, and attend synagogue or temple at least some time (70%). One participant told us that:
“The Mothers Circle changed my attitude towards raising my children Jewish (I was unsure when I began)… The Mothers Circle made me feel more comfortable with maintaining my current beliefs while opening my mind to the acceptance of Jewish tradition and values.”
As to the participating mothers, 89% participate in Jewish institutions (80% are affiliated with a synagogue), and some (24%) have even taken own a leadership role in these institutions. Most alumnae (64%) say that their own level of Jewish engagement has increased since they have participated in the program. And when compared to the general Jewish population, these mothers indeed show rates of engagement similar or greater than those of typical adult Jews (for example, 57% volunteer for Jewish causes, compared to 31% of the general Jewish population; 52% engage in Jewish study, compared with 38% of the general Jewish population). But most importantly, these mothers continue to be committed to raising Jewish children. Almost nine in ten alumnae (89%) raise their children exclusively Jewish; 11% raise children in both Judaism and Christianity. And 74% continue to discuss Jewish questions or themes with their children. One participant told us that:
“I enjoyed [The Mothers Circle] very much – it was very helpful and spiritually healing. For the first time, I felt truly accepted in the Jewish community.”
The mothers and their children, however, are not the only ones impacted by The Mothers Circle. According to program alumnae, their spouses too gain a greater sense of Jewish competence and their engagement is enhanced. As one mother told us:
“My husband was more secular, and even though we have always exclusively done Jewish holidays in our home, we have become more religious after finding a shul that we love. We have our son in religious school and are getting more involved with the temple and it has made him remember the faith he had in his youth. While I have lived a pseudo-Jewish life for the last 8 years, I have recently begun meeting with my rabbi to convert. My husband is ecstatic, and wants to get even more involved now!”
In this way, serving one family member (the mother) offers considerable impact to entire households who were otherwise unengaged with the Jewish community. Conversion is never a requirement of the program, not even an expectation. Some participants (42%) come to identify as Jewish some point after exiting the program, whether or not they formally convert. Others (12%) identify with both Judaism and Christianity. But for all participants raising Jewish children and being a part of a Jewish family becomes a priority.
It is not a stretch to say that the future of the Jewish community rests in great part in the hands of these women, who selflessly raise their children in a religion other than their own. This Mothers Day, let us celebrate them with this one, most important word – welcome! Welcome to the Jewish community, welcome to Jewish life, welcome to our Jewish institutions.
Zohar Rotem is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism (formerly known as Jewish Outreach Institute)