Should I be concerned about my kid's non-Jewish friend?
05/10/10
Special to the Jewish Week

Q. My daughter, 10, goes to a Jewish day school, but her best friend is a non-Jewish neighbor. Should I be concerned? What should I tell her?

A. There might be underlying reason for concern, though not specifically because her BFF isn’t an MOT (Member of the Tribe).

Jewish law is ambivalent about the subject of non-Jewish friends. The early rabbis blasted their Roman neighbors, but then frequently socialized with them in bathhouses. While many of our rituals, like Kashrut, lend toward an atmosphere of social segregation, such concepts as the “Shabbos Goy” and sale of Hametz, prove that we can’t live without ‘em.

Remember how offensive it was for Jews to hear the expression, “Some of my best friends are Jewish,” uttered by an anti-Semite, who would then go on to say something outrageous? In the case of your daughter, whose entire daily routine revolves around Jews, it is hardly outrageous to be palling around with a non Jewish neighbor. It might actually be refreshing for her to encounter a little diversity once in a while.

As a parent who has made good use of both day schools and public schools, I see the advantages of both. The former enables kids to grow in an organic Jewish atmosphere that nurtures a sense of common values and peoplehood. The latter promotes understanding of those who are different, so vital in an ever-shrinking world.

That said, if she absolutely refuses to socialize with her classmates, there might be some deeper issues at play here.

Some day school experiences can be so suffocating that kids begin to think negatively about both Jews and Judaism, especially in schools that heap accolades only on the elite students, where an Ivy-or-bust atmosphere becomes unbearably competitive. If you are finding that your child is already becoming increasingly disparaging of her Jewish identity at the age of ten, I’d look into other school options. For an older teen, a little cynicism is expected, but not for a ten year old. At that age, Jewish life should be a year-long carnival ride, a joy-filled leap from holiday to holiday, from Shabbat to Shabbat.

If a repressive environment exists, you might find that your child is learning to love her neighbor but to hate herself. Fortunately, we seem to have gotten over many of the “J.A.P” stereotypes that alienated Jewish youths from one another in the past. But even at ten, it’s not too early to ascertain the toxicity level of the Jewish relationships in your daughter’s school.

The issue, then, is not about “Jewish and Goyish,” but rather whether her school is “Jewish and Joyous.”  

 Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at rabbi@tbe.org

 

 

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Last Update:

05/21/2010 - 10:21

Comments

Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my posting and for pointing out how it might have offended some readers. I apologize to those I might have offended. I am in full agreement that inclusiveness and love are at the core of our ethical traditions and that the last thing we want to do is teach our kids to hate those different from themselves - or those with similar backgrounds, for that matter. I'm proud, in fact, to have contributed to that ongoing conversation through my article and postings, including those in the Jewish Week - some of which have been widely praised by organizations such as the Jewish Outreach Institute (see http://joi.org/blog/?p=1033 "The Way Jews Look" and http://joi.org/blog/?p=2263, "No Longer Mourning Intermarriage.") When I received that question from my editor, I too wondered whether it was "fit to print," but decided that it was important to respond to the concerns of the the confused questioner, hoping that my response would help that person understand that his concerns were unwarranted. The side issue I brought up made no assumptions regarding that friendship, but I felt it was important also to discuss how not only is it wrong to teach the hated of others, but also to have an educational environment fostering negative images of Jews and Judaism, as I've seen is some day schools.
Was there another part of the reader's letter that is not being printed? Otherwise, why would the simple fact that a Jewish girl has a non-Jewish best friend cause one to suspect that she doesn't want to socialize with other Jews or thinks negatively of Judaism? If there is more to the letter that would support those ideas, then the editors should have included that information. Given that the best friend is a neighbor, I would think that the proximity and easy access for instant non-scheduled "playdates" might be a factor. And maybe they are just compatible in personality. I am bothered by the implied assumption that a non-Jewish child would necessarily be a less suitable playmate solely on the basis of religious affiliation. This is a child's friendship; not dating or marriage!
Rabbi Hammerman, How can friendship between two young girls lead to problems? Not in the ways you describe. I doubt they discuss theology, worry about one going to synagogue and the other to church. As it is, we refer to many issues as Judeo/Christian, meaning we share values in common. The mother of this little girl, fortunate to have a good friend, does not mention the religion or whether it is observed/practiced in the neighbors home/family. They, do not seem to be concerned that their daughter is BEST FRIENDS with a JEWISH girl. Looking at a Christmas Tree is not forbidden in the Torah, and watching a Hannuka candle being lit, not forbidden in the New Testament. Hate is taught. We live in a very diverse world; accepting diversity and knowing how to live with it, is the key to Peace and Community. We are all G-d's children. Miriam Freund

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