Non-Jewish mothers, againt the odds, playing a growing role in liberal congregations.
With a new study indicating that New York’s non-Orthodox families are increasingly disengaged from communal life, particularly from synagogues, Alicia Scotti seems like a throwback to happier times.
For the past eight years she’s been an active member of the Upper West Side’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where she facilitates a parent discussion group and chairs the Inclusion and Outreach Committee. Meanwhile, her son is “massively involved” in the Reform temple’s youth group —“if he’s not at regular school he’s at Rodeph,” she says.
And Scotti describes Rodeph’s Rabbi Robert Levine as her “spiritual leader,” adding that having him in her life “helps me get through the day.”
There’s just one thing. Scotti, a marketing consultant who recently launched her own artisanal pie business, is not Jewish. But that hasn’t stopped this non-practicing Catholic — or other gentile women who, like her, are married to Jewish men and raising Jewish children — from volunteering in Jewish institutions.
While no one has formal data about non-Jewish women who are active in Jewish institutions, anecdotal reports suggest that, as taboos against intermarriage have eroded, they are playing a growing role in Reform synagogues, JCCs and pluralistic day schools.
“Some of our most involved parents fit this profile,” said Rabbi Levine.
Deborah Ayala Srabstein, the education director at Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Washington, D.C., echoed Rabbi Levine.
“Some of our most committed, active lay leaders are non-Jewish moms,” she said, adding that they are often the parents who “take Jewish education the most seriously.”
While some observers worry that encouraging the involvement of gentiles could dilute the Jewish character of institutions and even discourage conversion, others welcome the energy and fresh perspective that women from other backgrounds bring — and say that reserving volunteer positions for Jews simply discourages potential converts from exploring Judaism.
“What’s the benefit to anyone to put up barriers?” asked Srabstein. “Allowing a non-Jewish parent to deepen the family’s Jewish experience is good for the Jewish people, whether or not that parent converts.”
Until 1983, when the Reform movement approved patrilineal descent, the idea of a gentile woman choosing to shlep her kids to Hebrew school, let alone volunteering at a temple or JCC, would have seemed almost comical.
By accepting as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, provided the child is given a formal Jewish upbringing, Reform (and Reconstructionist) Jews broke with the “matrilineal descent” tradition codified in Talmudic times. Conservative and Orthodox Jews still see the tradition as binding.
Almost three decades after patrilineal descent became the norm in the Reform movement, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) estimates that more than 200,000 gentile women in the United States are, together with Jewish partners, raising their children as Jews. While some are choosing to convert their children so they will be accepted as Jewish by the wider Jewish community, others say they find that ritual unnecessary or even insulting, and will let the children decide for themselves whether or not to undergo a formal conversion when they are older.
More than 1,500 moms have, like Scotti, participated in JOI’s Mothers Circle, a 10-year-old class and support group that is now offered in more than 70 locations for non-Jewish women raising Jewish kids.
Laura Kinyon, who has been facilitating Mothers Circle groups in West Hartford, Conn., for seven years, said that “at least 30” of her alumni have gone on to become active in Jewish institutions.
“Many of the Mothers Circle women have been invited to be on their Hebrew school staffs,” she said. “One woman who is a teacher had two little kids and wanted to get them involved in Hebrew school. Her [Jewish] husband had no interest in joining a synagogue at this time, so she negotiated a barter system with the Hebrew school as an education consultant for them.”
That dynamic — in which the non-Jewish wife is more involved than her Jewish husband — is common.
Asked if her husband is active at Rodeph Sholom, Alicia Scotti laughed. “Not at all,” she said.
Carrie McCarthy, a Mothers Circle alumna who lives in Los Gatos, Calif., said it was her idea, not her husband’s, to join a synagogue and enroll their two children, now 8 and 5, in Hebrew school.
When their oldest started kindergarten, McCarthy, who is Irish Catholic but “pretty non-religious,” began wondering how she could continue the Jewish connection he’d gotten at the JCC preschool.
“At first I thought we’d just send him to Jewish summer camp, but then I imagined my son being 13 and asking, ‘Why didn’t I have a bar mitzvah?’” she said. “So I asked my husband what a bar mitzvah entailed, and we ended up deciding to send him to Hebrew school.”
Not only is McCarthy more active in Jewish life than her husband is, she is more active than most American Jews: after starting an intergenerational program at the JCC preschool, she “got tagged as someone with ideas” and was ultimately brought onto the 25-person JCC board, where she is the only non-Jew.
She also volunteers in her family’s Reform temple, among other things serving as a room parent in the Hebrew school, joining a women’s book group there and helping to run the temple’s annual Mitzvah Day, which she is slated to chair next year.
One thing she hasn’t pursued, however, is conversion.
“I have thought about it, but I feel like it’s not who I am,” she said. “I’m not the sort of person who does something because, ‘why not do it?’ I need a reason to do it, and I haven’t felt that yet. Maybe I will in the future.”
Like McCarthy, Amy Scheffler, of San Francisco, is uninterested in converting to Judaism, even as she has spearheaded her family’s Jewish activities and volunteered in her children’s Jewish day school. While Scheffler, who grew up attending a Congregationalist church every week, agreed early on to raise her children as Jews, she soon discovered she and her Jewish husband had different ideas about what this would mean.
“My husband would be happy if the kids just checked a box saying they’re Jewish, but for me it meant all this other stuff: knowing who they were, food, identity, songs, understanding their whole history,” she said. They enrolled their two sons in a JCC preschool, and Scheffler joined a Mothers Circle group. Soon, “my husband was completely bewildered to find us celebrating Shabbat and me saying I want to find a synagogue and become more involved.”
As the couple was exploring kindergarten options for their oldest son, who is now going into fourth grade, Scheffler discovered the Brandeis-Hillel Day School and “fell completely in love with it.”
At Brandeis-Hillel, she has served as a room parent, participated in fundraising efforts, run the school’s “Sukkot in Yosemite” program and helped organize the siddur ceremony/party for the first graders.
“By sending them to this school I’m showing them what the best of Judaism can be, and they can meet the larger context of the world with that knowledge,” she said.
The family has not joined a synagogue, however, mostly because of resistance from Scheffler’s husband.
Scheffler considered converting when her Mothers Circle class ended, but “what ultimately came to me was my family isn’t going there. My family brought me to Judaism in the first place, and I’m not comfortable going further without them.”
Some worry that the liberal Jewish community is not doing enough to encourage women like Scheffler and McCarthy to convert.
Rabbi Sarah Wolf, of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where non-Jewish spouses, mostly moms, are active on various committees, said, “We do a really good job of making our non-Jews feel comfortable being active participants, but the downside is that they don’t feel the need to convert.”
However, she added, “I’ve seen enough in the few years I’ve been here to say you never know where a person is going to end up, so I’m much more likely to keep the door open.”
Most Jewish institutions in which gentile women are active do have some red lines.
Most still reserve aliyot and certain other practices for Jews, and many keep board positions — or certain committees, like the ritual committee — solely Jewish.
Asked if Beth Am has policies governing the leadership roles of gentiles, Rabbi Wolf said, the by-laws are “silent” on this issue, but “there has never been a non-Jew on our board.”
“Most non-Jews are pretty clear about how far they feel comfortable going,” she said. “Many say they wouldn’t want to be on the board or the ritual committee, that it wouldn’t feel appropriate.”
Karen Kushner, chief education officer of InterfaithFamily.com, emphasized that non-Jews are hardly clamoring to take over Jewish institutions: “I don’t see them pushing themselves into a place they don’t know.”
Non-Jewish volunteers like Scheffler and McCarthy agreed that they are not looking to make waves.
“Especially as I’m active in the community and stating my opinion about things, I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘Wait a minute, who are you to say it ought to be this way or that way?’” Scheffler said. “I feel like I’m sort of waiting for that tap on the shoulder. It’s never happened, but it’s present in my mind.”
At the same time, Scheffler said, while she hasn’t made a concerted effort to hide her background, many think she is Jewish.
At a planning meeting for her son’s siddur ceremony, many people were “shocked” when she mentioned she is not Jewish.
“I’ve taken a number of classes and have been paying attention,” she said. “I can sing ‘Hatikvah’ [the Israeli national anthem], so it’s easy for people to assume I’m one of the tribe. It’s not typically talked about one way or another.”
Temple Micah’s Srabstein, like many others, emphasized that non-Jewish women volunteers play an energizing role, not just in their families, but in the Jewish institutions they serve.
“When a parent has made a commitment to raise their child in another faith/tradition, it’s something they’ve affirmatively chosen,” she said. “They’ve thought about it, processed and weighed the different sides of it ... sometimes it’s a more thorough process than two Jewish parents would go through, where it’s more a default or a gut emotional decision.”
Another factor: “A lot of Jews in their 30s and 40s didn’t have the most positive Jewish educational experiences growing up. Jewish parents sometimes will bring ambivalence or baggage, whereas non-Jewish parents bring a different set of assumptions, a kind of fresher slate.”
Rabbi Wolf, of Beth Am, noted that many non-Jewish women, particularly those raised Christian, “are much more comfortable talking about God, which I think is positive. They don’t get a lot of Jews’ discomfort with God and spirituality, and that’s refreshing.”
Said West Hartford’s Kinyon: “What I love about the Mothers Circle community and many of these interfaith families is that they know that if they don’t do something, it’s not going to happen. The kids aren’t going to grow up with a Jewish identity just because they have a Jewish father. It’s an active process, not just hereditary, and they know they have to get involved.”