New course for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish kids

Sarah Sechan

A Montreal synagogue is launching The Mothers Circle, an education-resource program for non-Jewish mothers who have no plans to convert to Judaism but are committed to “raising Jewish children.”

The program, the first of its kind in the city, was to get underway Nov. 12, 7 p.m. at the Reconstructionist Synagogue, Congregation Dorshei Emet and will consist of a 16-part bi-weekly course that “creates a comfortable space for women to learn about Jewish holidays and ritual, discover how to enrich their families’ Jewish experience, and deepen their connection to the religion of their partners and children,” the website says.

There is no charge for the course, which is being funded in Montreal through an $8,000 grant from Federation CJA’s Generation J fund and the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. Dorshei Emet rabbi and educator Julia Appel applied for the grant.

The program will be led by Carmela Aigen, director of Jewish studies at the Akiva School and wife of Dorshei Emet’s longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Ron Aigen. The program co-ordinator is Cynthia Weinstein.

“We are very excited about it,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Robyn Bennett. “There is no other existing [Mothers Circle] program in Canada, and although there were efforts in [other Canadian cities], I think this is the first one to really get off the ground.”

Bennett and Sarah Sechan, program associate in New York for the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), an independent, trans-denominational organization that “reaches out” to unaffiliated and intermarried families, believe the launch of The Mothers Circle in Montreal signifies progress there for intermarried and inter-committed couples with children.

Non-Jewish female partners in a relationship have tended historically not to be “acknowledged” within certain Jewish communities, especially those where the dominant religious influence has been traditional, Sechan said in an interview from New York, where she was joined by Amanda Kalesky, a JOI field staff manager.

While Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism consider children with either a Jewish mother or father as Jewish, in Conservative and Orthodox denominations, the mother must be Jewish either because her mother is Jewish, or through conversion. Montreal has only one Reconstructionist and one Reform synagogue, while four are Conservative and virtually all others are Orthodox.

Bennett noted that a number of member families at Dorshei Emet have a non-Jewish-born parent where the couple is raising their children as Jews.

“It can be very isolating to be the non-Jewish partner,” Sechan said, especially when the partner is a woman. “So if [the outreach institute] is approached by a non-Jewish parent who is committed to raising Jewish children, we embrace them and support them.”

The need for Jewish communities to be more open to the notion of “raising Jewish children” regardless of whether the mother is Jewish has been reinforced, Bennett and Sechan agreed, by the recent Pew survey that showed 58 per cent of American Jews are marrying outside their faith.

While the intermarriage figure in Canada is about half that, in a general sense, Bennett said, non-Jewish mothers who are part of The Mothers Circle and who are committed to learning the basics of Judaism in order to raise their children as Jews are making sacrifices by putting their personal religious identities on the sidelines.

Kalesky said that “there are two choices: you can have an attitude of looking at the majority of [American] Jews intermarrying and thinking of it as, ‘kissing the Jewish future goodbye,’ or we can find a way to welcome them in as part of the Jewish future in a proactive way.”

The Mothers Circle began as an outreach institute pilot project in Atlanta in 2002, and has since been launched in dozens of American cities. In cities where the program has become established, it also offers three-part “mini-courses,” holiday “prep” classes, a “self-help” guide and even Listserve discussions.

In Montreal, the proposed program, which will run to the beginning of April, will include the basics of Judaism, including Jewish holiday celebrations.

For more details, visit the website or call 514-486-9400.