What’s a Grandparent to Do?: Sharing Judaism with Grandchildren in Interfaith Families

To highlight the powerful role that grandparents play in children’s lives – including children in interfaith families – Big Tent Judaism is hosting a weekend of activities to coincide with Grandparents Day on Sunday, September 7.

by Sarah Sechan

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The word “millennial” is at the center of conversation in today’s Jewish community. But we shouldn’t ignore another group that is equally pivotal to Jewish continuity – grandparents.

To highlight the powerful role that grandparents play in children’s lives – including children in interfaith families – Big Tent Judaism is hosting a weekend of activities to coincide with Grandparents Day on Sunday, September 7.

photoThe National Grandparents Circle Salon Weekend, from September 6– 7, will convene informal gatherings of Jewish grandparents whose children have intermarried. These salons create a space for discussion about how to foster the Jewish identity of grandchildren being raised in interfaith families, while at the same time improving relationships between grandparents and their adult children.

Led by a grandparent, participants learn strategies for creating Jewish experiences for their grandchildren and establishing positive relationships with their adult children that are informed by the book Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Grandparents Circle Salons are part of Big Tent Judaism’s Grandparents Circle, a series of free educational programs for Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried. These programs have been implemented nearly 150 times in nearly 100 communities across North America.

Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute board member Bettina Kurowski was instrumental in developing the Grandparents Circle, which she piloted at Valley Beth Shalom, a large Conservative Synagogue in Encino, California. Bettina spoke with me about her role in helping to create the Grandparents Circle, how her participation in the inaugural Grandparents Circle helped her shape positive Jewish memories with her family, and why the Grandparents Circle is important for the Conservative Movement.


What led you to your involvement in creating the Grandparents Circle?

 Bettina Kurowski: I was a new grandparent of a child being raised in an interfaith family. I had no friends who had children who had married people of other faiths. Big Tent Judaism had been engaged by my local Federation to do a community assessment, and it happened that I was president of the local Federation at the time. This was approximately 12 years ago. I was so impressed by Big Tent Judaism and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky that I started to look into what they’d done previously. Lo and behold, Kerry’s book on grandparenting had just come out, maybe a month after I first met him. I bought it right away, read it, and knew that Big Tent Judaism also had The Mothers Circle (a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an interfaith marriage).

It occurred to me that there were many other grandparents like myself, who were younger and/or more vibrant than what we think of as grandparents in the preceding two generations, and there were many of us who wanted an opportunity to learn, to get ideas about how to deal with certain situations and to develop a group of other people in similar circumstances. Since I am an academic type and lifelong learner, I immediately took an Introduction to Judaism class, because I knew that I was embarking upon a world where needed to be able to explain what Judaism was, in contrast to the religion of my grandchildren’s father.

I approached Kerry and asked, “What would it take to create a curriculum with the same approach as The Mothers Circle?” And my husband and I were able to fund it, to get it started. Big Tent Judaism developed the curriculum, we pilot tested it in L.A. at my own synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (Encino, CA), which is a large Conservative synagogue, and it was very successful. Big Tent Judaism evaluated the program and then they began growing it in other places. I recently moved to Denver, and shared with the local Denver JCC my involvement with Big Tent Judaism. The JCC had already taken advantage of The Mothers Circle, and they are going to be starting the Grandparents Circle at two locations here in Denver in the fall. So I feel very good about that.


Why do you think the Grandparents Circle is important for nurturing grandchildren’s Jewish identities?

I meet more and more people like myself, who want an avenue for learning and for sharing feelings about the importance of being a good role model in these circumstances, because I feel strongly, as Big Tent Judaism does, that we as Jews have to do a much, much better job at welcoming these families into our fold, making it comfortable for these families to embrace Judaism, and it’s very important that grandparents be supportive and sensitive of the issues. There are so many things that we might say as grandparents in this circumstance that could be offensive. We don’t want to do that. We want to make it possible for our grandchildren to feel good about their Judaism and possibly embrace it more as they learn more.


How has the Grandparents Circle changed the way you approach Judaism with your family?

I take each of my grandchildren on a trip wherever they want to go when they turn nine. I just got back from taking one of my grandchildren to New York. New York is just filled with Jews, and it was an opportunity for me to lace my conversation with the things that we saw or did: we would only eat kosher hot dogs on the street, I would explain why, and why Jews care about keeping kosher, and look! Other people care about that too! Muslims eat halal food, meat products from animals that have been killed and treated in a similar way.

Another example: During holidays when I would celebrate with my family, I used to insist that the men all wear a kippah (head covering), and this always led to fighting. Now, I tell them that they can also wear a baseball cap. Everyone is fine with this. It’s important to be respectful of everyone. My relationship with my family is great. Everyone calls me Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother)—even my son-in-law! Just imagine this big, grown man calling out, “Bubbe, Bubbe! Where are you?” I love it.


Why do you think the Grandparents Circle is important for the Conservative Movement?

It gives you a chance and helps you start thinking about how we can weave Judaism into [grandchildren’s] lives and the conversation, without criticizing or putting down the other faith of the parent. The more they know about Judaism in a positive light, the better—this is why Conservative synagogues should want to do this! The Grandparents Circle gives the tools to present Judaism in a non-judgmental, positive light. The more our grandchildren know about Judaism in that way, the more likely they are to embrace Judaism of their own choice. Isn’t that what we want, to bring these kids into the fold? It shows what their Judaism is, what it means, and that they are a part of our people.

For more information about the Grandparents Circle and to host a Grandparents Circle Salon during National Grandparents Circle weekend or any time, please contact Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute Program Associate Katie Singh at 212-760-1440 or KSingh@JOI.org.

Sarah Sechan is a Program Associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and National Coordinator of the Grandparents Circle.