Question: I am new to Judaism. I became aware of Jewish customs at university (so long ago!) and, as I was working on my conversion process, I fell in love with a Jewish boy. I converted for myself – not for him! – but we did marry briefly and had a child. I am now a single mother, and I decided to move back to my hometown with my young son. I have lots of support here in most aspects of my life: my mother and her friends dote on my son, the preschool parents have added me to their Facebook groups and invited me to every event, and my high school friends continue to carouse with me. Where I am lacking is in the Jewish upbringing of my child. I wish he had a nice Jewish grandmother! My own mother is vaguely accepting of my religious choice, but definitely does not embrace it. How do I adopt a Jewish grandma of my own without making my mother jealous?
Answer: Your mother has been marvelously supportive by accepting you into her home and welcoming you into her circles. I am glad that you can acknowledge this, and are considering her needs in return. As an adult, your relationship with your mother should be (and is) reciprocal.
As you and your child embark on a journey to enrich his Jewish life, look for ways to include your mother as well. She may enjoy the cultural aspects of Judaism, or at least see it as an interesting experience; who wouldn’t have fun making matzah balls? If your mother is at all interested, you could take her to a Jewish museum or watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” together. Don’t force this on her, though; think how uncomfortable you might be if you felt she was forcing you into the “secular” aspects of her religion.
Community building is a great way to enrich your communal and cultural life. Begin by meeting with the rabbi. Offer to start a monthly preschoolers-and-parents group or a Tot Shabbat on Saturday mornings. Given that you feel a lack of a Jewish parenting community, other members of your temple probably do as well – you’ll benefit everyone by bringing them together! If you do start this group, please reach out to families of kids with disabilities – our community too often forgets to include them!
Remember, not everybody has lived in your town their whole lives, and if they have, they may be missing family members who have moved away. See if your rabbi knows of anyone who is bereft because their grandchildren live in another community, or who has no grandkids and would love to be a surrogate. If there is a Jewish home for the aged, perhaps he could coordinate for you and your son to visit weekly and hear people’s stories about their own Jewish childhoods.
Your rabbi might also connect you with other young families with whom you could share the Shabbat. Of course, if you invite anyone to celebrate with you, you will need to ask your mother if she feels comfortable having company. Ask her if she wants to join in, too — even if she says no, she should always be welcomed and included. If you cannot find enough young parents to invite, consider hosting your meal through OneTable. OneTable is an organization which allows one to host or attend Shabbat dinners free of charge. You can create “Jewish Parents and Children’s Shabbat” and simply see who comes! Consider dating apps which have become a great place to find like-minded friends in your area.
Speaking of online connections, look up some online Jewish parenting groups! Kveller runs a Facebook group as well as a website, and are a great place to bond with other Jewish parents. Find out how your peers have grappled with a lack of in-person Jewish relationships – the answers may surprise you! InterfaithFamily and the URJ are also good resources for this.
You could also join PJ Library, a free monthly subscription service for Jewish children’s books, and maybe your mom can read Jewish books to your son. With her reading, him listening, and you translating (as needed), it would be a beautiful bonding experience for three generations.
I do not know the circumstances of your single parenthood, divorce, or widowhood. If you do have in-laws, even if they have felt slightly estranged since you lost your husband, I encourage you to reach out to them. If, for whatever reason you find that too difficult, you could begin by reaching out to your former husband’s cousins and siblings. Relationships are tough, but your child does have a whole other side of the family – he deserves a chance to get to know them, and you deserve to have support from your child’s family. Families made of many individuals, with their own personalities and and goals, but those differences are not immutable. Life is tough – take any chance you have for support! And remember, reaching out can be done in many ways. Sending a holiday card with pictures of your child or a video of him wishing grandma happy birthday can be just as effective, or more, than a phone call. Even should they not reciprocate, you will know you have done your part; that is all anyone can hope for.
So far, I have given you some ideas, but I cannot resist a note to existing Jewish communities. I read many articles about radical inclusion and call upon all of us to put it in practice. Really reach out to every new person in the synagogue! Remember Deuteronomy 26:11: “You shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord your God has granted ... you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.”
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.