S. is worried about her in-laws. Her mother-in-law is in her late 80s,
and her father-in-law has already celebrated his 90th birthday. Their
need for community support and services has grown rapidly over the past
year, even as they relocated to an assisted-care facility sponsored by
the Jewish community. Jessica visits her in-laws daily. She takes them
back and forth to doctors and always spends plenty of time advocating
on their behalf.
If you are a middle-aged child of older
parents, that scenario might seem familiar. You may have come to
appreciate the network of social services provided by Jewish
institutions. But Jessica isn't Jewish. Her husband is, as are their
children, making her the matriarch of a Jewish household. Jessica is
doing it all while overcoming the additional challenge of not being
For me, this is the definition of a Jewish
hero. While providing for the Jewish future by raising Jewish children,
she is also caring for the Jewish past by giving care and support to
elder Jewish members of her family.
Though discussion about
the role of mothers of other religious backgrounds committed to raising
Jewish children is slowly emerging, their role with regard to their
Jewish in-laws is still often overlooked.
We believe that their
raising of Jewish children is crucial if we are to transform the trend
of interfaith marriage from a challenge into an opportunity, but we
must also recognize their work with parents, in-laws and others
relatives. Just as women tend to take on the lion's share of parenting
roles in the family - even in the most progressive of families - they
also tend to take on primary caretaker roles with elderly family
Enter the phenomenon of intermarriage and how this
affects the family and the community. Women like Jessica are forced to
negotiate many of the same institutions that may not have been
welcoming to her (or her family) because of her status as the
non-Jewish spouse in an interfaith family - even as she is following
the Jewish social and ethical mores of honoring parents and the aged.
is vital that we ensure Jewish institutions welcome our family members
of other religious backgrounds because those caregivers may opt for
inferior establishments that are friendlier rather than patronizing
Jewish organizations that treat them as outsiders.
This is not
to suggest that the efforts of all members of the "Sandwich Generation"
aren't also heroic. They are. But we have an obligation to recognize
the growing number of non-Jewish women who take on the role for their
Jewish in-laws, and we should celebrate them for taking on these
Furthermore, we should provide
opportunities in the community to support their efforts, educate them
and help them navigate the community while at the same time working
with community institutions to change attitudes about interfaith
families and such women who come from other religious backgrounds.
is a real need to develop programs along the lines of the Mothers
Circle, a program we created to support a particular population (women
of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children) at a specific
time in their lives (when their children are young) with a targeted
agenda (helping them to raise Jewish children). In addition to offering
the more generalized interfaith discussion programs found in most
communities, we should also develop these kinds of program resources
that directly inform and sustain this population in the ways they need
it most, as when caring for older family members.
be more and more cases like that of Jessica S., especially as the
accumulated number of interfaith marriages in the community increases.
For women like Jessica to be successful, the community must work
together to support these true (if unsung) Jewish heroes.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org),
national sponsor of the Mothers Circle. He is most recently co-author
of 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (and
not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren.
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