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home : voices Tuesday, April 24, 2007

4/23/2007 12:13:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
VOICES:Our Uncelebrated Heroes of Elder Care

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky
Guest Columnist

Jessica 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 Jewish herself.

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 members.

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.

It 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 challenging responsibilities.

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.

There 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.

There will 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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