Mothers Circle: Judaism for the non-Jewish mom

By Brendan Howard, Special to The Chronicle

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These brave parents needed support and appreciation, he said.





Before then, Tamara Lawson Schuster, the Jewish Community Center's Outreach Coordinator, had already started the Mother's Circle, a seven-month course for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish kids: It complemented Genesis, the interfaith couples program also sponsored by the JCC.





The Mothers Circle, a program of the Jewish Outreach Institute, originated in Atlanta, where one class quickly blossomed into three citywide. Kansas City was one of four communities to adopt the program when it expanded in 2005. Since then the number of communities hosting a Mothers Circle group has grown to 12.





The twice-monthly class is "part learning, part support group," said Jennifer Goodman, a participant. Non-Jewish mothers learn ways to teach Jewish values and how to make a Jewish household.





Another participant, Patti Paisner, said, "Learning how to do Shabbat and Passover seders has been the most empowering," Paisner said.





Classmates also get support from fellow moms who are also wrestling with the issue bringing up Jewish kids without being Jewish themselves.





Schuster pointed out it's important that people know that the Mothers Circle is not a conversion class. In fact, participants cannot be in the process of converting, or already converted.





"The Mothers Circle is really a safe space for women who aren't Jewish. Some are still active in their non-Jewish faith; others just aren't ready to jump into Judaism for themselves," Schuster said.





In the Mothers Circle, it is the discussion group leader's job to respect mothers' choices not to convert. And participants' feelings on conversion vary. Participant Lisa Greenwald said conversion for some would be like abandoning their family or "losing a part of themselves." Jennifer Goodman said she would want to convert for her own religious fulfillment, not just for the community or "for the sake of the children."





Participant Andrea Vandeven noted that the discussion leaders have nonjudgmental attitudes.





"They don't make you feel guilty," Vandeven said. "[You don't think] 'Oh, there are all these rules, things I should be doing, or I will screw my kids up.' The class is so positive. It comes from a liberal position. It validates that there are multiple pathways to Judaism."





To get the word out about the class, Schuster also hosts monthly "Coffee Talks" at the Wild Oats Community Market in Overland Park, scheduled 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Thursday evenings Feb. 1, April 12 and May 3. Any non-Jewish mother, regardless of whether or not she participates in the Mother's Circle, is welcome to get together with other non-Jewish mothers.





Schuster said one issue that pops up often is that the mothers want their Jewish husbands to join them.





"The mothers really want their husbands to be supportive on this path to raising a Jewish family. A lot of times you find husbands who have a strong desire to raise Jewish children, but oftentimes do not have the background or the tools they need to support this goal," said Schuster. "As frequently happens - just as in other aspects of parenting - the job of creating a Jewish home, and instilling a sense of Jewish identity falls to the mother, whether she is Jewish or not."





Vandeven agreed, but said it's just a part of family life sometimes.





"I don't think Judaism has to own that problem," Vandeven said. "In our society, who's fixing Thanksgiving? Who's doing Christmas and Easter? Moms. Who's going to make it happen? Mom may assign tasks, but she's running the show."





For more information about this program, call Tamara Lawson Schuster, (913) 754-2284, or visit www.jcckc.org/motherscircle.





Interfaithfamily.com columnist here




Genesis brings to town author Jim Keen, a Christian helping his Jewish wife raise Jewish children, on Sunday, Feb. 11, to offer practical advice about giving children a clear Jewish identity while maintaining a comfort level for both parents. He will speak from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Jewish Community Campus.





His book, "Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family," was published in 2006. Keen is a columnist for InterfaithFamily.com and the Detroit Jewish News, among others. He lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.





The program is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested. Call Tamara Lawson Schuster, outreach coordinator, (913) 754-2284, or e-mail her at: tamaras@jewishkc.org. Brendan Howard is a lcoal freelance writer who prepared this article for the Jewish Community Center.





Brendan Howard is a local freelance writer who prepared this article for the Jewish Community Center.



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