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Partly Jewish?

November 3, 2013 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Most children raised in interfaith families lack the tools and knowledge to make informed choices.

This past Friday Susan Katz Miller wrote an impassioned piece for the New York Times entitled “Being Partly Jewish.” In response to the alarming results of the recent Pew study on American Jews, Mrs. Miller asserts that children in interfaith families are not lost to Judaism. She writes: “In the course of a year, my family celebrates Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Passover and many Shabbats. We also celebrate All Saint’s Day and All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.” The article asserts that by exposing children to different religions, they will be able to choose their beliefs for themselves.

Mrs. Miller claims that dual faith parenting is an exercise in letting go. But would we ‘let go’ of our children in any other area that we truly care about?

My parents raised me to reach for academic excellence. How did they do this? They sent me to private schools with rigorous curriculums. They made sure I did my homework. They praised my high marks and expressed disappointment when I worked below my potential. When I was in high school, my father took me to visit his alma mater, the Wharton School of Business. I’ll never forget sitting on the empty bleachers with my father in the Hutch gym at the University of Pennsylvania on that visit. He told me,: “This is your legacy. But, as you know, Ivy League legacies aren’t just passed down. You have to earn it. If you want to attend this school, then you need to spend the next four years working for it.”

And I did. But the choice that I made to get there was an informed one. My parents had given me years of the best education possible. If I was weak in a subject, they hired a tutor. I spent hours in SAT prep courses. I was given the opportunity to take advanced placement courses.

Without a strong Jewish education, there simply is no informed choice.

But what if my parents had told me that an Ivy League education was a nice idea but a high school diploma was a fine choice too? And what if they had taken me for occasional visits to the University of Pennsylvania without giving me the kind of education that would make it possible for me to gain entry into the school at all? What if they had showed me around the beautiful campus a few times a year and forgot about the SATs altogether? Would I really have had a choice then?

This is what it is like when a child has only the most basic, superficial knowledge of Judaism. The campus looks impressive. The students are brilliant. The professors seem to have so much to teach. But what does any of it have to do with me?

And if the high school diploma is a choice that is equally valued by my parents then why would I choose the more challenging path of a college degree? Without a strong Jewish education, there simply is no informed choice. Most children raised in interfaith families are skimming the surfaces of conflicting beliefs without the tools or the knowledge to be able to examine their own choices.

And even if a person is informed and ready to make a real choice, what does it mean to be ‘partly Jewish?’ Can I be partly married? On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’ll be married. And on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday and maybe Saturday, I’ll be single? It’s absurd because by definition, commitment is whole. We don’t give only half of our hearts to anything that we care about. We can’t know the depth of love that is possible in a marriage before we make an absolute commitment to another person. So too, we will never know the truth of the Torah and the beauty of Judaism if in our hearts, we think we are only ‘partly Jewish.’ (It bears mentioning that according to Jewish law, there is no such thing as ‘partly Jewish.’ If your mother is a Jew, you are totally Jewish, like it or not.)

Moreover, young children do not make these kinds of commitments. They absorb the values and ideas in their homes, but the real commitments come later in life when they set out on their own. Even children from the most observant homes will eventually have to make their own choices to commit to Judaism. This happened to me when I finally arrived at the Quad freshman dormitory at University of Pennsylvania. I felt free for the first time in my life. No curfew. No rules. No one questioning my decisions.

So I experimented. I kept kosher. I went to Hillel on Shabbos. But on every Thursday and Saturday night, I went partying with the rest of the kids in my dorm. I searched for truth and questioned my beliefs. But I was lucky. I had been given a Jewish day school education; without that, I wouldn’t have had the beliefs or the knowledge to be able to examine them. And when the good-looking, Catholic football player sitting next to me in Philosophy 101 asked me out, I didn’t say no because I felt like I was ‘forced’ to be Jewish. I said no because I had the ability to make an informed choice and an authentic commitment.

I wanted Judaism, and I wanted all of it. Today, I am a psychologist. I am a writer. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am not ‘partly’ any of these identities, and I am not ‘partly Jewish’ either. Instead I am blessed with wholeness. I am a whole Jew for my whole life because my parents cared enough about Judaism to give me a real choice.

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