Jewish Group Helps Moms Outside Faith

On a recent night in Alpharetta, a group of non-Jewish women gathered at the Cohen Home, a senior living center, to prepare for Rosh Hashana, the High Holiday that begins at sundown today and marks a process of repentance and renewal for the Jewish new year.

The mothers observed the dipping of apples in honey to symbolize hope for a sweet year. They heard the shofar, a ram’s horn sounded on the High Holidays to elicit a spiritual “wake-up call.” And they discussed asking forgiveness from God, family, friends and others to become spiritually clean for the new year.

Rosh Hashana is like “Jewish group therapy,” explained Mitch Cohen, a Jewish educator whose wife, Suzette, is the Georgia coordinator for the Mothers Circle, a support group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. Many of the women’s husbands were not particularly religious, but they still deeply identified with their ethnic group. And in marrying the Jewish men, these women agreed to raise their children in the faith.

It’s a tough challenge for many, and Atlanta is a hot spot for intermarriage, or Jews marrying outside the faith. The Mothers Circle, now a national organization, got its start here.

The Mothers Circle teaches women, often for the first time, about Judaism the religion — which stresses family, community and deeds over faith.

Susan Shields finished a Mothers Circle course in May. She says raising her 2-year-old daughter as a Jew does not conflict with her own commitment to the Methodist church.

“I’m providing her with morals and values that I believe in,” says Shields, who met her husband, William, when they were students at the University of Georgia.

“I truly feel in my heart that if she is a good person and if she is kind to other people, that’s what’s most important,” Shields says. “The God that I believe in is a loving God and would see that.”

In an age of skyrocketing intermarriage, the Mothers Circle offers a schoolyear program of learning and support.

“Women by and large are still responsible for the religious education for the children,” says national coordinator Sonja Spear.

Many interfaith couples find their home in the more liberal Reform movement. Conservative and Orthodox movements maintain that Judaism is passed on through mothers and would require the conversion of a child of a non-Jewish woman. Most Reform synagogues, however, consider the child of a Jewish father to also be Jewish, so long as the child is being raised Jewish.

“There’s nothing to say that if included and welcomed that they can’t also strengthen the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Sandy Springs.

The Jewish community traditionally has viewed intermarriage as a sign of its looming extinction.

The Mothers Circle is one example of the Reform movement reaching out. Now in seven U.S. cities, the group has plans to open 10 more across the country and also offers programs for the general interfaith community. Funded locally by the Marcus Foundation, the program is a project of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, which provides the curriculum.

To many Jews, Judaism is more than a religion. They consider themselves part of an ethnic group with shared heritage and experience. The multiple dimensions can be confusing for non-Jewish spouses to grasp.

The key challenge for Jeanine Schmid, 37, is “understanding Judaism and having the resources available to learn it.”

Schmid grew up Catholic on Long Island, N.Y., in a densely Jewish neighborhood. But studying the religion, she has found a spiritual connection to Judaism and plans to convert. The Mothers Circle is explicitly not meant to convert participants, but to offer guidance and support.

Some of the questions are basic. “Is there any way to know” when to stand during services, asked Abi Auer, 33, of Buckhead, who was raised Catholic, referring to the see-saw effect of rising and sitting in prayer. Schmid interjected with her husband’s advice, “just look around to see what everyone else is doing.”

In a High Holiday sermon about sacrifice last year, Segal thanked non-Jewish spouses for raising Jewish children.

“That’s a beautiful gift,” Segal said. “They are helping ensure that our numbers continue to grow and that our people are stronger.”

DID YOU KNOW?

• 67 percent of Atlanta Jews who married since 1990 wed outside the faith.

JEWISH INTERMARRIAGE
• U.S. Jewish population: more than 6 million.
• The intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews in 1950 was less than 5 percent. By 1970 that grew to 22 percent. From 1996 to 2001, it was 47 percent.
• Today, between 30 and 40 percent of intermarried couples raise their children exclusively Jewish.

Source: National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. Gary Tobin, San Francisco Jewish demographer.

ATLANTA

• Jewish population: 120,000
• The intermarriage rate in 1996 was 37 percent. It rose to 50 percent by 2006. But 67 percent of couples married since 1990, wed outside the faith.
• Nearly 40 percent of children are being raised exclusively Jewish.

Source: The Jewish Community Centennial Study of Greater Atlanta, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

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