I wasn’t expecting any more than a bit of first day separation anxiety. After all, my daughter already regularly attended preschool during the week, and she was only moving from the nursery room to the preschool level of religious education at our church. So of course, she was absolutely fine heading into class that morning, throwing me a quick wave on her way to the rug. What surprised me, though, was the emotional turmoil that I was feeling.
I am a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage. My husband and I had discussed, both before and after marriage, that we would raise any children we had as multi-faith. For us, this means we would focus on exposing our children to many different religious traditions. We chose as our religious home my husband’s childhood church, a liberal church that is extremely open and accepting. They welcome me as a Jewish woman, a mother, and a writer. They encourage each person to follow the spiritual path that makes the most sense to that individual.
Until my daughter started Sunday school, I had always felt completely comfortable there and with my parenting decisions around religion. But as I dropped my daughter off that first morning, I immediately flashed back to the event that propelled me into religious school more than two decades ago.
I was raised Jewish, but my family was not affiliated with a synagogue early on. When I changed elementary schools before fourth grade, I mostly did fine navigating the changes and new people that came with the switch. I made friends easily. However, one morning a couple of the girls in my class cornered me. “Why do you say you’re Jewish?” one asked. “Yeah, you don’t go to temple, and you go to school on the High Holidays,” said the other. I stammered some sort of answer that I no longer remember, and then extricated myself from the situation. But the event stuck with me. That night, I asked my parents if we could join a synagogue. I wanted to be truly Jewish. Not just by my own definition, but by one that others applied as well.
It was a foolish reason to begin to study any religion, but I am glad that my parents indulged me. We joined a reform synagogue. I learned Hebrew, had a bat mitzvah, and was confirmed. It fulfilled me to learn about my ancestors, my history, and my culture. And now there was no questioning my Jewish identity.
During all of that religious education, I absorbed several messages deep into my psyche. A big one, one many are familiar with, was to, “Go forth and multiply.” Of course, in middle and high school I didn’t take that to mean to start having as many children as possible. Instead, I had taken in the idea that the Jewish religion was shrinking, and that we needed to increase our numbers to preserve the faith. This would mean raising my children Jewish. Perhaps what had an even bigger impact on me at the time was that since Judaism is passed through the mother, as a woman I would need to be especially sure to raise my children Jewish.
Of course, as I said earlier, later in life I made a conscious decision to counter this concept. I wanted to raise any children I might have with knowledge of many religions, including Judaism. I wanted them to be able to find the spiritual ideas that made sense to each of them, and to feel confident in their decisions about what religion to choose, or whether to practice religion at all. But that didn’t mean that the original message was not still part of me somewhere deep down. Intellectually, I was solid in my convictions. Emotionally, I was on shakier ground.
So there I was, in the worship hall half listening to the service, obsessing about the decision to send my daughter to Sunday school in a church. Would she be bullied in public school because she was multi-faith? Would the Jewish children consider her not Jewish enough? Would she struggle to answer other people’s questions about her religious identity? And most importantly, what was I doing to Judaism, a faith that I admire for many reasons, by abdicating my “responsibility” to further the religion?
After spending the length of the service ruminating on these questions, I went back to pick up my daughter. I’m not sure what I expected to find. There was no existential crisis and certainly no locusts rained down from the sky. What I did see were three preschoolers playing with play-dough. Just a group of kids playing happily together.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was no longer the fourth grader who was cornered on the playground. I was an adult who realized that going to synagogue or even celebrating the holidays is not what makes a person Jewish.
An education in Judaism had given me the tools that I needed to define my own identity within the religion. My hope is that giving my daughter a multi-faith education will give her the tools she needs to define her own identity in the world.
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