Cindy Harrison has a bar and bat mitzvah to plan over the next two years, and she wants to do the jobs right.
In the interim, her kids and her husband, Lee, plan to adopt Hebrew names before the big events.
“We never named our children and they should be named before they’re called to the Torah,” Harrison said.
Needless to say, Harrison, a Hampton Township resident and member of Temple Ohav Shalom, has a lot of work ahead of her over the next 24 months. It would be a big job for any Jewish mother.
Only Harrison is not Jewish. She is one of many non-Jewish spouses nationwide in interfaith marriages who have committed themselves to raising their kids Jewish.
She is also one of 16 such women locally who came together last September for a new program in Pittsburgh to bring them closer to Judaism. It’s called Mothers Circle.
“Those women are heroes, they chose to raise Jewish kids and we need to give them all the help so they will know and make Jewish traditions,” said Zipora Gur, director of advanced education at the Agency for Jewish Learning, which operates the program locally, “and you can only do it when you have the
Deb Taylor is the program coordinator for Mothers Circle in Pittsburgh.
Developed by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), Mother’s Circle offers free educational programs and resources for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage or a committed relationship. It began as a pilot program in Atlanta in 2002, but there are now branches nationwide.
In Pittsburgh, the program, which is funded through a grant from the Fine Foundation and the United Jewish Federation, began last year. Most of the women involved came from the North Hills, though some traveled from as far away as Monroeville to participate.
Pippi Kessler, national coordinator of Mothers Circle at the JOI, said the program is now in 55 communities across the United States, through which more than 600 women participated.
Its popularity notwithstanding, Kessler is under no illusions. She knows interfaith marriage, and the issues it raises, remains highly controversial in the Jewish world.
“There is a big debate that has gone on for many years about what do we do about intermarriage,” she said. “There are people who say the most important thing we can do is prevent it from happening, but the JOI position is that we need to give interfaith families the tools they need to raise Jewish children, to show we support them.”
Alyssa Cholodofsky, is a member of Temple David in Monroeville with husband Rich. She described Mothers Circle as an educational experience for non-Jewish mothers.
“It’s really more educational, we just went through so many interesting things,” she said. “The facilitator explained so many things from being a mentsch to what to give someone when they have a [Hebrew] naming.”
JOI developed the curriculum for Mothers Circle, which addresses the Jewish year, celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish Holidays, life cycle events, making a Jewish home, and Jewish values for raising children.
But Gur has tweaked the curriculum to include some local enhancements.
“I did a tour of Jewish Pittsburgh,” she said. I introduced them to the day schools and to the kosher store and to Pinskers and to the JCC.”
For Cholodofsky, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, the field trip was like a homecoming with some added treats, like the mikveh.
“I’ve passed where it’s located a million times on my way to high school, but didn’t know what it actually was,” she said, “so it was interesting seeing and learning the rituals around the mikveh.”
Gur added to the curriculum in other ways, too.
“We are going to do some baking, teach them how to make challah,” she said. “We are going to be putting together a cookbook, they are going to bring their recipes from home. They will get them from their mothers-in-law family recipes. It will be a connection to the Jewish family this way.”
JOI encourages the communities to tinker with its Mothers Circle curriculum, Kessler said. She said it breeds familiarity between the mothers and the community institutions.
“That can be scary going into a Jewish space if you never have before,” she said, “but to be guided through is really important.”
Judging from pre- and post-program surveys the mothers fill out about their experiences, the program is having an impact on their relations with the Jewish community.
“There is a really big change before and after the program in how comfortable they feel, Kessler said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to meet other people in the same situation, so it makes them feel less lonely.”
Harrison said it changed the way she looks at Judaism.
“I always thought Judaism was just about belief, what your religious beliefs are, [but] it’s more about culture; it’s more about the family structure; it’s more about doing everything in togetherness. That’s what I truly was not aware of,” she said.
The Pittsburgh program began in September and will run through May, meeting every other Sunday in the North Hills. Rabbis Art Donsky, Ezra Ende, James Gibson and Michael Staitman, have all participated as instructors.
Gur hopes to expand Mothers Circle in Pittsburgh this fall, perhaps bringing it to the South Hills as she continue to work with synagogues.
In other ways, though she said the program has already expanded here. She has developed a course for
“I felt the grandparents needed to understand where those women were coming from,” she said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)