By Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia
For the past eight-and-a-half years I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants. At our Friday night Shabbat service each week we have Simcha Time – when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.
Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. When she was younger, she sang in the Yiddish Theater. In fact, as a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to Kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly, and at Simcha Time, Dottie often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.
All of us at TMKC know all about Dottie’s oldest grandson Jamie, the Penn State graduate who has an fantastic job in Georgia, and his younger brother Greg, another Penn State grad who’ll be teaching in Spain next year. And then there are Jamie and Greg’s younger cousins, Charlie and Rachel – more on them in a bit.
Dottie is, in every way, the consummate “Jewish grandmother.” She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Yet though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Below, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.
My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)
It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said: “Of course.” And he said: “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked: “Is she nice?” And he answered: “Very.”
Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was three my Rachel was born. Oh happy day – I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys, and now I finally had my little girl!
After Rachel was born my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be okay with this. My answer was: “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”
When Charlie and Rachel started school I became very familiar with Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it – but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.
When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said: “Of course.” There were three fifth grade classes that came the day I brought the Torah, and they all had the chance to look into the Torah and ask me questions. It was a wonderful experience for me.
My grandkids are now in High School and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.
My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother and Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.
I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other.
When my Charlie and Rachel hug me and say “I love you Bubba” – what more is there? They are smart, beautiful and so good.
They are truly the air I breathe.
This is Dottie’s story. Of course each person’s story is unique, and some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality. A while back I wrote a blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish and I noted that: “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grand[parents who aren’t Jewish] never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
But ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. And while a grandparent may not like or agree with their adult child’s decision, it’s the child’s decision to make. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren (like Dottie did by going to Our Lady of Good Counsel and teaching about Hanukkah and Passover) without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child. And while it may be hard and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog post on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with – this can be all the more difficult for grandparents, who didn’t have the choice to make) hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”