Interfaith marriages can be tricky for grandparents, panel decides

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What is the role of actively Jewish grandparents when their children have married non-Jews?

Pondering the question, a panel of four grandparents unanimously agreed on the following: to support our families in whatever way we can, accept our children's choices and use any opportunity we have to provide Jewish family experiences and values for our grandchildren.

And it's not always easy, said the San Mateo residents — all active in their synagogues — who participated in a panel discussion on "Grandparenting in an Interfaith World," held late last month at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

"Forty years ago no one thought about this subject," said moderator Rosanne Levitt, the director of Interfaith Connection, a co-sponsor of the presentation. "But now it is very common. Where do we as grandparents fit into the family picture?"

The question is common enough that a number of Jewish organizations co-sponsored the event, which drew a small gathering of older adults. Co-sponsors included North and South Peninsula Women's Alliance of the Jewish Community Federation, Peninsula Temple Beth El, Peninsula Temple Sholom, Temple Beth Jacob, Congregation Sinai and Lehrhaus Judaica's Building Jewish Bridges.

Panelist Diane Marcus spoke of her three children, each of whom had celebrated Jewish lifecycle events, including b'nai mitzvah, confirmations, summers at Camp Swig and trips to Israel.

All three married outside the faith.

"I had fantasies about my children," said Marcus. "I raised them to be of this world and have opportunities to take from and give to the world. When they fell in love, I had to realize that my fantasies were not my reality.

"What I did realize was that their respective spouses and their families shared the same value system as my family."

Marcus, who serves on the national board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and is a past president of Peninsula Temple Beth El, decided that from the time her first child married, she would never say a word about her grandchildren's upbringing. She feels she must accept her children's decisions.

However, that doesn't mean she has nothing to contribute. "I see my responsibility as being a Jewish grandmother," she said. "I do a hands-on approach on a daily basis. It is always a work in progress, as changes occur frequently, and one must be flexible."

Judaism is practiced in various degrees in her children's homes. And when Jewish holiday celebrations are held in her own home, Marcus said, she always invites her children's in-laws as well.

Panelist Sally Gradinger, known as "Gaga" to her 12 grandchildren, has four grown children. Three have interfaith marriages.

"Although only one son lives in the Bay Area, we spend all our Jewish holidays together," said Gradinger, who has been on the board of Peninsula Temple Beth El as well as an active member of the JCF's Women's Alliance. "As grandparents we provide a warm and loving atmosphere, with feelings of both laughing and crying. When the rest of the family can join us, we are delighted. Our son in Alamo has asked us to help raise his children Jewish."

Warren and Lore Odenheimer, who belong to Peninsula Temple Beth El and have served on the board and sisterhood, have three children. Their two sons live in the East: One resides in Virginia and is married to a non-Jew, the other makes his home in Maryland and observes Jewish traditions. Even so, the two brothers and their families get together to celebrate Jewish holidays and lifecycle events. "We send the children Jewish holiday books and toys but are careful not to overdo it," said Lore Odenheimer.

Added her husband: "Each situation is different. We might have had more influence on their identity with Judaism if they lived closer. Environment has a lot to do with the outcome."

All the panelists agreed that long before grandchildren enter the picture, just planning an interfaith marriage ceremony can cause a lot of tension. And they warned that couples should not be discouraged if a particular rabbi refuses to marry them, because there are other rabbis who will do so. They also stressed that there are numerous resources in the Bay Area for interfaith couples.

Levitt suggested that while grandparents may have a role to play in helping their grandchildren learn about Judaism, they should proceed cautiously. "We need to ask our children's permission to show them our Jewish traditions," she said. "If they agree, we can share the ways we celebrate with our grandchildren. They will see that Judaism is part of who we are and our heritage. The children will be drawn to its warmth and experience."

Marcus emphasized the importance of maintaining a good, strong connection to one's children. "We can foster love, unity and respect in the family," she said. "We all have memories of our grandparents. We are able to bring fun and joyful experiences into our grandchildren's lives. "

Resources are plentiful, including "Web sites giving ideas of stories and games to play, even for long-distance grandchildren," said Marcus. "We may all create warm, fuzzy feelings and memories ourselves."