Finding ones role as a grandparent in an interfaith family

I am married to a man with three children. My youngest stepson, raised Catholic, married a Catholic woman who gave birth to two of the most wonderful children on earth. Why are they so wonderful? Because they are my grandchildren.  

So, let me tell you about my grandchildren: Samantha, 11, and Thomas, 8. They attend Catholic schools. They live in Ohio about 130 miles from us. Their family situation, like many other families, is complex. Our son and daughter-in-law are divorced. We are blessed with a wonderful daughter-in-law and a very accommodating new husband. They do everything they can to make the children available to us, when we are able to see them. Last year, we drove to Florida with them and spent 10 amazing days bonding and getting to know each other in ways that you simply cannot when you are visiting for only a few hours.

Most of the time, the religious differences between us are not noticeable. We play cards and board games, go to museums and watch movies. We cuddle and read together. And yet, there are times when the differences are evident.

I don’t usually discuss religion with them. The 8-year-old, however, likes to talk, and talks all the time. In one of his stream-of-consciousness series of statements came this: “I know why the world is a safe place — because Jesus died for us, right Grandma?” My initial thought was, “Ask your mother!”

I then thought about it some more. Wanting to have open and honest relationships with my grandchildren, do I tell him that the statement that makes him feel safe in this often-frightening world is a matter of personal belief? Do I lie and just agree? Do I try to explain that I am Jewish and I believe different things? By the time I finished thinking he was on to something else and didn’t need validation of his belief, after all. I was reminded that the things that often cause adults angst don’t even enter into the radar of children.

A short time ago, it was our grandson’s birthday. We called to talk to him on a Sunday morning. To make conversation I asked him, “Are you going to church today?”

He said, “I think later, what about you?”

I realized that my grandson didn’t really know me very well.

I had a mixture of feelings. He, of course, knows that I am his grandma and I love him, and we have fun together, but does he know me? I tell myself that he is only a child, but my reaction was enough to cause me to think about a variety of things. What do my grandchildren know about me? Do they even know that I am a rabbi? How important is it to our relationship? Do I feel sad that I am unknown to them?

The reason why I shared these anecdotes is that if I, as a rabbi and a psychotherapist, have these thoughts, wouldn’t then lay people kal v’khomar (all the more so), as the rabbinic sages would say, have these questions and concerns. In sharing, I hope that the issues will become normalized, something to explore, think about, but not something frightening and destructive to a very precious relationship.

The relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is precious, indeed, one that children value all their lives. I know that I do. As grandparents, we want to share ourselves with our grandchildren. There is an important boundary, however, that we must observe. We are not the primary instillers of beliefs in our grandchildren; that responsibility and authority belongs to their parents.

As good parents, we must respect the right of our children to make decisions about how they will raise their children. We can certainly offer our opinions, gently and respectfully, but the right of primary value inculcation belongs to parents. The task of grandparents is to share themselves and their stories with their grandchildren so that they can learn about their heritage and where they have come from. Grandparents are the disseminators of the family tales. It is a valued responsibility.

What I have learned both from my professional life and certainly from personal experience is that being involved in intercultural and interfaith family situations helps me to be more open and respectful of other people’s beliefs and points of view. I have come to realize that differences in backgrounds and viewpoints can be wonderful, opening us up to ideas and situations that we would never experience in more homogenous environments.

The other side of that same coin is that sometimes we just wish life were less complicated and that the people we love would be and think like us, validating our own attitudes. This is both the beauty and the challenge of intermarriage. Accepting and embracing these facts will promote fulfilling relationships with our grandchildren, even if they are very different from us. And that may be the most important thing of all.

Rabbi Miriam S. Jerris, Ph.D., is the community development coordinator for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. This article appeared previously on