Circles help grandparents keep relations

Will your grandchildren be Jewish?

With intermarriage rates hovering around 47 percent, according to the last National Jewish Population Survey, this is a question many modern grandparents are likely to face. And while the children of some intermarried couples are raised Jewish, others will grow up in the religion of the non-Jewish parent, or with nothing at all.

“Grandparents aren’t sure how they can influence their grandchildren’s Jewish identity,” said Rebecca Gross, national coordinator of the Grandparents Circle, a program of the Jewish Outreach Institute. The program was founded two years ago to “give participants tools, techniques and hands-on resources” to deal with the issue.

A group gathers for a Grandparents Circle at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Participants in the Grandparents Circle program, which has grown to include 35 groups around the country, can follow a six-session course designed by the JOI or adapt the curriculum to suit their members’ needs. Gross said the program was inspired by the 2007 paperback “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do” by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin.

Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos hosted a JOI-affiliated circle for 18 couples last spring, said Rabbi Melanie Aron, who co-led the group.

“In the circles, we discussed how to be positively Jewish without being overbearing or usurping the parents’ role,” said Aron.

The program was so popular the temple will hold a reunion meeting and start a new circle Dec. 6. At that meeting, participants will talk about how to celebrate Chanukah with grandchildren of all ages.

In some cases, navigating relationships with their adult intermarried children is a bigger challenge for grandparents than connecting with their grandchildren.

“It can be a very emotional and painful issue for grandparents, and they may have a hard time communicating with their children and children-in-law about how to incorporate Judaism in their lives,” said Carrie Rice, who coordinated a Grandparents Circle last year at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. The synagogue hopes to host an additional session of the Grandparents Circle in the coming year, “as soon as JOI receives word from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund,” she added.

Negotiating the balance with adult children and being respectful of their choices is the most difficult part for some people, concurred Aron. “If adult children make choices that aren’t the same as the grandparents’ choices, there’s some pain in that. So we work on processing those feelings within the group.”

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills is another local synagogue that hosted a Grandparents Circle earlier this year, and it’s gearing things up again Saturday, Nov. 21, with a discussion titled “Be a go-to grandparent whether you’re near or far.” Louise Stirpe-Gill, facilitator of the Grandparents Circle, is leading the event, which runs from 3 to 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The Grandparents Circle
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