For non-Jewish mothers of Jewish kids, things can get complicated

Carrie McCarthy, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family, sits on the board of the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos, following years of volunteering at the JCC preschool her children attended.

Deb Morandi works at Jewish Family Services, where she introduces intermarried families to Judaism, though she is not Jewish.

Pat Luftman was a committee co-chair in her son’s Jewish school, but her Jewish husband was denied a board position because the couple was intermarried.

The Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman accompanies her children and Jewish husband to synagogue on Saturday, then goes to church the next day on her own.

A growing number of non-Jewish parents in the United States who have no plans to convert are raising Jewish children, marrying Jewish spouses, building Jewish homes and playing active roles in the Jewish community.

But without plans to join the faith officially, their place in the Jewish community can be a bit complicated.


Steve Weinger, Carrie McCarthy and their children, Kira and Jackson

“As someone who’s never converted and has no plans to convert, I still want to be involved,” said McCarthy, whose husband, Steve Weinger, is Jewish. “Not only did I want to help shape the community that was raising my children, I wanted other people to know the door was open to interfaith families.”


A decade ago, 31 percent of married American Jews had non-Jewish spouses, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey reported. The study, to which there has been no national follow-up, also showed that one-third of the children born to intermarried couples are raised Jewish.

With most intermarriages involving Jewish men and non-Jewish women, a lot of non-Jewish women are leading Jewish lives in everything but name.

To be sure, there are many resources to help them, from national groups to synagogue outreach committees. But each woman’s experience is still a unique path she must blaze on her own.

“My husband has never asked me to convert, and I feel strongly that I won’t, so this is as far as it will go,” said Morandi, an active member of her Reform congregation, Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Mass., of her synagogue work.

She grew up Southern Baptist, and says her husband was the first Jewish person she really knew. They didn’t think about religion until their twins were born.

The family’s decision to create a Jewish home “just sort of evolved,” Morandi said, because she and her husband wanted a sense of community and his parents lived nearby while hers did not. They joined the temple where their friends belonged and sent the boys to the tot Shabbat preschool program.

“If they choose another path when they grow up, that’s fine with us,” she said. “We just wanted to give them something.”

Morandi says she feels no pressure to convert. Not only are most of her friends intermarried, so are many of the young families she works with at Jewish Family Services in Boston.

Raising Jewish children is even more complicated for a minister. Bregman is unlike most non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in that she actively practices her Christian faith.

She grew up Episcopalian in Savannah, Ga., and says she had “a pretty literalist view of the Bible” when she hit Princeton University. Bregman and her future husband, Peter, struggled with the faith issue. He wanted her to convert, so they took introductory Judaism classes and joined a Jewish text study group.

They married in 1999, and their three children received Orthodox conversions. All are now studying in Jewish schools. Meanwhile, Bregman delved further into her own faith and was ordained as a United Church of Christ minister in 2009.

“There’s not been much theological dissonance,” she said. “I worked it out in seminary that we each have our own covenants.”

Bregman says she doesn’t feel out of place at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a popular nondenominational synagogue they attend as a family in Manhattan. But when she attends church alone on Sundays, her oldest asks why.

For McCarthy, it’s more a question of culture than religion.

“Before we had children, we weren’t planning to raise them Jewish,” she said. “But after we decided to send them to the JCC preschool to get some exposure to their father’s culture, I realized that’s really what this was about. I felt it was important for them to be part of that community.”

Like Morandi, McCarthy said she feels no pressure to convert.

“There are situations where I feel unsure of myself, but so far I’ve been encouraged by this community every step of the way.”

Morandi and McCarthy belong to Reform congregations, the most liberal of the three major Jewish religious denominations when it comes to ritual roles for non-Jews.

In both the Reform and Conservative movements, individual congregations set their own policies governing which rituals are open to non-Jews, though Reform synagogues tend to be more inclusive.

Typically, non-Jews are permitted to do anything that is not a commandment — non-Jewish parents may stand on the pulpit during a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, for example, but do not say the prayer over the Torah. But some Reform congregations permit non-Jews to take part in every ritual, according to Vicky Farhi, lead outreach specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.

In Conservative congregations, non-Jews technically cannot be members, and one must be a member to hold synagogue office. But beyond that, there are very few “red lines” dictated by the movement hierarchy, said Rabbi Paul Drazen, special assistant to the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Each congregation reflects the community within which it is found,” he said. “At the same time, it’s inconvenient and confusing.”

It’s also confusing when synagogues don’t set policies, or have one and don’t publicize it. That’s what happened to Luftman and her husband, Henry, an intermarried couple who joined their Conservative synagogue in Allentown, Pa., 17 years ago.

Pat, the non-Jewish spouse, took a very active role in their children’s Jewish education, even teaching in the school. Henry, who served on the school board and chaired several subcommittees, wondered why he was never nominated to chair the school board or asked to serve on the synagogue’s board of trustees. Four years ago, the cantorial director explained why: His wife wasn’t Jewish.

“It hurt us so badly and was insulting on so many levels,” Pat said. “And those rules were never written down. It was just ‘tradition.’ ”

Half the people there secretly wondered why she didn’t convert if she was so eager to be part of the community, Pat said, while the other half thought how wonderful it was that she was raising Jewish children.

The couple thought about leaving the shul but decided instead to stay and change things. The synagogue now has written policies about what non-Jews and intermarried Jewish members may and may not do, and those policies are posted on the congregation’s website.

For the Luftmans, it’s now a moot question: Pat converted in 2007.

Emotionally, being betwixt and between in the Jewish community can be a rough ride, Bregman said.

“I had a real moment where I thought, I can’t do this,” she said. “A minister married to a Jewish man? In the back of my mind I’d always thought that I could convert and be what my children are. Getting ordained was closing off that possibility.”

At her child’s second-grade class presentation, Bregman says she wept while watching the children read from the Torah and dance around the bimah with their parents.

“This passing down of the Torah to the next generation, I’ll never be part of that,” she said.

But Bregman chose her path and is now a chaplain at the Jewish Hospital and Home in the Bronx, N.Y. She prays in her way and raises her children as Jews.

“I was trying to fit it all in a box and I realized, I’ll always be in between,” she said. “It’s not an easy place to be.”

J. staff writer Emma Silvers contributed to this report.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].