TORONTO — With the number of North American Jews intermarrying on the rise, congregations of every denomination have come to realize that condemnation is not the answer.
“The conscious decision to be welcoming of families wherein one member is not Jewish was mostly not a response to demographics,” said Beth Tzedec Congregation Rabbi Adam Cutler.
“Rather, we believe that synagogues should be welcoming of Jews and their partners irrespective of their personal decisions.”
Acting on that philosophy, Beth Tzedec is the only Conservative synagogue in Toronto that is running a program geared toward non-Jewish mothers who want to raise Jewish children.
The Mothers Circle program is an initiative of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute that offers free educational programs and resources for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children.
Beth Tzedec is offering a free, 16-week course open to both members and non-members that began earlier this month.
“This is definitely a first for Beth Tzedec,” said Rabbi Cutler, who joined the congregation in 2009.
“The idea is that we are really trying to be a community destination synagogue… This is an opportunity for women who are members, as well as women who are not members, to come and to do something in the shul, which is beneficial for them and beneficial for the Jewish people as a whole.”
Lynn Kaplan, a family mediator and divorce consultant who brought the Mothers Circle program to Canada three years ago, said she was “pleasantly surprised and very excited” that the Conservative shul reached out to her.
Kaplan, who had been facilitating groups at Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues in the city, had never before worked with a Conservative congregation.
“When I contacted the Jewish Outreach Institute, they were a little surprised knowing what they know about the Conservative movement in Toronto,”
Rabbi Cutler said.
“I think that’s an older vision. We’re really here for everyone. This is a program that… builds a stronger Jewish community and that is what it’s all about.”
Kaplan said if non-Jewish spouses agree to raise their children as Jews, “that is a gift to the Jewish people. We need to welcome them and support them and honour them.”
The course, which Kaplan facilitates every Thursday evening at the shul, offers guidance, support and information about what it means to have a Jewish home.
“It means, for them, giving up some of their traditions and holidays that they had as a child. A big one is understanding the culture and the religion and feeling comfortable in the Jewish community,” Kaplan said.
She said the “warm and non-judgmental” group functions as a way to offer support to the women who “can’t talk to their non-Jewish friends because they don’t understand and they can’t talk to their Jewish friends because they don’t understand. For them… there’s no other place for them to really have these conversations.”
But the program is not about conversion, Rabbi Cutler added.
“If there was a woman who wanted to go in that direction, we would [help], but the group is about helping women who are not Jewish build Jewish homes.”
Lorraine Lawson, a mother of two kids under the age of four, said that before her wedding, she and her husband agreed to raise their children Jewish.
Despite her decision not to convert herself, each of her children were converted shortly after their birth.
“I converted my children because I believe that the foundation of religion and the value system is very important.”
Lawson added that she chose not to convert because she “didn’t feel a calling from a deep spiritual place,” didn’t want to do it based on “social pressure,” and wanted to honour her parents who had chosen Christianity for her.
She said she didn’t have difficulty with the decision she made for her children because “I find Judaism really interesting, and I’ve taken a couple courses, read about it… and Michael’s family is very supportive and a huge part of our life and provide much stability in the Jewish traditions.”
She said she learned about Mother’s Circle because her husband and his family are members at Beth Tzedec.
“Now that I’ve met the other women who are taking the course, I think I’m in a different place than them. This is a great course for women who are undecided, who have a lot of questions, who maybe need more access to information… Hopefully, I can provide information for them because I’ve gone through that process already,” Lawson said.
She added there is one aspect of building a Jewish home that has been particularly difficult for her.
“The only issue that I have is with Christmas. That’s the only hard part.”
She said that Christmas, in many Christian households, is more about tradition than the Christian faith.
Despite the fact that she misses celebrating Christmas, she understands the importance of fostering a solid Jewish foundation for her children.
“I think a wonderful foundation is what I’m interested in, so we’ve chosen Judaism as that foundation and I’m very proud of that.”
Lawson praised Beth Tzedec for “being so progressive” and making a “strong commitment to providing an open place where couples of interfaith relationships can feel welcome. I think that’s exceptional, and it’s one of the reasons I like Judaism. It’s the evolution and the constant conversation and openness to learning,” Lawson said.
Beth Tzedec’s Mothers Circle welcomes new participants at any point during the course. For more information, call 416-781-3511.