Randee Tecklin attended each of the christening ceremonies for her three grandchildren and has since watched as they've celebrated Christmas and Easter year in and year out. This Friday, she's taking them to a Chanukah party, but navigating the holidays with family — her daughter-in-law isn't Jewish — has always been fraught with difficulty.
"It's a thin-ice experience," says Tecklin, an active member of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. "I want to talk to [my son and daughter-in-law] about interfaith issues, but it's a sensitive subject, and it's an emotional subject. I love being Jewish, and I feel proud of the fact that my lineage is so long and colorful. I want to share it with my children and grandchildren, but I also don't want to ram it down anyone's throat."
As a result, she admits, she's mostly avoided the subject. That is, she has until now.
A Welcoming 'Circle'
Tecklin and her husband, Jan, recently joined a small group called the Grandparents Circle — a program that is part support group and part resource center for helping grandparents deal with interfaith issues and their relationships with their grandchildren. And so, for the first time since her son married seven years ago, she's talked to her non-Jewish daughter-in-law about her own struggles in being part of an extended interfaith family.
"This group empowered me. It's been helpful to talk to other people who share your feelings and experiences," she said after a recent Sunday morning Grandparents Circle session.
To be sure, the participants — some of whom asked not to be identified by their last names — are dealing with many of the same sticky situations. And with Chanukah and Christmas fast approaching, many of these sensitivities are flaring up again.
Phyllis from Blue Bell talked about the frustration and the pain she feels when she sees Christmas decorations at her son's home, while Ronnie, a teacher, talked about trying to make latkes for her granddaughter, who attends a Catholic school.
"She says she's half-Jewish, but I don't think she knows what that means," Ronnie said of her granddaughter. "But I want to teach her."
Indeed, grandparents say that, often, the sensitive nature of the subject has meant just sidestepping the issue totally.
"I've just learned to bite my tongue," one participant said, while others nodded emphatically.
"Oh, my tongue is bruised," quipped another in response.
The Grandparents Circle, which tries to teach mom-moms and pop-pops practical ways to influence their grandchildren's Jewish identity, was first established in January 2008 by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a New York-based national organization.
The detailed curriculum is culled and from the book Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (and Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, which was written by Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin, both of JOI.
'A Sense of Shame'
"People walk into the circle with a sense of shame — they feel like they have a connection to Judaism and feel like it's their fault" since their child married outside the faith, explained Rebecca Gross, JOI's national coordinator for the Grandparents Circle. "Many of them haven't discussed religion with their children or grandchildren, so it becomes taboo. The Circle gives them the tools to say, 'Can I take Johnny to Shabbat services? Is that something you feel comfortable with?' "
So far, there have been nearly 40 such circles established around the country, and "graduates" have put together a list serve to discuss ongoing issues through their Web site (www.grandparents circle.org).
A First for Philly
The current program, which is being hosted by Congregation Beth Or and led by Rabbi Craig Axler, is the first time that it's been brought to the Philadelphia region. Another session is slated to take place on Tuesday, Dec. 16 at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park.
The curriculum, which is taught over five or six sessions, was developed by JOI, but is sponsored by InterFaithways: Interfaith Family Support Network, a local group that's received a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia grant to develop synagogue programs and events that deepen the relationship between the Jewish community and interfaith families.
"People really want and need to tell their stories," said Gari Weilbacher, managing director of InterFaithways. "This program gives them skills and techniques for sharing their Jewish heritage with their grandchildren."
On a recent Sunday, for example, Axler went through a few ideas for books that grandparents and grandkids could read together during the holiday and offered assorted tips for decorating houses with Chanukah, rather than Christmas, paraphernalia.
And together, the group brainstormed about ways to accentuate their own Jewish identity and make it clear how important it is to their grandchildren.
Other bits of advice included opening channels of communication — whether with e-mail, Facebook or the postal service — with grandchildren.
That way they can also send and receive, for example, a Jewish-themed electronic card or a package with Chanukah-themed cookies, for example.
And together, they also explored what it even means to denote that someone is "half-Jewish."
"This has been a taboo subject for a very long time," said Axler. "There's a lot of pain, and people are reluctant to engage in the conversation. This time of year is especially difficult, and Chanukah is a really laden time. It could be that the family has a Christmas tree, but no menorah.
"These are all hot-button issues," he stressed.
In the meantime, the grandparents seem to be enjoying a forum that allows for open discussion among peers with similar issues, especially after so many years of silence.
"It mostly goes in one ear and out the other, and so now, we just don't talk about [interfaith issues] at all," said Marlene Weiner of Gulph Mills, who attended the Grandparents Circle with her husband, Arnie.
"We don't want to be pushy," she continued, "but I want the kids to know that Judaism has a lot to offer. I want them to know where they came from."