- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

While studying overseas during my sophomore year of college, I was assigned to live with a Sephardic Jewish family in the French city of Strasbourg.

I was fascinated by the Friday evening Sabbath dinners and the ceremonial prayers.

A few months after returning to my Oregon college, I signed up for a Sabbath course at the nearby Mittleman Jewish Community Center.

I learned how to say the ceremonial prayers — in Hebrew — over the bread and wine, how to make challah, the traditional braided bread served on Friday nights, plus say the ceremonial candle-lighting prayer — also in Hebrew — said just before sundown.

Because I was not Jewish, my classmates were quite curious as to why I wanted to learn the intricacies of Sabbath observance. The whole thing fascinated me, which is why I was interested to learn of an upcoming class in Washington, D.C., for non-Jewish women who want to learn the basics of Judaism for the sake of their kids.

The woman teaching it is Meredith Jacobs, the Rockville-based writer of “The Modern Jewish Woman’s Guide to Shabbat,” a book for women with Jewish backgrounds who want to learn the traditions.

She’s going a step further this fall by offering a class for non-Jewish moms in interfaith marriages on how they can raise Jewish kids. The twice-monthly evening sessions begin Sept. 1 and last for eight months at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue’s offices downtown.

“I think it’s a growing need,” she said, referring to the 50 percent intermarriage rate among Jews. “It’s the mom who is the one who sees to the religious education of the children. It’s up to her to bring out the candlesticks on Friday night” for the traditional Sabbath blessing.

“It’s particularly an issue for children who attend some kind of Jewish school who then come home and ask why certain traditions aren’t being observed there. There may be grandparents who observe the High Holy Days and expect their grandchildren to do the same.

“Or they could be going to someone’s house for dinner on Rosh Hashana and they wonder what’s up with the apples and honey,” she said, referring to the traditional foods served during the Jewish new year.

Only Gentile women will be allowed in the group.

“They might ask certain things about the Sabbath blessing or how many candles are needed,” she told me. “I want to create a sense of safety. There are so many issues in trying to observe both [Christian and Jewish] traditions. They are either getting pressure from in-laws or they are getting some pressure to convert even if they don’t want to do so. Or they do want to convert and wonder what’s the next step.”

The project is sponsored by the New York-based Mother’s Circle, which developed the curriculum.

“Jews used to reject anyone who married outside the faith,” Pippi Kesler, the group’s national coordinator, told me. “That is not a strategy that is good for the continuity of the community. Repressing talk about interfaith marriage is not going to work.”

Currently, there are 60 groups of Gentile women meeting nationwide, but she thinks that number will jump to 100 this fall.

“This is helping these women raise more Jewish children,” Mrs. Jacobs says. “Sometimes the women will learn along with their kids. After all, you don’t just marry your husband, you marry his family.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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