Contemporary American Reform Responsa

40. A Non-Jew Raising Jewish Children*

QUESTION: A non-Jewish spouse has lost her Jewish husband. Prior to their marriage the couple promised to raise their children as Jews; the children, ages eight and ten, have received some Jewish education. The widow, however, does not wish to continue that Jewish education. She lives in a small town and has little contact with her Jewish in-laws. Can anything be done to assure a Jewish education for these children? Furthermore, let me also ask about a similar situation in which there has been a divorce. In this instance, the husband is Jewish and the wife is not Jewish. The children are approximately the same age. The wife has custody of the children who see their father only during vacations. (D. F., New York, NY)

ANSWER: Although tradition would classify these children of non-Jewish mothers to be non-Jews, unless they had been formally converted, we presume them to be Jewish if they act on that presumption and receive a Jewish education (Resolution Central Conference of American Rabbis, March, 1983). We would insist that the parents affirm that presumption through a Jewish education and other acts of identification.

It will be very difficult to do anything aside from moral persuasion with the young widow. Undoubtedly this has been attempted. As you indicate, the relationship with her former in-laws is poor and the children will rarely see their Jewish grandparents, so it is doubtful whether anything can be done. A promise made at the time of marriage, even if written into the original marriage contract, would not be enforceable in most North American jurisdictions. Furthermore, even if the courts would rule positively in this matter, it would be self-defeating to force an unwilling widow to provide a Jewish education. So much of the education depends upon the home, which in this instance would have a negative rather than a positive effect.

In the case of a divorce, it would be possible in the divorce proceedings to stipulate that the children continue their Jewish religious education and to make the father financially responsible for it. This has frequently succeeded. If, however, the mother lives in a small town without a Jewish community, as you indicate, then the father must do whatever can be done during the long summer vacation and at holiday time.

It is quite clear that these children are presumed to be Jewish by us, and fortunately, they have at least begun the process of Jewish education. Hopefully, as they grow older they will continue along this path of their own volition.

June 1983

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.