The Challenge of a Jewish Education – A Plea to Educators

I am a day school kid. I didn’t like learning Hebrew much but I didn’t like school much either. I have some anxious  memories of Hebrew verb conjugation from second grade in the 1970s. Through Jewish camps and youth groups, I learned to love Jewish music. I have since recovered from day school and have picked the parts of Judaism that I like and find that I am quite happy.

When it came time to think about a Jewish education for my own kids, I had some flashbacks. But I also have some fun memories. We would have lively gatherings of the Jewish kids in the community for various holidays. Later we had youth group activities and fun parties. I enjoyed being with the kids that I had known forever. I have many memories associated with Judaism that are not necessarily religious. I attended a leadership program in high school and much of it was just fun—the focus was not on religion but being a good person.

My husband and I have struggled with what to do for our own kids’education. We considered day school. We considered camp. We joined a synagogue with a reputable Hebrew school. We decided to enroll them in a Jewish camp. We celebrate the holidays—decorating a sukkah is a favorite for the kids (but tons of work for me and my husband). Everyone has their own path and we are navigating our way so that our kids enjoy Judaism.

I have spoken with many people who have had a Jewish education. They often say they hated Hebrew school or day school. Still, many of them enroll their children in Jewish schools. Though some Hebrew schools have made a great effort to ensure that the new generation of students have positive experiences, it makes me so sad that some Hebrew schools have turned people off to the joys of being Jewish.

So, for the future of the Jewish people, I encourage educators to make sure that kids are engaged in the Hebrew school experience. A fun Purim spiel can be entertaining for the whole family. Spirited music, cooking classes and dressing up in costume for holidays are all wonderful ideas. Let’s encourage creative and fun ways to learn Hebrew. Decorate the sukkah and learn prayers with joy instead of dread.

Religious schools must bring Judaism into the 21st century in dynamic and fun ways. The educational system of the 1950s will not ensure the future of Judaism—indeed, it can be detrimental. Many parents complain that their child seems to be a round peg and the Jewish educational system is trying to force the child into a square hole. A lackluster Jewish education will adversely affect the future of Judaism. Teachers and schools must adapt to the families of today, whether Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, interfaith, etc. Sensitivity to the families and kids is key. Accept families and kids where they are and help them on their own journey. Welcoming kids in the door and keeping them there with a smile on their face is crucial. The entire family should feel welcomed and engaged. Hebrew school should not be torture—there are so many positive aspects of Judaism and it’s time to break the cycle.

Do you have a suggestion of something that your kids loved at their Hebrew School? Please post it in the comments below. Sharing your positive experiences is a great benefit to everyone.

Accessing Judaism

I recently attended the confirmation ceremony at a local congregation in the Bay Area. During the ceremony the students led the congregation in services, chanted the Ten Commandments from the Torah, and shared words of wisdom that they learned during their studies with the rabbi.

One student shared his understanding of (Progressive/Reform) Judaism. He explained, “Judaism is different than most other religions. There are two different aspects of it: The first are the traditional aspects, the praying and the beliefs; the second are the Jewish teachings and participation in the Jewish community. Although Judaism is based on a belief in one God, not all Jews actually believe in God. Those who believe in God tend to connect to Judaism through prayer and belief. Others are agnostic; they do not believe in God. They tend to connect to Judaism mostly through Jewish community and culture.”

Judaism has room for those who believe in God, those who do not and those who struggle with their relationship with God. The ability to connect to Judaism either through belief or through community and culture allows for partners and spouses of Jews to fully participate in Jewish life, without converting to Judaism.

The beauty of Judaism is that each individual can find his/her own connection. They can decide what feels right and what their practice will include. For example, some Jews say the Shema every night before going to sleep. Others do not. Similarly, some parents who are not Jewish, but who have committed to raising their children with Judaism, say the Shema with their child every night (while others do not).

There are many options for your practice of Judaism. If you are a parent, check out our booklets, specifically “Good Night Sleep Tight,” if you’re interested in saying the Shema or other bedtime rituals. You may also be interested in our next Raising a Child with Judaism class for more ideas that you can incorporate into your family life. You may also find inspiration from others in our articles about growing up in an interfaith family.

Whether you connect through belief and prayer or community and culture, we welcome you!

What Chelsea Clinton Loves about Judaism

There is a great short podcast on the Jewish United Fund’s website with an interview of Chelsea Clinton, who spoke at the Women’s Division Spring Event 2013. Cindy Sher, the terrific editor of the JUF News, makes a great initial comment: “you became a member of the extended Jewish family when you married your husband Marc, so welcome to the Tribe.” (We had a lot to say about Clinton’s wedding back in August 2010.) She then asks Chelsea “what are a couple of things you love most about Jewish religion or Jewish culture.” Chelsea’s answer highlights how important Marc’s Judaism is to him, and says she loves how “he’s so dedicated to ensuring that we start developing our own Seder traditions for Passover… so he feels like we ironed out all of the crinks before we are blessed to have children.” It will be fascinating to watch this couple’s engagement with Jewish life and community as it develops in the future.

The Blessing of the Parents

I attended an informative and provocative session at Limmud Philly. This conference is held in several major cities and is a usually a day or weekend of Jewish learning. The learning includes philosophy, prayer, entertainment and socializing. It is quite an event for those that like to think Jewish!

I attended a session entitled “We Totally Accept You (Almost): Ritual and Leadership Roles in Synagogues.” The participants learned about the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist perspectives regarding synagogue membership and prayers. Our presenter was InterfaithFamily’s own Benjamin Maron. Benjamin did a great deal of research regarding different synagogues and their policies regarding interfaith involvement.

I was fascinated by the discussion of prayers and who is allowed to say what from the bimah. Frequently synagogues limit the participation of the parent who is not Jewish. We discussed that the reason that some synagogues don’t want the partner who is not Jewish to participate in the prayers at a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is that the translation of the prayers are things like: “Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot” and “Who has chosen us.” The word “us” refers to the Jewish people, therefore, someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t allowed to participate.

I understand the principle of this – Jews have been through a lot. Our ancestors have been persecuted in our efforts to practice our religion and we have worked hard to educate ourselves. Those that have had a bar or bat mitzvah know that there is a lot of work and education going into this process. We feel the need to hold fast to our religion. Will someone who isn’t practicing Judaism threaten my Judaism by saying a prayer?

The children of many of my friends are becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I am familiar with the frequent scene of the parents and grandparents surrounding their young teenager, beaming with pride. I was thinking about this further. I know many families where the spouse does not practice Judaism but has agreed to raise the kids in Judaism. How do they feel during the blessings? Do they feel included, awkward, proud? Maybe a mixture of feelings and emotions? If there were a blessing from the parent who wasn’t Jewish, what would that look like? Would it be sacrilege to bless your child in their arrival in their Jewish adulthood?

As a Jew, I want anyone standing on the bimah during a simcha to feel joy! I don’t want anyone to feel excluded or simply tolerated. I want them to feel WELCOME! So now, I look at this from another perspective: the parent who is not Jewish, standing in front of the Jewish community, blessing this event is equivalent to saying, “I was not raised Jewish, but I am proud, thrilled, and elated that my child is entering into Jewish adulthood. I fully support this choice and my child.” To me, this has great meaning and this concept strengthens the joy of the day. Here is this parent supporting their child’s Jewish journey – how great is that!?

Do I feel threatened that someone who isn’t practicing Judaism is saying a prayer and including themselves in the Jewish community? Not at all. In fact, I am elated that this parent is allowing and encouraging their child to be Jewish! While I know some of the movements are having trouble “moving” forward toward adapting to interfaith issues within our American society, it is critical that they work to keep those that want to be Jewish.

I will be attending two bar/bat mitzvahs this weekend, and I know that I will be thrilled to witness each child stepping into the role of being a Jewish adult. I love Judaism and am delighted to see someone make the choice to practice Judaism. I think that their parents should be allowed to bless their child’s arrival into Jewish adulthood. And with that I say, Amen, L’chaim and WELCOME!

A High, a Low, and a Mitzvah

"...not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day."

We are currently in week 5 of our Philadelphia-based online class, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. This week’s focus was “doing good” through mitzvot. In Hebrew, “mitzvah” means “commandment” but is also commonly understood to mean a good deed. Like most people, I want my children to care about others and take action to make the world a better place — to do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah, commandments or good deeds). I try to teach by example and provide them with opportunities that make a difference for others.

Still, in our busy lives, I don’t always feel that we make it as much of a priority as it should be. This week, I was inspired by a simple message our facilitator, Tami Astorino, sent out to the class at the beginning of the week. Here is part of what she wrote:

This week, “Inspiring Our Children To Do Mitzvot” probably speaks to everyone. We all want a way to inspire our children, at any age, to be good people and live their lives with a moral compass.

A dinner ritual I learned when my kids were in preschool we STILL enjoy doing with our kids (now ages 9 and 11). At dinner we often share three things about our day, “a high, a low, and a mitzvah.” Each person at the table takes a turn sharing:

  • something about their day that brought them happiness or satisfaction (the high)
  • something that made them mad, sad or disappointed (the low)
  • something they did to help others, make the world better, show kindness or compassion, etc. (the mitzvah)

Though I am not officially enrolled in the class, I have been following along and reading the class materials and discussion posts. As Tami predicted, this week’s theme did speak to me and I wanted to do something about it. As I was driving my children (ages 8 and 11) to their afternoon activity that day, I told them about Tami’s family ritual and asked them about trying it in our own home. My youngest was eager to get started, my oldest was a bit skeptical. I told my oldest he could have a ‘bye’ for the first night and see how he felt after hearing everyone else. The second night, he shared with no hesitation. We have now adopted this as a ritual in our own home.

We’ve only been doing it for a short time, but I can already see an impact. I have noticed that we are all sharing more with one another and making an effort to really listen. The highs and lows have been great conversation starters and the mitzvah discussions have made us all more mindful of trying to do good for others daily.

This weekend, my family is participating in a program called Stop Hunger Now. Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief organization that coordinates the distribution of food and other life-saving aid around the world. We will be joining with families from our synagogue and another local synagogue to pack dehydrated, high protein, and highly nutritious meals that will be used to help feed people in developing countries around the world. We have done this project in the past, but I am hoping that this year it will be even more meaningful because it is not just a one-time good deed or mitzvah, but part of something that our family is now making a priority each and every day.

If thinking about a high, a low, and a mitzvah gives you ideas for your family, consider enrolling in our next online session of Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family (currently offered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago). For just 20 minutes a week, you will be inspired!

Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!

The Power of Reading

This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.

Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.

However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.

What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.

My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)

If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.


Bedtime Routines

I joined the team at InterfaithFamily just 9 weeks ago and am excited to share the resources of this fantastic organization with the San Francisco Bay Area community. There are so many aspects of my work that I find valuable for me individually, in my extended family, and in my professional life.

As I reflect on the resources of InterfaithFamily and share examples of the work that we do with friends and strangers on the street, I often site one of the sessions of our class, Raising a Child with Judaism.

Attending graduate school for a Master of Arts Degree in Jewish Education taught me that routine in the classroom (and in life) is important. Working with children for the past 20 years, I know from experience that setting the tone for what comes next can make all the difference in the success (or failure) of the next activity.

I have an 18-month-old niece and have been in awe of my brother and sister-in-law for over a year. Why? Because from about the age of 5 months, at precisely 7:00pm every night, they carry my niece to her crib, put her down and walk away. That’s it. She’s down for the night. They make it look so easy!

I know it’s not easy. Over the summer on an extended visit, I learned there was more to it than the magic hour of 7:00pm. I witnessed their evenings and learned the secret to their success: routine and expectation. For my niece, dinner followed by playtime, then a bath followed by quiet time leads to successful bedtime at 7:00pm, sharp.

What does this have to do with InterfaithFamily? I encourage parents raising young children to take our online class, Raising a Child with Judaism. The class is designed to help parents explore Jewish traditions that may fit into their existing lives. We don’t have answers to all of life’s secrets; but we can help you find connections that are meaningful to you.

I hope that one day in the future InterfaithFamily/Your Community will expand into Southern California and that my brother and sister-in-law will take the class. If they do, they will learn more about Jewish bedtime rituals like saying the Shema and Hashkiveinu. They may try on the ritual as part of their bedtime routine. It may even “fit” and next time I visit perhaps I’ll say the Shema with my niece. It may not “fit” and I accept that. I look forward to sharing other Jewish experiences with them throughout her life.

I encourage everyone to learn a little more, explore Jewish life, and try on something new. Happy 2013!

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

We Must Be Doing Something Right

Yesterday my 8-year-old son came home and told my husband a troubling story about a comment another child made to him at his after school program.

Apparently, during a conversation with some other children, my son mentioned that he was Jewish. This other child said “Yeah, well, Jewish people are weird.” At this point in hearing the story, I think I began holding my breath. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, I’m not prepared to deal with this yet! What do I say? How do I help him deal with this?” Panic set in. I asked my husband what he had said to our son when he told him. My husband’s response was to acknowledge that the other child was ignorant and probably didn’t know any other Jewish people — and left it at that.

This morning I asked my son about the comment and how he reacted. He said he told the kid, “DUDE, that’s not nice! Saying that hurts my feelings.” WHOO HOO! I was so proud of him for standing up for himself and told him so. Then he told me he didn’t understand why the other child had said this. “Aren’t Jews exactly the same as Christians?”

Ignorance is a hard concept to explain to an 8-year-old. We talked a bit more about how there are people out there who sometimes don’t like you because you believe something different than they do. You should listen to what they have to say and, if it’s said because they don’t know any better, then you have to stand up for your beliefs like he did with this child.

If anyone has had any similar experiences, or has any advice on how to talk to children about these issues, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’m just proud of my son for standing up for himself!