Adult Learning in Boston: Parenting Through a Jewish Lens

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens is a program offered through Hebrew College in over a dozen locations in the Greater Boston area (many providing free child care in the daytime!). I recently participated in the program, and it was an incredible experience. The curriculum itself has been continuously updated and modified for several years now (the class used to be called Ikkarim) and has been well supported by CJP since its inception 10 years ago.

PTJL has assembled some of the best educators around. And the content of the materials are worth their weight in gold. This is one notebook you will want to keep in your library, as the lessons really help parents to open up and share ideas and real experiences, which are universal to all parents, yet center around the particular beauty of building one’s Jewish identity inside a growing family.

There are ten lessons in this brilliant yet very accessible curriculum. The lessons are grouped into four domains: Outward Bound (the interpersonal domain), Inward Bound (the domain of personal meaning), Upward Bound (the transcendent domain) and finally Homeward Bound (the domain of identity).

Troderman Family

Joshua (left) and his family

The program is a great way to meet other parents who are going through similar struggles in parenting in the modern age. Rather than throw our arms into the air in total bewilderment of twenty-first century parenting, it turns out that there are some very relevant concepts in parenting within Jewish education as old as the Torah itself. Delving into these texts with a diverse group of parents and fantastic teachers, all one needs is a love of learning and a curiosity about what Judaism has to offer.

I took the class myself this past semester and have relished every moment. I was one of the “elders” as my kids are 6 and 9 and most of the group had 0-3-year-olds. Either way, parenting is parenting, and there is no need to feel any sense of isolation with such a loving and caring Jewish community that we are blessed with in Boston. This non-denominational water is nice—so jump in!

Additionally, InterfaithFamily is helping to promote a PTJL class that specifically focuses on intermarried parents, which will be wonderful as well. Any chance you have to take this class, I highly recommend it. Who couldn’t be a better parent? This is precisely the kind of family education that will deepen your lives with elevated meaning and purpose, and you might even make a new friend or two. I can’t say enough about this class. Sign Up!

PTJL offers three types of classes that support parents with children in all stages of development:

  • Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of children birth to 10)
  • Parenting your Tween Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of tweens age 10 to 12)
  • Parenting your Teen Through a Jewish Lens (for parents of teens age 13 to 19)

 

Participants come from all backgrounds and include interfaith couples, LGBTQ parents, single parents and those raised in other faiths. This fall, PTJL is holding a class specifically for interfaith families! It will take place on Thursdays, 7:30-9:00pm in Newton starting November 6, 2014. The early bird registration rate ends on June 30, so sign up soon!

You can learn more about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens by visiting its website or by checking out the PTJL blog where past PTJL participants and instructors share their stories and insights.

Have you taken this class? Let us know what you thought in the comments!

It’s Not Only About the Kids

The first commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. Judaism takes that very seriously. One blog sums it up this way: “Jewish mothers like to bug their kids about ‘hurrying up and getting married and giving me some grandchildren already before I die because I’m not going to be around forever you know my health isn’t what it used to be.’” Judaism is so concerned about the next generation that in some families, anything and everything is forgiven as soon as there are children involved.

We come by this emphasis on children honestly. Judaism is a small minority and there is profound panic that a people with a deep history, wisdom and beauty will die out if we don’t procreate like crazy. For a tiny tribe to grow to survival, and then withstand the many historical trials we have endured, reproducing ourselves at a rapid rate has truly seemed a necessary component of our survival. Now, more than ever, the pressure is mounting. More of us who do want kids are delaying until later in life, facing more difficulties getting pregnant and having fewer of them. Some Jewish leaders have made it their mission to encourage people to marry younger and start bringing in the babies. So I know I’m going against the grain of thousands of years of Jewish thinking, and contradicting scores of contemporary Jewish thought leaders. But I have some serious fears about our procreation-obsession.

Here are my top 4 reasons we should ease up on the pressure:

1)  Many people don’t want children. And who would want a person who doesn’t want kids to actually become a parent? Childrearing is tough enough even if you really wanted them.

2)  Some want them…but not yet. By pushing women to find mates earlier and start reproducing, we are reversing decades of feminist progress that afforded women a wider array of choices about childbearing.

Shabbat dinner3)  There are so many who cannot have kids, due to fertility challenges, societal, economic or other personal issues. Within the LGBT community, although it is far easier than it once was, having kids can still be challenging.

4)  Finally, I believe the emphasis on children has great implications for interfaith couples. When a couple from different backgrounds is pondering questions about religion in their home, often the first thing we ask is, “Will your children be Jewish?” How we ask this question is crucial. I am a huge proponent of couples exploring this question long before there are children. I have seen countless families struggle because they avoided these tough conversations when it was still hypothetical. But more often, the tone of this question is one of urgency: All is not lost if we can make sure the kids are Jewish.

The results of this pressure are manifold. People who choose not to or cannot have children are left to struggle with their sense of purpose Jewishly. Not having children can be a source of pain and even a feeling of rejection from Judaism.  Some who do have kids don’t know why they should raise them Jewishly because they don’t know for themselves why Judaism is important.  This can even affect those who do raise their kids in the Jewish tradition. I remember a feisty and resistant bar mitzvah student asking his parents point-blank why Judaism was important to them. They were dumbfounded by the question.

My overarching fear is that Judaism appears more concerned with our survival than perpetuating something worth keeping alive. We pay an inordinate amount of attention to “pediatric Judaism,” the overemphasis of the child’s experience of Judaism. Don’t get me wrong—I strive mightily to make Jewish holidays, rituals and values engaging for my own kids and in my teaching in the Jewish community. It is crucial to introduce children to an active, relevant and joyful Judaism that will carry them through a lifetime of meaningful Jewish connection. This is a central piece of my work, and I love and value it. But I fear that while we are fretting about the kids, we sometimes forsake adults’ spiritual journeys.

If Judaism is to survive, it is often times because an adult discovers that it is centering to light Shabbat candles after a long day at work on Friday night as she takes in the warmth of the fire. It is because an adult who loses a parent finds that the Jewish shiva rituals give him the time and space he needs to mourn. It is because an adult finds a community with which to celebrate, learn and argue. This is not to say that kids cannot also discover those experiences for themselves, but the vast majority of the time, it’s the adults who will feel compelled to pass on Judaism because it is a frame for the values they are trying to live and instill in their kids if they have them. Those kids will see their parents engaged and fulfilled by Jewish ritual, activism or conversation. What they will preserve is a meaningful tradition that enables them to live life with more depth, inquiry, and intention.

You matter. You, the adult reading this blog, matter. Your spiritual journey is important and of immense value. Your questions, brilliant insights and challenges are part of the continuous unfolding of the Jewish story, whether or not you were raised in this tradition. It’s not only about the kids.

When Traditional Hebrew School Just Isn’t a Good Fit

My childhood synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, was a hodgepodge of Jews and interfaith families, all of whom were happy to find a Jewish home in an otherwise Christian and Seventh Day Adventist area. Despite the Jewish community in Sacramento being very small, I feel blessed that I grew up in an incredibly eclectic and inclusive Reform synagogue in Orangevale, California.

I wish that more people could have such an affirming Jewish religious and/or community experience in their childhood—and adulthood as well. But synagogue-based religious life and education isn’t a good fit for everyone, for a variety of reasons.

While I am the Jew and leader that I am today in large part because of the synagogue in which I grew up, I recognize that day schools and synagogues don’t work for all Jews. There are other models where families can find Jewish learning and community. So where can Jews in the Greater Boston area send their children for formal Jewish education?

BJEP students

BJEP student theater

Enter BJEP, the Boston-Area Jewish Education Program.

BJEP provides an excellent alternative to traditional synagogue-based Hebrew school. The Boston-Area Jewish Education Program is a welcoming, independent and unaffiliated Sunday school located on the Brandeis campus in Waltham, MA. Brandeis University undergrad and grad students apply their knowledge and passion by teaching BJEP’s first through seventh grade students. The program embraces Greater Boston families from all backgrounds (interfaith, interracial, LGBT, varying Jewish denominations) interested in learning Hebrew and exploring Jewish traditions, values and culture.

Experiential learning and Jewish arts and culture are central to their program. They offer extended day options so students can learn modern Hebrew, Jewish dance and Jewish theater. BJEP also offers adult learning and family education, runs High Holiday services and provides bar and bat mitzvah support. Headed by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari as the education director, BJEP is organized and funded by the parents of students enrolled in the school and is governed by a volunteer parent board of directors. For more information, visit www.bjep.com.

AriThis past weekend, Hebrew College ordained a new graduating class of talented and committed rabbinical and cantorial students—mazel tov! Among them is Ari Lev Fornari, the newly-hired BJEP Director. He comes to BJEP with a dynamic and ambitious vision.

“BJEP is a vibrant community of learners and teachers, including multi-faith, multi-racial and LGBTQ families. We share a desire to create and transmit a Judaism that is relevant and meaningful. A Judaism that celebrates the many constellations of family. BJEP is a place where young people learn to value difference, curiosity and critical thinking. It is a place of imagination, creativity and play.

I was drawn to BJEP because of its out-of-the-box approach to Jewish education and its commitment to making Judaism real and meaningful. Traditionally there were different models for how to organize Jewish communal life. One of them was prayer, which grew into the synagogue model. Another was learning, known as the Heder. I see BJEP reinventing a model of Jewish community built around learning. It is my hope that as we grow the program, it will increasingly become a place of intergenerational learning, where we can support families on their Jewish and spiritual journeys.”

I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Boston will have the privilege of working with Ari Lev to support BJEP’s interfaith families in the coming school year!

How to Teach and Reach: Interfaith Children in Hebrew School

Teacher and studentsMany people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.

1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.

 

2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:

a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.

b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.

c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”

d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another.  It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.

3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.

4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.

5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Midianite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.

6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom.  All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism.  People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.”  You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.

7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.”  Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.

You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful.  On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.

How to Make Your Passover Seder Fun for Kids

Passover with kidPassover is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays and many Jewish families have some type of Passover seder, but preparing to host a seder can be intimidating. This is true whether or not you grew up Jewish—and, as I can personally attest, even if you’re a rabbi!

Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and there is a set order for how the seder is to proceed, set forth in the haggadah. As an avid haggadah collector, I can tell you that there are LOTS of different haggadot to choose from—or you may put one together yourself. But even once you’ve selected a haggadah, if you have kids coming to your seder there’s the added pressure of wanting them to be engaged throughout the evening.

Here are some things that have worked for me in the past:

MAD LIBS, COLORING PAGES, ETC.: One year, when the kids arrived at my seder, I gave them a Passover Mad Libs gamePlaying Mad Libs is a great way to keep kids busy before the seder starts (especially if you don’t want them running all over your house!) or after they have eaten their meal—which we all know takes kids a lot less time than it takes adults. If there are kids who are too young for Mad Libs, you can give them Passover coloring pages and crayons to keep them occupied (Google “Passover Coloring Pages” and you’ll find lots of pages you can print for free) or if you happen to be using a digital haggadah, like this one from JewishBoston.com, the younger set can enjoy this fun online seder matching game. Coloring in their own Passover placemats (which you can buy in many grocery stores, Judaica shops or online—or make your own) kept my kids happy and quiet during seders when they were little, as did kids’ haggadot that they could color in.

PASSOVER GRANOLA: Several years ago, I attended a pre-Passover workshop led by Noam Zion, one of the authors of A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah. Zion suggested that when the seder begins, the host should give each guest a bag of granola, which they can nosh on so they won’t be hungry and anxious for the meal, and thus will be more engaged during the pre-meal part of the seder, which is the majority of the haggadah. So when we all sat down, I gave everyone, adults as well as children, a bag filled with raisins, nuts, and Kosher for Passover chocolate chips and marshmallows. I explained that just as our Israelite ancestors went on a long journey after leaving Egypt, we too would have a “journey” before we began our meal, and the bag was filled with some food to keep us nourished along the way. (I also promised my guests that our journey would be a lot shorter than 40 years!). Another fun thing about the Passover granola was that my daughter, who was four at the time, had a great time preparing all of the bags with me before our guests arrived.

BINGO: One of the biggest hits was when I used a website to make a Passover Bingo game for my younger guests. The squares on the Bingo game had phrases such as: “I recited the four questions,” “I drank the second cup of wine/juice,” “I asked a question” and “I tasted maror.” I gave each kid a small cup of raisins, and told them to put a raisin on a square once they had done what was written in the square. This kept the kids engaged throughout the evening—nobody wanted to miss doing something and not be able to fill in that square on their card. I recently found a similar Passover Bingo game online here.

QUESTIONS! QUESTIONS! AND MORE QUESTIONS!: Any good seder involves a lot more than just the Four Questions in the haggadah. Originally, the items on the seder plate and many of the Passover rituals were meant to spark questions. Your seder won’t be nearly as rewarding if you just read through the haggadah without taking time for questions and discussion. Here are some fun ways to incorporate questions into your seder:

Ask lots of questions: Before the seder, go to a Dollar Store or party store and buy a bunch of cheap little toys to use as prizes. Throughout the seder, stop to ask questions about the story and celebration of Passover. Whoever answers the question correctly gets a prize. You’ll probably find that the adults like to play along and show off their knowledge as much as the kids do. Or better yet…

Have your guests ask the questions: Encourage questioning by giving out a prize every time someone asks a question. Then let someone else answer the question—and they can get a prize too.

Put questions under everyone’s plates: One year I put an index card with a Passover-related question on it under each plate before everyone arrived at my seder. Some of the questions were serious (e.g., “If you could invite anyone to a seder, who would it be and why?”) while others were more light-hearted (e.g., “If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, would you rather it be matzah or bitter herbs?”). At different points throughout the seder, I would randomly pick a person and ask them to take the index card out from under their plate (no peeking at the card until you’re called on!), read their question and answer it.

Advanced planning is key to a successful seder. But that being said, once your planning is finished and your guests arrive, do your best to relax and enjoy!

Are there things you’ve done at a seder in the past that have been fun for kids and kept them engaged? What are you planning for this year? 

Why Rabbis Ask Couples Getting Married About Future Children

Ari officiating a wedding

Rabbi Moffic officiating the wedding of Mark Swartz and Liz Treacy

In the recent article in The Forward, a Rabbi in Los Angeles explains that he will officiate for an interfaith couple at their wedding if they commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and a Jewish home. A Conservative Rabbi who left his rabbinical union over being able to officiate at interfaith weddings quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres saying: “It’s not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.” The only condition he has is that an interfaith couple getting married “should commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.”

Some rabbis may make all couples (whether they are both Jewish or only one is Jewish) promise to raise Jewish children in order to marry them, but many only speak about this test for interfaith couples. It makes sense for rabbis to speak about how the couple will raise their children. Couples often sit with the rabbi who will perform their wedding for several meetings which gives them ample time to plan the ceremony and usually also time to discuss where they are with religion, extended family issues and what they are thinking their home will look like in the years to come. If a couple wants a rabbi at their wedding, they care about Judaism in some ways. Certainly a conversation can be had about how they plan to live Jewishly and raise their children.

However, I think that too much focus, as is clear from this Forward article, is placed on having a premarital couple talk about Judaism only in terms of how it will affect their children. I for one care more about what the adults who will stand under the chuppah with me think about their own Judaism.

Do they know anything about the religion that they think they don’t want in their lives? Do they know what Judaism says about the major questions of life such as the meaning of sin or suffering or ideas about afterlife and heaven? Do they understand who is Israeli (and for that matter when, why and how Israel exists)? Do they search for calm, anecdotes to stress, balance, order, meaning, peace, love and purpose? Judaism addresses these areas of our lives.

Did they once attend religious school at a congregation and even celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah, but have not gone into a synagogue since (maybe except for some High Holiday services as a passive participant?) I hope that by developing a relationship with the couple as we plan their wedding that the couple will think about exploring Judaism in new ways. I hope that the Judaism they find is open, accessible, relevant, realistic, challenging, inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, joyful and sophisticated. If adults are turned on by Judaism; if they are called to action, supported by community, filled with pride at Jewish accomplishments…if they cook the food, live the values of tzedakah and menschlekeit (being a good person), if they visit Israel, find the words of the prayers to resonate, they will want their children to experience Judaism.

Are there congregations where one can experience Judaism like this? There are. Are there study groups, trips, volunteer opportunities and cultural events that have this kind of Jewish vibe? There are.

If we ignore the Jewish life of adults and simultaneously try to get them to follow the patterns of their parents in joining congregations so that children can have a bar or bat mitzvah, that experiment is over. We can’t infuse guilt or a sense of responsibility or obligation as the vehicle to promulgate Judaism to the next generation. People getting married aren’t swayed by that. Instead, we need to ask these adults getting married to give Judaism a second chance for the sake of their own souls.

Eyes on the Prize

I love when my kids come home from school with inspirational materials. This week, with MLK day on everyone’s mind, it was to honor the great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Found inside my 1st grader Eli’s backpack was a scholastic news weekly reader called “Before and After Dr. King,” emphasizing how MLK had helped change unfair laws in his lifetime. This little flyer highlighted three topics featuring before and after photos: Buses, schools and water fountains which clearly and visually showed the inequality and horrific level of prejudice in daily life in the south in the ’50s and ’60s.

So we had a kitchen table discussion, and I found myself getting teary-eyed, as I often do at the thought of being separated and judged for who you are by the color of your skin or boxed into feelings of shame for what you were born into. My kids are blown away that people were treated so unfairly. Eli found it fascinating that I was born in 1969, “way back then only one year after Martin Luther King died.” We talked about how hard it is to believe that people couldn’t sit together or learn together or share the same water fountain; things I did not have to witness in person, thank God, being way up north and born after the civil rights movement had a chance to flourish.

“Jews were treated unfairly too back then,” I explained to Eli.

“Why does it always have to go back to the Jews?” my wife bemoaned, “Can’t we just stick with MLK?” (It’s got to be tough to be married to a Jewish educator with every topic coming back to Judaism at his kitchen table.)

“I’m just saying,” pointing to the picture with the separate seating on the buses, “there were also signs back then that said, ‘No Jews Allowed.’ Of course, it was nothing compared to the horrors that faced the Southern black community at the time, but there are similarities. Deb gave me that “Lets not bring this back to the Holocaust” look, knowing all too well where it was heading. I got the message. “You will learn more details about this every year as you get older.” I tried to conclude my digression before Shalom Bayit had been compromised—again.

Eyes on the prize videoMavis Staples, created one of the best civil rights songs of all time (and albums for that matter titled We’ll Never Turn Back in 2007), called “Eyes on the Prize,” telling us to “hold on,” and to keep our “eyes on the prize” of freedom.

We have come a long, long way as a more inclusive society (thank God) and prejudice needs to be fought wherever it strikes. There are many issues to hold on to as we keep our eyes on the prize. King’s vision to change the world began with color (or rather I should say a dream of not judging people by the color of their skin) and continues to grab our hearts and attention on opening our minds to all people who suffer and have been marginalized by society, “still vastly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” (MLK, I Have A Dream speech, April 28th, 1963)

As of this writing, 17 states have legalized same sex marriage (starting with my home state of Massachusetts in 2004). And intermarriage is a fascinating because it is not an issue of legality from state legislation, but rather in issue of relational acceptance by denominations or complex family dynamics.

Going through the list of rabbis who are willing to officiate marriages on this website, I am struck by their level of heroism to stand up for change and inclusiveness, despite the slowness of many congregations and some of their peers.

Things are evolving and getting better, no doubt. It is wonderful to see same sex marriages continuing to be recognized and officiated by rabbis in synagogues. But somehow, interfaith marriage has a bigger hurdle to overcome in acceptance on the institutional level. For example, the Conservative movement has a doctrine to not allow their rabbis to even attend an interfaith marriage, let alone officiate one.

You have probably heard about the small, but still existent, ultra-Orthodox factions that are pushing for separate buses for men and women. Oh Dr. King, how did some of us get so far off? It is deeply embarrassing to see people miss the mark in respecting others’ differences.

In the meantime, this year I will be watching for more synagogues to be more inclusive and welcoming to more intermarried couples. I want my children to grow up witnessing synagogues and Jewish institutions working to make a stronger community of unity and respect.

My Life is Changing

I often feel that life is a series of days unless we pause occasionally to celebrate. There are definitely highs and lows of each day and some events stay with us for days or weeks, but generally days and weeks come and go. This is why entering a period of pause each week, called Shabbat is so crucial. This is why holidays and life cycle events are so important. They mark our time with meaning.

This past weekend, two events occurred in our house which felt they changed our lives. Although the two events were not monumental to most, they felt dramatic to me.

The first event was that my six-year-old had her first spelling test. First grade is very different from “half-day” kindergarten. In first grade, she gets on the bus at 8:30 and comes off the bus at 3:30 and has had all kinds of experiences that she navigates herself. Most of her day is at school—not at home now. However, this first spelling test brought me nearly to tears of joy. She had reached a new place in her young life. Now, she was being tested and judged based on what she studied and how she performed. Now, we as parents, had a new responsibility on our shoulders: to help her study.

The second event that occurred was that our daughter went on her first sleep-over at a friend’s house around the corner from where we live.  We were proud and filled with nachas (a Yiddish word meaning pride from a loved one’s accomplishment). She had to make her needs known. She had to perform her own self-care.

I got into bed the night she was not home and felt God’s presence as I have not felt in a long time. Perhaps because I have been moved by the stories my colleagues—fellow rabbi-rabbi parents have shared about their own son’s brave fight of childhood cancer and about the thousands like him—I cherish even more keenly and with a different perspective our children’s lives.

When I say I felt God’s presence, what I felt was the support of thousands of other parents over generations who have had the joy of seeing their children accomplish new feats. I felt excitement at what was to come. I felt in awe of how life moves along and how obstacles are overcome.

I love the shehecheyanu prayer (the Jewish Kodak moment blessing). It is said at new and joyous occasions and it thanks God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this new place. The word “chai” (life) is in the middle of this hard-to-pronounce word, shehecheyanu. Judaism is obsessed with life. With living the best life we can. Harold Kushner wrote a whole book called, To Life. Think Fiddler on the Roof, “To life, to life, l’chayim.”

Of course I said shehecheyanu. I say it at every wedding. I said it when a first tooth was lost. (I think I was too sleep deprived to say it when that tooth grew in at three or four months old!) I said it when it snowed for the first time this season a few days ago in Chicago. But, I wanted a different, more specific prayer for this occasion of watching my daughter grow up.

Those who were raised with Judaism can be skittish about spontaneous, personal prayer. We like scripted prayers that start, “Baruch Atah Adonai…” I wrote my rabbinic thesis on spontaneous Jewish prayer because I am terrified of it. But, I prayed to God from my heart in my bed that night.

Over Thanksgiving dinner or the first nights of Hanukkah, maybe give yourself the freedom to add your own words, your own sentiments to our scripted prayers. Or fill the words from the sheets you read or which flow from your mouth out of memory with kavannah, special intention.

Judaism is all about turning the mundane into the sacred. A spelling test? A sleep-over? Yes—these were sacred moments to mark.

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!