My Jewish December

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.

“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.

The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.

This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.

The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?

They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?

One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.

Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.