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!

Passover Seder Fun

Who wants to dress up like one of the Ten Plagues?

Having grown up in a traditional family, we always celebrated Passover seders literally: seder means “order” in Hebrew. We followed every word, sang every song in the haggadah. It was long but exciting to stay up late. We certainly had fun — I stole the afikomen and dashed under our long dining room table with my grandmother as my accomplice. My four older siblings were angry for years! That was a far better reward than the $2 I received as my prize… For once, I outsmarted them — victory was mine!

My kids enjoy seders too. We probably follow 80% of the seder according to the haggadah. Through the positive influence of our pre-school, we now have all kinds of props for our seder: a tiny baby Moses in a basket, a brick that my daughter decorated with gem stones, and homemade pillows for reclining. The kids enjoy setting the table, making place cards, and bringing every pillow they can find into our dining room.

My friends and I are always looking for ways to make the seder more fun and engaging for our families. Here are some of the tips we’ve compiled:

  1. Throw things! A friend says that the best way to make a seder fun is to throw things. What kid, old or young, doesn’t like throwing things when they shouldn’t be? We have stuffed frogs that are small — it’s fun to see where this “plague” lands. Just remember, if you’re using glass or crystal on your table, move the throwing to the floor or away from the table.
  2. Egg and matzah soup! This is a family tradition that is bizarre but really fun. Mash up a piece of matzah, and, along with two hard boiled eggs and salt, add it all to your soup broth. It makes a mess but the kids love to feel like they’re cooking. Yes, there will be crumbs, but it’s Passover — keep the vacuum handy all week!
  3. Make a tent! This year we are going to my friend’s house for a seder. She mentioned that she might make a tent and let us eat in the living room, a tip InterfaithFamily suggests in our Passover seder booklet. How fun! I can’t wait. Finally, I won’t have to get upset with my kids for eating with their hands.
  4. Write your own hagaddah! My friends did this when they were newly married. I think it bonded them, sharing their Passover memories and customs. They tell the story of freedom and talk about how freedom is meaningful in their lives.
  5. Dress up! Kids and adults alike can take the sheets and dress like Egyptians or slaves. And this goes well with the next tip…
  6. Act it out! My friend’s family encourages the kids to create a play of the Exodus while the adults enjoy a visit before the seder starts. Here’s a hint: laundry baskets work really well to pretend to float baby Moses down the river. And those plagues can be fun and creative! Or everyone can act out the dynamics of the Passover story as the seder progresses: bossing each other around like slaves and masters, building pyramids with play-dough, wading through the Red Sea, etc.
  7. Add five words! Go around the table and have everyone say five words of the telling of the Passover story, each person adding to what the previous person said. It will get everyone involved and will be quite amusing.
  8. Bingo! With Passover words, it’s a game everyone can play. Try making the cards with your kids in advance, and review the vocabulary with them so they’re ready for the seder.

If your family isn’t interested in a formal seder, have you considered watching The Ten Commandments together, while eating dinner? The kids can count how many times they say the word “Moses” (maybe making a PG version of a drinking game — pass the seltzer!).

Do you have any special memories or ideas for making seders fun? Share them!

Rethinking the Bar or Bat Mitzvah

A rabbinical student recently wrote a post for Kveller called Ban the Bar Mitzvah. In the post, he argues that bar and bat mitzvahs generally fail for four main reasons. They don’t accomplish much, they aren’t part of Jewish tradition or continuity, the money parents pay for the bar/bat mitzvah keep synagogues afloat which would otherwise drown, and it makes parents look like hypocrites since their children are learning skills and taking part in ritual and worship that adults don’t know or regularly take part in.

The article was posted just as the Reform Movement is beginning their “bnai mitzvah revolution”, hoping to help children and families find more relevance in the process and prayer services, and as a larger attempt to retain youth in congregational life after the bar/bat mitzvah is over.

There have been dozens of posts written in response on how to re-imagine the bar/bat mitzvah. Many argue that the bar/bat mitzvah may seem to be all about a lavish party, but in reality it can be a transformative experience for the child and family. College students look back at pivotal Jewish experiences of their youth and name having a bar/bat mitzvah as being a top, identity building time. Others have pointed out that the time the child spends with clergy one-on-one and in small groups preparing for this rite of passage is priceless. Family education is part of many congregational programs as children prepare for bar/bat mitzvah, offering parents the opportunity to explore topics that perhaps will (re-)kindle interest in worship, learning, or performing mitzvot (commandments).

Perhaps the point of the Banning Bar Mitzvah blog post was to force us to re-think why we spend so much time, effort and money around this one- or two-day affair. Children spend countless hours in tutoring to prepare for their day. When “successful,” the preparation and effort stays with a young person for years and years to come. Families are touched deeply. “Mitzvah projects” (projects focusing on community service and/or social justice in the child’s local community or in the world at large) have left an impact and sometimes are continued long after the synagogue service and party are over. However, if we want the bar/bat mitzvah to be more meaningful, then perhaps we should look at how we bring family members who aren’t Jewish to this sacred time. There are educators and clergy who spend special time speaking to interfaith families about the role for their family members who aren’t Jewish and who work creatively and with empathy and openness to involve parents and grandparents, from both sides of the family, in the service.

One great way that parents can find more meaning in this process, especially if they didn’t grow up having experienced bar/bat mitzvah personally, is to access our online resources around this theme. We will share eight sessions which will teach you more about the meaning of the worship service and rituals and which can help you think about how to bring deeper spirituality and connectedness to this process for your pre-teen. We suggest parents access this material as early as when your child is in 4th grade and you are starting to wrap your heads and hearts around what this can all mean. If you would like log-in information to look at this course content, just email me, Rabbi Ari, at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Adaptation and Flexibility for Death and Mourning Customs

My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.

Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.

My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.

What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.

A Christian Bar Mitzvah?

I’ve watched this video a few times and I’m still not sure how I feel about this.

Did you catch that? Trevor’s already turned 13, and they’ve decided to throw him a “bar mitzvah — a Christian bar mitzvah.”

Pastor Brian shows Trevor and Tara the tallit Trevor will wear at the bar mitzvah party.

Here’s what I’ve figured out from the video:

  • They’re having a bar mitzvah as a party, not as a religious life cycle event.
  • Mom’s Christian, dad has “Jewish heritage” (my sources tell me he was Jewish and converted to Christianity) and is a Christian pastor in Atlanta.
  • Mom’s “done her research” and believes a key part of the bar mitzvah is a Torah-shaped cake. Dad adds that it should be “Christ in the Torah” (to mark Christianity’s Jewish heritage, I think?).
  • Mom tells us a bar mitzvah marks the transition from being “a 13-year-old boy to a man,” but more accurately it’s marking going from a 12-year-old boy to a man.
  • Dad frames this as “more than a marker of time, it’s a social event.”
  • Neither parent is Jewish, but they believe their son will grow to be the “first Jewish, black president” of the USA.

As I said, I’m a bit confused by this.

And, with that confusion, I can’t decide what I think of a “Christian bar mitzvah.” The bar mitzvah traditionally marks a boy (or girl) taking status as an adult in the Jewish community. With that, they’re now able to perform commandments (mitzvot) reserved for adults, like being counted in a prayer quorum (10 adults needed to form a minyan for prayer services). The question posed on twitter was, “blatant misuse of Jewish ritual or can we choose to borrow from other faiths? If so, how?”

What do you think?

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!

Jewish Dreams For Your Pre-Teen

As this New Year begins, we may have many hopes and dreams about what the months ahead will bring. Maybe you have an 11- or 12-year-old and have hope somewhere in your heart and mind that this child could somehow experience the rite of passage within Judaism called a bar or bat mitzvah.

Bar & Bat Mitzvahs For The Interfaith Family

To learn more about the bar or bat mitzvah, check out our booklet! (Click on the image.)

Maybe this is only a hope or dream because you have not found yourselves a synagogue and your child has not officially begun religious school or Hebrew school. Maybe you are members of a congregation or working with clergy, and this dream will soon be a reality.

When you hear someone say “having a bar or bat mitzvah,” they are typically referring to a ceremony during a prayer service that includes a Torah service, usually by a cantor or rabbi. Taking place around the 13th birthday of a child, it marks the transition into adulthood within the Jewish community. (Those 13 and over can take part in commandments designated only appropriate for adults, such as fasting on certain holidays, taking responsibility for one’s actions in new ways, being counted as adults in prayer groups and helping make up the quorum of at least 10 or more needed for prayer (called a minyan), wearing a tallit or prayer shawl during services, and more.) There are many different ways families mark this coming of age.

The truth is, whether your child is called to the Torah or not near their 13th birthday, your child, if being raised with Judaism in a family who wants the child to affirm this part of their heritage, becomes a bar/bat mitzvah upon turning 13 years of age. The Jewish world is open to this child for learning and participation (whether or not their mother is the Jewish parent). Just because this learning and formal participation has not yet begun, God willing, your child will have years and years to investigate and take part in Jewish living and community. It is never too late to join a congregation in your area, to find a Jewish teacher, to take part in Jewish communal programming from the Jewish Community Center or Jewish Child and Family Services, or to go to Jewish day camp or overnight camp.

If you are a member of a congregation and your child is preparing for this important event and you have questions about what this all means and how your family who is not Jewish can participate, or if you are not a member of a congregation but would like to think about how to make this ceremony possible for your child and family, we want to encourage you to take part in our online course for families like yours. We offer a class online so that you can come to the content whenever you get a chance to log on. You can read essays about the history and meaning of this ceremony, you can learn blessings and prayers associated with a bar or bat mitzvah, you will get ideas about how members of your family who are not Jewish or did not grow up experiencing the bar/bat mitzvah personally can be involved in this rite of passage, and more. We share essays, narratives written by other interfaith families, videos, family activities to bring more meaning to the process for everyone, a discussion board so that you can ask other parents questions and share ideas, and more.

To learn more about the class or to join in, go to Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I hope to connect with you soon through this exciting opportunity!

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!

Hanukkah for the Whole Family

It’s that time of year: Hanukkah is nearly here and you’re looking for new ways to share the holiday with your family.

With the help of some friends, we’ve got you covered.

Games
Boston area parent Emily Sper is back with an expanded Hanukkah offering. Her Hanukkah Coloring & Activity Book, includes a basic history of the Hanukkah story, relevant Hebrew terms (and a handy pronunciation key on the back cover!), games and activities (don’t miss the checkers game with a dreidel twist), and more. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of both Ashkenazi customs (descending from eastern Europe) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese descent) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) — it’s not just latkes but jelly doughnuts too, and there’s a coloring page for a Moroccan menorah. Some activities are geared at older kids, but there’s at least something for everyone, ages 4 or 5 and up.

If colouring isn’t your speed, or you’d like to give a Hanukkah spin to games your kids likely already know, Emily’s Hanukkah Card Games are for you. $10 gets you three card decks (one each for go fish, crazy 8s, and rummy) plus a small handbook that contains a glossary and an explanation:

Playing cards on Hanukkah is an old Jewish custom. Some decks had Judah instead of jacks, Hannah and/or Judith instead of queens, and Mattathias instead of kings. Other decks had the 31 kings of Canaan (Joshua 12).

Who knew playing card games was part of the Hanukkah tradition?! The decks come with concise explanations of the Hanukkah story and customs, Hebrew names for the numbers so you can learn to count while you play, and each suit depicts a different Hanukkah icon (dreidels, candles, etc., instead of spades, hearts, etc.). A nice and easy gift for kids and families — you can play some cards after enjoying some latkes (potato pancakes).

Crafts
Over on JewishBoston.com, they reviewed Kiwi Crate’s Handmade Hanukkah. What is it?

“A monthly subscription program designed around fun themes and filled with all of the materials and inspiration for hands-on projects. We know that getting creative with your kids can sometimes be overwhelming (where to start? what to buy?), but this program takes care of the guesswork for you and even includes activity cards that tell you the messiness level, grownup involvement necessary and things to think about to engage parents and kids in conversation.”

Kali, JewishBoston.com’s Community Manager, was clearly excited and impressed by this product — and your family likely will be too.

Food
When we think of Hanukkah foods, many of us think of latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts), but if you’re looking for more options for your family, check out Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler. More than just a cookbook, the Hanukkah story is included, along with trivia, instructions and blessings for lighting the Hanukkah candles, ideas for Hanukkah decorations and crafts, and party etiquette.

More than just the standard fried foods, there are suggested menus and recipes for brunch, afternoon tea party, Shabbat dinner, winter picnic, open house, after-school snacks, pajama party, and Rosh Chodesh (new month) twilight supper — all Hanukkah themed! All recipes are clearly marked as meat, dairy, or parve (neither meat nor dairy), for families that keep kosher. Additionally, so that kids can help in the kitchen, the difficulty level is included with each recipe.

Is There a Jewish Prayer for Thanksgiving?

There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:

My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?

Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:

Dear Friend,

Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace). 

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.

Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.

created at: 2012-11-20

There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.  

The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness.  Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you. 

Psalm 118 – Thanksgiving Day Prayer: God is Good

Psalm 100 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Praise     

Psalm 111 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Nourishment

Psalm 30 – Thanksgiving: Give Thanks Forever

Psalm 28 – Psalm for Thanksgiving: Let God be Your Strength

Psalm 150 – Thanksgiving Day Psalm: Every Soul Rejoice

Beyond the Psalms:

Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Maralee Gordon

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

A Thanksgiving Prayer (author unknown)

We Pray For Children by Ina Hughs

In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):

Pray For Peace by Ellen Bass

Love Is The New Religion by Brian Piergrossi

Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.