Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I always spend some time as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Tawonga in California each summer, and it is always a highlight of my year. Camp’s Jewish theme changes each time, and this year we are focusing on the word from Torah “Hineni,” which means “I am present.” Many biblical heroes, notably Moses at the burning bush, respond to a challenge or opportunity by proclaiming, “Hineni!” or “I am here and I am spiritually ready.” This week, we offered campers a way to cultivate a state of Hineni through a mindful eating practice.
The hardest part for most campers was when they were handed a raisin and instructed to refrain from eating it until the end of the exercise to get the most out of the experience. We placed a raisin in the palm of their hands and asked them to contemplate every aspect of the morsel. What does it feel like? Smell like? What were the physical forces in the universe that made it possible for this bit of sustenance to arrive into our hands? Who were the people who contributed to its creation?
Campers talked about the laborers in the grapevines, the wind, sun and rain, the workers at Sysco’s plant who packaged the raisins and the truck drivers who brought them to camp. They were especially cognizant of the water necessary to sustain the vines amidst California’s water crisis. What a miracle to be holding this piece of food that was the result of so many complicated forces!
Finally, we thought about whether the food about to be consumed came from a tree or the ground so we could say a Jewish blessing before eating it. Pausing to think about where our food comes from and choosing either traditional Jewish words or creating our own prayers can turn every eating experience into a moment of Hineni. Prayer can be a ritual reminder in a fast-paced world to stop for a moment, bringing to mind all of the varied forces that went into the production of that bite of food.
When asked about the experience, campers had many responses:
“A raisin has never tasted so good!”
“It really made me appreciate the raisin a lot more, because we stopped and thought about where it came from.”
“I never thought about what it takes to get a simple raisin to a box.”
Others remarked on the fruit bursting with more sweetness than they usually notice. And in a few rare cases, kids who previously hated raisins reported liking them for the first time. Some remarked that they felt Hineni in their bodies after trying out this practice. The campers thought about other moments that seem to pass by unnoticed in their daily lives that they could mark as notable and sacred.
Rabbi Mychal with campers (and raisins) at Camp Tawonga
Some people are naturally inclined toward Hineni. Most of us struggle to slow life down and be present for the moments large and small that make up our complicated lives. Watching the campers experience this exercise reminded me that being present or some might even say “spiritual,” is not necessarily an inborn character trait with which we are either gifted or denied. Most people need to cultivate those skills, but they are completely learnable and need to be reinforced throughout our lives.
This sense of connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is available whether or not we grew up within a religious tradition or with more than one religious background. Many interfaith families struggle with how they are going to manage “religion” in their homes. But a first step might be to identify spiritual abilities or skills we want our kids to possess to deepen their experience of being alive: being present, expressing gratitude, feeling connected to other human beings and our environment.
Here at camp, kids are learning that Jewish prayer is one tool for cultivating that mindset which we have at our fingertips. In past years, my own kids have returned from camp wanting to sing the Ha’Motzi prayer of thanks for bread at our home table. I believe this was in part because there was such a boisterous energy in the dining hall when hundreds of kids sang the words together. But perhaps they also unwittingly wanted to bring it home because the rote repetition of this prayer three times a day provided an automatic moment of reflection and pause, lending an aura of the sacred to a monotonous, daily occurrence. This is just one of the ways campers at Jewish overnight camps learn the tools to be more present in their lives and more attuned to who they are who they are becoming.
To learn more about the array of interfaith-friendly Jewish overnight camps in the Bay Area, including URJ Reform Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Maccabi Sports Camp, and the brand new Conservative Camp Ramah Norcal, get in touch with me at email@example.com or check out the list here!
I need to apologize. I’ve been quiet. I’ve been in my isolated bubble of white-straight-privilege and been perfectly fine in there. Don’t get me wrong, I was outraged, but I was also paralyzed by inaction, and quiet about it. I told myself I was doing really great work by helping people turned away from Jewish communities because of their spouse’s religion. I thought that was my form of social action, or at least that’s how I justified my silence (or maybe even apathy). But mass shooting after mass shooting I’ve gotten outraged for a few days and then gone on with my life. I’ve called my representatives and written letters once or twice, and then I’ve gotten busy and stopped.
I am sorry. I have sinned against my fellow humans by complacency. I have sinned against God by failing to act to save God’s creations. I am sorry.
When I woke up early on Sunday June 12 to the news that 20 people had been killed at a nightclub in Orlando, I was outraged. I shook my husband awake saying “there’s been another shooting, it’s just awful.” And then I went out in the living room to care for my young children who have no capacity for this kind of news, but while we played with blocks I couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach or stop the tears from welling in my eyes.
As the number of murdered humans rose to 49, my sadness grew. As details started emerging about the location and circumstances, the anger grew. All day as I fed my kids and entertained them along with my sister who was in town, I tried to sort through my feelings.
The same thoughts kept flooding my mind:
100 people were shot. By 1 man.
A gay nightclub.
How is this possible?
Do I know anyone there?
Does anyone I know, know anyone there?
100 people shot by 1 man.
How could this be possible?
And then I thought about it: Of course it’s possible. It’s possible because of people like me who go through their day sipping on cold brew and checking Facebook and watching Netflix and potty training kids and being busy at work and having family problems and and and and…
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve called my state representatives and written letters. Could I have called more and written more? Yes. Can I do more? Absolutely.
The violent act of murder and hate in Orlando on Sunday was the sound of the shofar I needed to hear to wake up and stand up. But to do what, I had no idea. I spent the evening and following day signing petitions, calling my friends, especially checking in with my LGBTQ friends whose trauma was only something I could begin to understand.
I attended a vigil on Monday evening at LA City Hall. I stood there, a straight, white, Jewish, upper-middle-class woman in a crowd of thousands of LGBTQ people and allies. I heard speech after speech exclaiming the personal trauma that people were feeling in the aftermath of the shooting, and I started to get it. I heard things like, “we’ve fought for our lives before and we’ll do it again,” and “we are singing for our lives.”
Since last Sunday I’ve wanted to scream from the rooftops “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” but there’s so much to do that I don’t know where to start.
On Monday I started with mourning. Mourning the 49 victims and 53 injured bodies and millions of souls. Mourning the end of the privileged life I’ve led in Scottsdale and Portland and Pasadena where I never sat in a school lockdown or knew someone killed by a hate crime. I mourned the ideal future I had imagined for my children, a future free from hate and violence.
I took Rabbi Denise Eger’s mourning prayer to heart as I listened to people speak the names of the 49 people murdered in Orlando on June 12 at the Pulse nightclub.
And now what? What do I do? What can I say? I know now I do not have the privilege of keeping silent. I have a voice and I need to use it, but who am I to stand up?
I am Moses saying “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” I am Moses saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me, a man of impeded speech, why should Pharaoh listen to me?” (Shemot 7)
I have let my privilege and excuses be my impediment. But now I am here.
Hineini. Here I am.
I am here, screaming from the rooftops: ENOUGH.
I am standing up as an ally to all of my LGBTQ friends.
I am standing up as a clergy person who has a voice to comfort but also to empower.
I am standing up as a mom who wants a better safer future for her children.
I am standing up as a director at an organization that helps people who have been marginalized.
I am standing up as a person who lost a friend to suicide by gun he had easy access to.
I am standing up as a human being.
Who’s with me? Who will walk with me through the wilderness of gun control legislation and LGBTQ rights and human rights and freedom of religion and freedom to marry and and and and?
I have been quiet. But I’m not quiet anymore. There’s so much we can do. What will you do?
Over the years I’ve enjoyed—and benefited greatly from—the practice of mindfulness meditation. Studying and practicing mindfulness has helped me to be less judgmental (of myself and others), to be more present in the moments that make up my life and to better appreciate the simple beauty in the world around me.
Often, when thinking about a lesson I’ve learned in mindfulness I’ll say to myself, “Judaism teaches this!” I’m struck by how so many of Judaism’s rituals and teachings can help us to lead a more mindful life. Or, as I put it in another blog that I wrote, “my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality.”
What do I mean by this? Well, for example, when learning about “mindful eating,” I was taught the importance of not just devouring food, but of thinking about where the food comes from and how it got to me, as well as what it looks and smells like and how it tastes when really focusing on it. I remember thinking, Judaism teaches us not to just eat our food mindlessly. We have blessings to recite before and after eating that make us stop and pause, to remind us of the sacred nature of eating and of how lucky we are to have our food. This mindfulness lesson is inherent in Judaism.
As I practiced mindfulness over a long period of time, I became especially grateful for the way in which it affected my parenting, enabling me to become more fully engaged with my children and more aware of special moments spent with them. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much Judaism has to offer when it comes to tools for mindful parenting. Judaism gives us the Shema, a beautiful prayer to say with our children before putting them to sleep, helping to calm their minds and make them feel a sense of connectedness. Judaism gives us Shabbat, a special day to focus on family and rest and to take a break from the hustle and hassles of the rest of the week. And Judaism gives us HaMotzi, a special blessing to recite as we stop and pause before eating.
The wisdom of Judaism in regard to mindful parenting is just one of the reasons that I’m thrilled that InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is offering a free email series called “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” This popular email series is for parents who want to explore bringing Jewish traditions into their family life. Participants receive eight emails over four weeks (emails are sent on Mondays and Thursdays) about how to bring spirituality and traditions to their parenting in realistic and meaningful ways.
The emails share ideas, videos, question prompts to discuss with your partner, ideas for family projects, personal stories written by other interfaith families who have brought these same aspects of Judaism into their lives and book suggestions around sleeping, eating, playing, praying and more. Essentially, the emails offer lots of ways to bring mindfulness to your parenting, to their own lives and to the lives of their children—it’s mindful parenting through a Jewish lens.
The emails can be read on your own time, whenever works best for you. And there’s specific advice on how to address the topics covered in an interfaith family. There’s no pressure to do things a certain way –just basic information and an opportunity for parents who didn’t grown up Jewish (as well as those who did) to learn about Jewish traditions and practices.
While some parents just want to receive the emails and perhaps choose their own aspects of Judaism to bring into their family’s life, for those who want to take it a step further, there’s an opportunity for interaction. In each email there are suggested questions for discussion with your partner and the opportunity to respond to me with your answers, or with anything else you may be thinking about. I’m happy to engage in discussion about any of the topics covered (or anything else that comes up in your interfaith family) or to share your thoughts or questions with others who are receiving the email series.
Registration for the email series is always open… so if you click here and register now you’ll start getting the emails in your inbox as soon as the next series begins. And before you know it, you can be raising your child with more Judaism—and more mindfully—than perhaps you’d ever imagined.
Interested in this email series but don’t live in the Philly area? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passoverseder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine! ¡Un saludo a los que hicieron este vino!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy Al unidad-sagrado-de-todo quien hizo una creacion que nos da frutas dulces para gozar la boca, los ojos, y el nariz
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship A los quienes invertieron su passion, sus suenos, y sus fondos al negocio del vino
To those who plowed the fields A los quienes araron la tierra
To those who planted the vines A los sembradores de los vides
To those who tended the vines A los cultivadores de vides
To those who picked the grapes Alos quienes sacaron las uvas
To those who fermented the fruit A los que hicieron el vino
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery A los limpiadores y cuidadores de la fabrica
To those who bottled the wine A los que lo pusieron en botellas
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery A los que metieron a las botellas en las trocas y que las cargaron
To those who sold the wine A los que lo vendieron
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
¡Y a los que sirvieron el vino esta noche!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment:taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
From left: Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom, Rabbi Judith Golden from Or Chadash & Rabbi Ari Moffic from IFF/Chicago
I have a confession to make: For a while now, I’ve been pretty anti-Jewish prayer. I know that may sound startling coming from a rabbi. But I’ve kind of been dreading Friday night services lately. All that rote Hebrew that many people aren’t following and don’t understand what they’re saying. Now that I’ve been working with interfaith families, I am especially aware of the barrier that Hebrew creates and have wondered about all different ways to get over that wall. Many in the Jewish world think that some of our prayers (especially ones that have the words “v’tzivanu,” like the Shabbat candle blessings) can only be said by Jews and this poses other problems for those in our families who want to join in and are not sure where they fit.
Friday night services can have highs and music definitely helps get into the mood of the often universal and timeless themes in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s nice to just be with others and feel a sense of camaraderie, joint mission and shared purpose. It’s good to put my phone away for an hour and move at a different pace. Taking a deep breath, being in a beautiful space and hearing words from our tradition can be good for the soul. But, actual liturgy or communal prayer has been my nemesis for a while.
In fact, I was wondering if we could start a congregation with no prayer. There would be no Friday night or Saturday morning “services.” We would come together when we were up for it and looking forward to it for experiences of meaning. A bar or bat mitzvah service could involve a few major words of our faith tradition like the Shema or our Kaddish because a couple of prayers are transcendent. Their sound and their words are wholly evocative and needed. But, the core of the life cycle event would be to read from the sacred Torah scroll, to interpret the ancient text, to share who this child is at this moment and to celebrate a coming of age. To say words that feel compelling, engaging, inspiring and relevant. This is what has been going on in my heart and mind lately.
And then I was invited by A Wider Bridge to help lead Friday night worship at the Creating Change Conference in Chicago. I was invited because InterfaithFamily/Chicago works for inclusion and our mission aligns with the mission of this massive conference. I was invited because I am a proud ally for LGBTQ people within the Jewish world and non-profits in this realm. I was honored to help plan a service with Rabbi Shoshana Conover from Temple Sholom and Judith Golden from Congregation Or Chadash. But all did not go smoothly, and you can read multiple news stories about the drama and trauma that happened that night at the conference. I am still not sure what to do when you find that you agree with a group on so many grounds but have a major schism of belief in an area that is fundamental to your world view. But, the political pieces aside, I have to report that something happened to me in that service.
There was no guitar. Judith sang with emotion and feeling and it was participatory. I. Was. Moved. I felt it. I think other people in the room felt it (and maybe that’s why we, the prayer leaders, felt it). We sang for purpose. We sang for freedom. We prayed for help from the Source above. We were in the moment. We weren’t thinking about what we need at the grocery store. We were there together. A new group. People from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. Pluralistic. Egalitarian. The beat was contagious. Clapping and moving, smiles and swaying. Maybe because each of the prayer leaders desperately, and with all of our hearts and souls, wanted every person in that room to feel supported and part of it and included and loved—the vibe went out and it reverberated back.
I got my prayer mojo back. Now, how to keep it?
I had a few takeaways from this experience, and here’s what I suggest might make prayer more meaningful for me and possibly others:
Services should be short and sweet.
Services should include singing throughout and songs should be sung through enough times that people can catch the tune.
When there are readings, have people who are representative or people who “get” the reading, read them.
Think about who is sitting around you and pray with them.
Look at the people around you and see what vibes you can get from being in the same space.
Thank you Creating Change for reminding me that I love to pray with other people. I’m sorry there was so much tumult. I’m sorry there was so much pain. I pray we will all know peace.
It was 2:56 AM when I heard, “Mooooomy…I NEED you…” When I went into my 6-year-old’s room, feeling frustrated and annoyed, she looked right at me and said with a clear, unwavering voice, “It’s inappropriate when you tell other people that I don’t stay in my bed all night.” My heart skipped a beat. “You’re right,” I said. “Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am sorry I embarrassed you. I will not share personal information like that again.”
My child is forming a sense of self and her own reputation. She has self-worth and self-respect.
As I sit for hours in prayer this coming High Holiday season, I will pray that I can do a better job of finding my own personal outlets for my frustrations and angst. I will pray that I uplift my children. I will wonder how to offer encouragement that inspires rather than using mocking to urge behavioral shifts, which is demeaning. I will pledge to talk less and listen more. I will vow to yell less. I will marvel at the mother I am, the wife I try to be and the rabbi I hope I am. I will think about the kind of year I want it to be.
This year, I will challenge myself not to rush my children to move faster to get to an after-school activity which is supposed to be life enhancing for them. Rushing them and causing stress takes away from the reason we are doing of the activity in the first place. I will remind myself to be disciplined in my spending: to buy fewer toys and “stuff” and to declutter our house and our lives. (Physically getting rid of stuff is a major Passover theme, but a little spiritual fall soul cleansing is good, too.)
If you find yourself in communal prayer over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and you are bored, distracted, hungry or having trouble with all of the Hebrew or the images of God as King, think about the idea of “chet.” This is a word you will hear a lot in the liturgy. It is translated as sin and is an archer’s term for “missing the mark.” The High Holidays are a time to re-calibrate our aim. For sins against God, such as ignoring the Sabbath (a chance to rest and refresh, to re-prioritize, to reboot and connect to friends and family), God will forgive my trespass. But, for sins against others, I need to make amends. I need to do better.
As we all know, our children are our best mirrors. When our children tell us to put our phones down and when our children tell us we have embarrassed them, then it’s time to re-calibrate and aim again.
As the ethical teachings of our ancestors explains: “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone,’ as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.’”
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…”
On our family’s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didn’t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dog’s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of God’s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was present—even those who were yet to be—at that most awesome moment in our shared history and “memory.” So, what about people who aren’t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
Several years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.
Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.
“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.
We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.
Sara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.
If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.
Jillian (center) during her days as a counselor at Eisner camp, with her campers
The need to belong is part of the human condition. We all want to feel a sense of home, we seek it out, we write songs and poetry about it and we hold on for dear life when we find it. I figured out how to belong to Judaism at camp.
My Jewish camp was the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. I still remember the first time I drove up to the gates, sick with nerves, worried if I could fit in. I also remember the tear-streaked ride home those two months later when I was grounded by such a deep sense of belonging the likes of which I had never felt before.
Each winter, as the countdown for those bright summer days began, we would throw around the term, “10 months for 2.” I suspect that if Twitter had existed in those days, it would have become my favorite hashtag. And this was the reality that we felt deep within our pre-teen and teenage souls; that we lived those ten other months of the year in exile, waiting to return to the holy land once more for those two precious months. Oh, how much we could cram into 60 days.
At camp, I could not only figure out who I was but I could also be anything. I lived in Jewish time and space, where days were marked with fun and creative prayer and song, where we interacted with Israelis on staff who taught us about Israel and connected us to the larger Jewish world, where we learned and shared a common vocabulary and sang familiar Jewish songs in a way I had never experienced at my home synagogue. And because we lived in Jewish time, swimming, arts and crafts, drama and every sport imaginable became part of our Jewish summer camp experience. We were given ownership over our religious experiences and we celebrated Shabbat (and I truly mean celebrated) each week with creativity, music, dance and our own words of gratitude and introspection. I didn’t even realize how much Jewish knowledge I had gained in these series of two months until I got home and realized I knew every melody and every prayer and wanted to teach them to my interfaith parents and my friends (even if they weren’t as keen).
I imagine we all have those transformative experiences in our lives, the ones we think back to regularly, which we credit for our personal growth and identity. Mine was Eisner Camp and I would hazard a guess that the large majority of my fellow campers and counselors would say the same, even though we have all chosen our own, different paths through life. My path led me to the rabbinate, to wanting to make Judaism as alive and vibrant every day as it felt during those summers, to help everyone who wanted to belong to Judaism and the Jewish community and to create connections and friendships that last a lifetime.
The impact that Eisner Camp had on my life is immeasurable because these ten years later, the mere thought of camp makes me smile and remember a million experiences, moments, songs, sounds and people. Writing this blog post alone reminds me of the hot sweaty perfect Friday night song sessions, the trials and tribulations of camp friendships and the moment my team won Maccabiah (color war). I wouldn’t be who I am without camp. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable, engaged Jew—let alone a rabbi, and I certainly wouldn’t still feel like a little piece of my heart is living 10 months for 2.
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.