What to Eat on Lenten Shabbat

  

Shabbat dinner during LentI had the date on my calendar for weeks: a Shabbat dinner with some of the couples in my “Love and Religion” class. We’ve gotten together several times over meals and I knew that nobody has any eating restrictions besides “kosher style.” Emily was hosting the dinner at her house and had offered to order chicken from Zankou (a favorite LA chicken spot) with all the delicious fixings: hummus, babaganoush and tabbouleh. I was making challah and bringing wine. I knew everyone ate chicken which is perfect for Shabbat, convenient and would be a big hit. I was sure of it.

Then, as the three of us started trading emails to coordinate the menu, one of the guests said, “Chicken is great for me, but my boyfriend is observing Lent—we’ll bring fish.” Oh right. It’s Lent! And Shabbat! And he’s Catholic. This IS an interfaith couples’ Shabbat dinner after all. Now what the heck do I do for Lent?

Shabbat is a time for people to be together and celebrate community. It can be a time for inclusion and joy…and eating. When people feel singled out or excluded it is hard to strengthen relationships and build community, and that’s antithetical to so much of what I aim to create at a Shabbat dinner. I appreciated the participant bringing up her boyfriend’s tradition. I also appreciated her offer to bring something special for him, but it would have detracted from the spirit of the gathering. In order to create the best scenario for community and relationship-building, I realized I needed to learn more about his tradition in order to honor it and make sure everyone felt included.

I reached deep into my religious studies major memory bank to try to remember the rules about Lent—something about Fridays and fish but I have no clue. Are there special prayers? Do they HAVE to eat fish or can we get falafel and call it a day? (Does he even like falafel? It seems to be the go-to vegetarian option for Jewish functions, but is that a normal thing or one of those weird Jewish things that no one else does?)

I realized I need to call in reinforcements. I emailed some colleagues and I posted on Facebook: “Catholic friends, please tell me what you like to eat on Fridays during Lent!” I typed in a search in Pinterest: “Challah and fish recipes.”

I went into the living room to talk with my El Salvadorian, kind-of-Catholic nanny. “Do you know anything about Lent customs?” I asked. “Yes, you don’t eat meat on Fridays,” she said. “But sometimes people eat chicken. Not everyone will eat chicken. Chicken broth is OK for some Catholics, but not everyone. People like to eat fish.”

Oy, what had I gotten myself into? By this point, I had so many different opinions and answers and I just didn’t know what to do. And then I got a text from my InterfaithFamily/LA project manager. “Want me to have my wife call you to talk about Lent?”

Yes! How had it had slipped my mind that her wife is Catholic?

She tells me everything I need to know. Order fish: It’s one of those things that’s not necessary but it’s tradition. And either way, fish is delicious and healthy.
We hang up the phone and I text her. “Any restaurant recommendations for good Catholic fish?”

She responds, “I know of a few places, but there’s not really ‘Catholic fish.’ Catholics eat pretty much anything.”

Except chicken on Shabbat during Lent, apparently. As I kept trying to find a solution that worked for everyone, the emails continued and the couple offered again to bring their own fish. But I’ve been that person who had to bring her own food to gatherings and parties because they were making pork and I kept kosher. I hated being singled out like that and I always felt alienated. As much as she reassured me that they could bring their own food, I did not want her boyfriend to feel left out at this interfaith dinner.

I insisted on serving fish for dinner and, as it turned out, our host said she would rather have fish anyway and would love to cook it for everyone rather than ordering in from a restaurant. It was her first time hosting a Shabbat dinner and thought we were supposed to eat chicken on Shabbat, even though she would have rather eaten fish all along!
Problem solved. We had fish. And I even tried my hand at a fish-shaped challah. Because if you can’t braid your challah into a fish on lent, when can you?

It’s been a few weeks since the dinner and I’m happy to share that it went extremely well. The Catholic partner and his Jewish girlfriend were touched that they were both made to feel so welcome and included. The fish was excellent. And after spending all afternoon Googling “How to braid a challah shaped like a fish,” I let it rise too long and it melted in the oven. So we had flatbread for our Lenten Shabbat dinner and I’m bringing in a better baker to teach us all how to make a proper challah next time.

Unplug for Less Doing and More Being

  

Working mother with son

Here’s what my “To Do” List on a recent day looked like:

To Do:

  • Fill out evaluation form for current grant
  • Write grant proposal for next year
  • Prepare to teach workshop tonight and copy handouts
  • Return library books
  • Schedule dentist appointments for kids
  • Prepare wedding ceremony for Sarah and John
  • Send emails about next week’s program
  • Prepare agenda for tomorrow’s meeting
  • Buy groceries and make dinner
  • Write blog

 

And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to “To Do” lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) don’t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, there’s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if it’s a simple task that I’ve completed, I have at least a momentary sense of accomplishment and the thrill of seeing the number of things that have to get done lessened … at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.

I always have lots to “do”—and I’m really good at getting things “done.” But often, at the end of the day, it’s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my “To Do” list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those things—really important things—that too often haven’t gotten the time and attention that they deserve; things like: hanging out with my kids (not in the car on the way to some activity or errand, but just on the couch); eating a relaxed meal; having an uninterrupted conversation with my husband; relaxing and reading a book; or meditating. These are things that aren’t about “doing” but simply about “being,” and on most days I don’t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.

And even worse, sometimes I’m so busy “doing” the things on my oh-so-important list—usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being “connected”—that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that I’m not fully present for them, they’ll say: “Are you listening?”

I’ll respond half-heartedly: “Of course I am,” as I go about my typing.

And then, they’ll call me on it: “What did I say?”

“Um, I don’t know exactly,” comes my lame response, as my kid’s eyes drop and they walk away.

Sometimes I’m so busy doing … and so “connected” … that I become “disconnected” from the people that matter the most.

Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to “disconnect” from our phones and other devices so that we can “connect” with the people that matter to us … and to our own selves. It’s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not “human DOINGS” but “human BEINGS.” (For more on the idea that we are “human beings” and not “human doings,” you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)

Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one can’t “do.” For example, if you’re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you “keep Shabbat” according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you don’t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, aren’t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they can’t imagine being “unplugged” for an entire day.

But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged … totally “disconnected.” And that’s why I’m going to participate in the National Day of Unplugging on March 4-5, 2016.

Why am I so excited about unplugging from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown? Because if I can’t “do” things like check my email, texts and voice messages, it’ll force me to put a lot more focus on “being.” After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, I’ll be able to: spend time hanging out with my husband and kids; read a book; play with my dog; or maybe just take a well-needed nap, not worrying that the sound of my phone ringing will wake me up.

I know it won’t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged … I’ll miss that rush of dopamine that I get when I see a new text or email come in. But I also know of the benefits that can come if I resist the cravings to connect to technology for a whole day. And if I’m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as “a taste of the World to Come.”

Rather than making a “To Do” list for the National Day of Unplugging, I’ve made a “To Be” list, and here’s what it says:

To Be:

  • Be unplugged
  • Be mindful
  • Be present
  • Be grateful
  • Just be……

 

Will you join me in unplugging on March 4-5, 2016? Here are some ideas of ways to unplug with your family.

The Imbalance of a Working Mom

  

Keara and her family

“Mama! Mama!”

“Hold on sweetheart, mama needs to send an email.”

“Mama, book!”

“One minute baby, I really need to type something!”

Thankfully my boss understands when my emails have random letters and characters written in them since he also has a young child. Being a working mom is hard, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling. Being able to work from home is hard, but it’s also amazing. As I write this I hear my toddlers giggling with the nanny through the baby monitor. I know that I have an hour to work until the nanny leaves and hopefully they will be sleeping so I can squeeze some more work in today. Otherwise, I’ll send emails and schedule meetings after they go to sleep, over a glass of wine and perhaps while watching Project Runway.

Balance.

Some days it feels like I’m never getting anything done and some days it feels like I’m always working. Some days I feel like I’m giving my kids everything and some days it feels like I am ignoring them. Some days it feels like I’m doing amazing things for the interfaith families and couples in LA. Some days it feels like the work I do will never be enough.

Balance.

Some days my husband I are on the same page with our calendars, our child rearing techniques and our relationship. Some days we barely see each other and only have time to sing with the kids as we are putting them to bed right before we both fall asleep after an exhausting day of work. We treasure our Saturdays as the only day all four of us can do something as a family all day, but we also want to watch our Oregon Ducks play football.

Balance.

During the fall months, we find ourselves asking: Do we go to kid’s services or the pumpkin patch with the one day my husband and I have off at the same time? Which is more important to imprinting my children’s identity? Tot Shabbat. They won’t remember either, but by taking them to synagogue and to celebrate Shabbat we’re teaching them the values that a pumpkin patch never could.

Having balance in the family doesn’t mean everything is equal all the time. It means that sometimes the balance shifts heavy toward work, and sometimes it shifts heavy toward kids and every now and then it falls somewhere in the middle. I have learned that the most important yet most difficult part of the work/family balance is accepting the fact that it will need to be flexible.

“Mama! Mama! Clap!”

“OK darling, let’s sing a song and clap together.”

Making Challah and Conversation in Philly

  

By the IFF/Philadelphia Team: Robyn, Wendy and Robin

Robyn leading the group

Rabbi Robyn Frisch helps the group follow the steps to getting a perfect challah

Challah is the yummy braided bread with which many Jews begin Shabbat dinner. For those who grew up Jewish, the smell and taste of challah often invokes fond memories of family meals. For those who didn’t grow up Jewish (along with those who did), including challah with your Friday night dinner can be a fun and easy way to bring Judaism into your home.

In the Greater Philadelphia area, there are many grocery stores and bakeries where you can buy a delicious challah. But the best challot (plural for challah) are those that you make yourself—the ones you can smell baking in the oven and taste while they’re still warm. They’re the ones that may not be braided perfectly, but are made with lots of love.

Our staff in the Philadelphia office of InterfaithFamily heard from a lot of people that they wanted to learn how to make challah. And when our people ask for something, we want to deliver (or should we say “rise” to the occasion)! First, we arranged for “Challah and Conversation” to meet at Robyn Frisch’s house on a Thursday evening (so that everyone could have their challah for dinner the following evening). Next, we needed to decide what challah recipe to use. So, one morning the three of us got together for a little bake-off. We tried out a few recipes, and ended up deciding on a recipe that was a combination of different ones we had used.

Then Wendy went shopping… and after buying 30 bowls, 30 measuring spoons, eight packages of bread flour, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs and vegetable oil to make the challot (along with wine, cheese and snacks for the “Conversation” part of the evening)… we were ready!

Making challah

Everyone got their hands dirty

“Challah and Conversation” was a great success. Everyone learned how to proof their yeast, knead their dough and then punch it down before they braided it. In between the kneading and the punching—while the dough was having its “first rise”—we had time to learn about Friday night Shabbat rituals in general, and challah in particular. For example, have you ever wondered why challah is braided? Why it’s traditional to use two challot on Friday evening? Or why the challah is covered with a cloth? The “Challah and Conversation” attendees now know the answers to these questions and many more!

Many people have told us that they want to make their own challah but they’ve never baked bread before and they’re afraid they’ll mess up. They’re scared of words like “proofing,” “kneading” and “punching” when it comes to baking. We promise you that once you make challah with us, you won’t be scared. The result will be delicious, and your family and friends will be impressed! So keep an eye out for our upcoming “Challah and Conversation” programs and come join us for one of them.

And by the way, you don’t have to worry if you have challah left over after your Shabbat meal. It makes delicious French toast!

Conversation

The “conversation” part of the event

Read on for Ruth Schapira, IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council Member’s account of the evening, and then get our not-so-secret recipe!

Scoop, beat, pour, and mix—then knead, fold, knead, fold. It’s the methodical way that you’d make a dough for challah, and the process itself seems quite mechanical, if you were doing it alone in your own kitchen.

Challah rolls

Ruth’s finished challah rolls

But making challah with 20 people in someone’s home is quite a different experience, and creating challah with people who are doing it for the first time is exhilarating. The program, sponsored by IFF/Philadelphia and held in the Director’s home, attracted a demographic that would be the envy of any Jewish outreach movement. Four young millennial-aged couples attended, with a smattering of some young singles, older folks and a mom with her two kids—their common interest was in “doing Jewish.” That was the foundation upon which connections were built among those who shared Shabbat stories along with flour and measuring cups that were set aside at stations, like in some amazing challah bake-off on a Jewish Food Network show.

The event was called “Challah and Conversation” and by the end of the night, there was plenty of both. The environment was open, accepting and casual which allowed participants to feel comfortable asking about the many beautiful and significant rituals surrounding Shabbat. There was curiosity about egg-checking (for kashrut), traditions for candle-lighting, the custom some choose to follow for “taking challah,” and questions like: Why do some people tear the challah and not slice it with a knife? Why is salt sprinkled on it? Why is the challah covered? What is the “Parent’s Prayer”?

The most outstanding experience from the evening was not the beautifully braided specimens in personal aluminum baking dishes, ready to be baked that everyone was taking home. Nor was it that everyone would get to savor the experience all over again when that unmistakable luscious challah smell filled their homes the next night before the Sabbath. What was undeniably special was that people came together in the true spirit of learning and community, and shared an experience that brought them that much closer to Judaism, and that much closer to one another.

Here is the challah recipe we ended up using:
(Find more great recipes on our food blog!)

Couple with challah

Check out our perfect challot!

Ingredients:

  • 3 to 3½ cups bread flour
  • 1 package yeast
  • ¾ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 4-6 Tbsp. sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
  • 3 eggs (2 for the dough and one for egg wash before baking)
  • 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • Optional: poppy seeds, sesame or cinnamon

 

1. Dissolve package of yeast in ½ cup lukewarm water and let sit for 5 minutes.  (This is how you “proof” the dough.)

2. Measure the flour into the bowl. Make a well.

3. Pour the yeast mixture into the well and let stand 5 minutes.

4. Blend in the salt and sugar.

5. Combine two eggs, oil and remaining ¼ cup water and mix together.

6. Add the liquid mixture to the flour and stir until flour is moistened.

7. Turn out onto a well-floured board using flour to dust the board and your hands. Use up to another cup of flour to handle the dough. Knead by hand until smooth. Let rise on the board (you can cover with dish towel) about 1½ hours or until doubled in bulk.

8. Punch dough down and divide into three sections and braid.

9. Cover and let rise at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while the dough is rising.

10. Brush with beaten egg mixed with a few drops of water and, if you want, sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or cinnamon.

11. Bake on middle rack of oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes (ovens heat differently—bake until light brown).

Judaism and Shabbat: Discover and Return

  

FriendsYou may have heard about a new program that we are starting up at InterfaithFamily/Bay Area called Meet Us at Synagogue (Shul)! The idea came from my experience with returning to Judaism after being disengaged for forty years. It was my chapter of wandering in the desert. One grand life experience pushed me to think about a spiritual return. It was on a trip to Israel where I discovered that in my heart, I missed so much from my Jewish history.

Returning was not easy, which is why I want to support others who may have a glimmer of aspiration to experience a Jewish Shabbat service in 2015. Today’s Judaism is miles away from what it was when I was a child and I love it.

What interests me is the question: What inspires someone to go to a Jewish Shabbat service, and if they do, what will they find?

If you are Jewish and have not been to a Shabbat service for a long time, or ever, it can be incredibly meaningful to connect with our spiritual and cultural roots. If you are not Jewish, and are partnered, related to or close to someone who is, going to a Shabbat service will show you more than you might think about that person’s heritage and it might bring you closer together too. In one short evening or morning, you can take a journey through the musical, spiritual, communal, culinary and ritual character of Judaism. In some synagogues, you may find quite a bit of Jewish historic memorabilia.

This is a journey that Jews and their loved ones all over the world can share. Sometimes on Shabbat, when I sing a prayer with the congregation, I think about all of the other people across the planet who are doing the same thing, something that has been happening for thousands of years. For me, the music, more than anything else, connects me to the divine and to the congregation. There is something about the Jewish musical key that lifts me up and brings me completely to the present moment. For others, Jewish or not, spending part of Shabbat in a congregation is an opportunity to see old friends, meet new and interesting people, have a little nosh (food), and take time out from the rat race.

Shabbat services are not all the same. In the Bay Area, we have organizations that are reinventing Judaism in exciting ways. Some are highly inclusive of ancient traditions and others are bringing a spiritual creativity to Shabbat that is in keeping with California’s trend-setting culture. Services are held indoors in traditional and non-traditional spaces, outdoors in parks, farms and the wilderness. One can find a service that is held early or late, with music or without and most use prayer books that are filled with inspiring and inclusive language. Shabbat can also be a transformative musical experience, whether it be rock, chanting and drums, sing along, dancing or meditation. It is all here in the Bay Area, waiting to be discovered!

For more information about our Meet Us at Synagogue (Shul)! program, email me at marilynw@interfaithfamily.com.

Should Religious School Be On Saturday?

  

This blog post arose after a conversation about the challenges for interfaith families in which one parent is a practicing Christian trying to raise Jewish children. We were speaking about many hot topics including:

  • Hebrew SchoolThe goals of liberal Jewish religious school and Hebrew school
  • Why most synagogues hold school on Sundays
  • How synagogue leaders can create a culture of not just welcoming interfaith families but understanding that for some families one parent is practicing another religion.
  • How hard it is for families with young children to participate in a late Friday night service and how disappointing it is for families who want to pray with the same people (creating real community) each week when Saturday morning bar/bat mitzvah services are often filled with a different audience each week, not largely drawing from the synagogue community.

 

So, here are my top five reasons for congregations to consider the idea of holding religious and Hebrew education on Shabbat morning given how many interfaith families are now in Jewish life. This switch of days could help with some of the above challenges.

  1. For some interfaith families where a parent grew up attending church as a family on Sundays, that parent yearns for a similar weekly tradition of observing the Sabbath with their now Jewish family. Church services are often about an hour and there is childcare for babies and young children. School age children have a Bible lesson and then join their parents for prayer and singing. This can be followed by a family brunch to process what was taught that morning and then on with the weekend… Why can’t synagogues offer a joyous, music-rich Shabbat experience for an hour on Saturday morning with a Torah reading in which the children can participate in this sensory celebration of the words that sustain us?
  2. We say that the reality is that sports take place on Saturday mornings and our society is geared toward Sunday religion. There are so many options for sports today and teams here and clubs there that I have no doubt that families who are interested in “Shabbat Space” (I don’t think the word school really captures what it means to be immersed in Jewish learning) could find their children later swim lessons, different soccer teams, etc. that would begin after say, noon, on Saturdays.
  3. Rather than teaching children about Shabbat on a Sunday when they have to wait days for it to arrive again, why not live it, experience it, hear it, do it on the right day? We could join in with communities around the state and the world who are reading the same words from our sacred scroll in the same way and interpreting those words in different ways!
  4. Let Jewish children understand that the rhythm of our week is different from most others in our society. While we share so much with our Christian neighbors and family members, there is a particularism and uniqueness to Jewish expression which doesn’t have to set us apart and create a divide, but rather urges us to join together with our shared sacred purpose of making the world a better place.
  5. Some Christian parents partnered with Jews who are bringing up their kids in both religions may want to go to Church on Sundays and having Jewish school on the Christian Sabbath makes that difficult.

Ten Minutes Inside My Head: Why I’m Unplugging on March 6, 2015

  

Robyn unplugsOn February 17, after enjoying having my three kids off for four days for President’s Weekend, I was ready for them to return to school, and for me to get a lot of work done. But by 5:45 am I learned that their schools were cancelled because of snow. By 11:30 am, as I was trying to respond to work emails, my daughter Tali was complaining that she was bored and wanted to me to play Rummikub with her. My two sons each had friends over, and all of the boys were playing on various electronic devices.

I wrote down what went through my head for the next ten minutes. Here it is:

Really?  A snow day after they’ve been off school for the last four days. Why not just a two hour delay? The streets don’t look so bad. How am I supposed to get my work done today? I have 22 emails to respond to already.  How on earth could I play Rummikub with Tali now? I feel guilty that I don’t have time to play with her (and it would be fun)…did I really just tell her to go watch TV?

Ugh! Now the phone’s ringing. Who is it? Oh, it’s my friend. I’m not picking up. Should I text her that I’ll call her later? Now I just lost my train of thought. What was I thinking about?

Seriously…there are four boys sitting in the family room all on different electronic devices. My oldest son Benji is watching a movie on his laptop while his friend is playing a game on his phone. My middle son Noah is texting his friends as part of a “group chat” (boy do I hate the “ping” sound that goes off every time he receives a text…didn’t I ask him to disable that sound a hundred times yesterday?) while his friend is texting from his phone. Why do they even bother to have friends over if they’re not going to interact with each other? Should I make them go sledding outside?

No!  They’re old enough to figure out what to do themselves. And I need to get back to work. Now I have 26 emails in my inbox. Sometimes I feel like my life is just one long to-do list. I feel like that woman in the commercial from when I was a kid who said: “Calgon, take me away!” She had lots of chaos at home, and she probably didn’t even have a job. I want to relax in a quiet bath like she did in the commercial…or at least not have to answer 26 emails…and not feel guilty that I’m not interacting with my daughter and instead sent her to watch TV.

I wish I could just shut down my computer right now…and my phone…and turn off the TV…and go take the various devices out of all of the boys’ hands….and we could all just hang out and play Rummikub.

OK, I can’t realistically do it right now. But I CAN unplug—and I can encourage my whole family to unplug—as part of the National Day of Unplugging on March 6-7. We already do things differently on Shabbat than we do the other days of the week. I love it that as a family we always say the blessings and have Shabbat dinner on Friday night (no phones at the table—that’s one thing I insist on every night!), even if I do have to rush off at 7 pm to get to services at my synagogue. And though it’s not always easy being a family in which both parents are rabbis, I do especially enjoy those Saturdays when my kids and I go to my husband’s synagogue for services and we’re all together. Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t use my phone or computer at all on those days? Could I really do that? Not check my email, voice messages or texts, before leaving for services on Saturday morning? And not check them when I get home? 

I could just put my phone in a drawer Friday before sundown and not take it out until Saturday after sundown. I remember when I went away on a Jewish meditation retreat last year and I had to put my phone away from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. It felt weird…even scary. And refreshing. And nice. It was humbling to realize that everyone I know (in that case even my husband and three kids, because they were home without me) would be just fine without me. And they were. And I had two days to just BE…to appreciate life…and creation. It was hard…really hard…not getting that dopamine rush I get when I get a text or email for two days straight…not having anything to distract me…but it was also wonderful…really wonderful.

I could recreate that wonderful feeling on the National Day of Unplugging.  That feeling of being more fully present in the moment.  Rather than emailing, calling or texting people and making plans for when Shabbat is over, I could be more truly in the moment of Shabbat.  Rather than playing my favorite game on my phone as a way of relaxing after services, I could finally play that game of Rummikub with Tali.  And the boys would probably play too.  We always have a lot of fun when we all play games together.  And we really don’t do it enough.

But for now, back to work….there it goes again, the annoying “ping” letting us all know that Noah’s getting a text. And now I have 35 emails in my inbox. How many more days until March 6th? I don’t need Calgon. For me, it can be “National Day of Unplugging…Shabbat…take me away!” And by “take me away” what I really mean is: “Take me away from technology…and let me be present right where I am.”

Do you plan to unplug on March 6-7? What will you do with your tech-free time?

The Real Menshes on Benches

  

I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.

The Shabbat Excuse

  

SaraSeveral 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's smiles logoSara 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.

Shabbat Dinner at the Shore

  

The following is a guest blog post by Sarah & David Falk

Shabbat group

It was a cool summer day in August down at the Jersey Shore. We were renting a beach house in Bradley Beach with some friends and family for the summer. My husband, David, and his family have been coming down to Bradley Beach for over 25 years and we thought it was the perfect place to host a Shabbat dinner. We set up chairs and tables for 15 people in our backyard and surrounded them with tiki torches. The food was served buffet-style to keep with our casual dinner atmosphere.

Who were we serving and why were we hosting 15 people for Shabbat to begin with? It all started when we got involved with InterfaithFamily through their Love and Religion workshop last fall. While searching for officiants for our May 2013 wedding, we came across the organization’s website. We have been together for nine years, and InterfaithFamily is the first organization we found that embodies both of our beliefs and is a common ground for both of us.

Dave & Sarah

David and Sarah lighting the Shabbat candles

Over the years, we have attended many Shabbat dinners together at friends’ and family’s houses. We love participating in Shabbat dinner with family and friends—it is always a great way to start the weekend.

When we met with the staff of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and others who have participated in their classes and workshops earlier this year to discuss programs and events that we would be interested in seeing within the organization, the staff was extremely receptive to the idea of a Shabbat dinner sponsorship program. We experienced a similar program through another organization which our friends had used to sponsor their Shabbat dinners.

The purpose of the IFF/Philadelphia Shabbat dinner program is to create a community of peers. You are encouraged to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat, but we found that a mix of backgrounds at our Shabbat dinner helped with the discussions. IFF/Philadelphia will reimburse alumni of its classes and workshops up to $20 per adult ($10 per child) to host a Shabbat dinner. From our experience, the program not only encourages you to host a Shabbat dinner, but it gets the conversation started about the InterfaithFamily organization with those who may not be familiar already.

Alums

Alumni of Love & Religion (Dave & Sarah on right, Anne & Sam center)

The guests at our Shabbat dinner included friends that were staying at our beach house, family that lived close by and two other interfaith couples that were part of the Love and Religion workshop with us. It was great to catch up with them almost a year after our workshop ended, especially since one of the couples was getting married in a few months (congrats Sam and Anne who have now been married by IFF/Philadelphia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch!).

Our menu included soup (which was especially refreshing since it was chilly outside), chicken, Israeli couscous with vegetables (recipe below), eggplant dip, salad and lots of our favorite kosher Bartenura Moscato Italian wine. We had a little trouble lighting the candles at first because of the wind, but eventually got them to work!

Our first Shabbat dinner was a success and we were so happy to be one of the first couples to host one through InterfaithFamily. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the week that was ending and spread the word about InterfaithFamily. We look forward to hosting another Shabbat dinner in the near future!

If you are interested in getting involved with InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, drop a note to philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Israeli Couscous
Makes 10-12 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 bag Israeli pearl couscous
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1 bag sugar snap peas
  • 1 ball of mozzarella, cut into small pieces
  • Few leaves of fresh basil, ripped into small pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the shallot and halve the tomatoes. Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil on a baking sheet and add the cut vegetables, sprinkling with salt and pepper as desired. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the couscous, stirring often so that the couscous does not stick to the saucepan. Remove couscous from heat once tender and chicken stock is absorbed (about 10 minutes). While the couscous is cooking, roast the vegetables until soft. Combine couscous and roasted vegetables. Mix in basil and mozzarella right before serving. Enjoy!