Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!

Grounded in Judaism

Mayim Bialik at the Golden Globes

When you’ve had a tough week, month, or year, where do you find your strength to keep going? Are you able to find optimism, a belief that things will improve?

According to People, Mayyim Bialik credits her rootedness in Judaism:

“When you’ve had a 2012 like me, things can only get better,” she told PEOPLE on Sunday at the Golden Globe Awards. “That’s the glass half-full.”

Judaism has helped get her through the tough times.

“I’m a person of deep religious faith,” the Terani-clad actress, 37, explained. “I really believe that things will be right in the universe. Things are hard, but I’ve really been taught in my tradition that the harder things are, the greater the potential reward. I really believe that.”

Adds the Big Bang Theory star, “I don’t want to say everything happens for a reason, but every day is lined up right next to the other one for a reason. The best you can do is do each day well with kindness and as a good person.”

Does It Fit?

The rabbi and congregation where I grew up never presented the messages that “you have to do XYZ” or “you aren’t Jewish if you do ABC.” I appreciate that. Instead, the rabbi encouraged us to learn what Judaism teaches, to explore the traditions, and to try on Judaism. If it fit, great! If it didn’t, try on different aspects of Judaism until we find what feels right for us.

What fits me may not fit you. What I’ve chosen in my life works for me and I don’t presume that it is what will work for everyone. Let me give you an example. I keep kosher. Sort of and sometimes. Yet some people may say because I added “sort of and sometimes” that I don’t keep kosher. OK, that’s their perspective.

I’m a vegetarian who will eat chicken broth in my soup. It works for me. I’ve had religious Jews tell me I should keep “more kosher.” And, I’ve had vegetarians tell me I shouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk. I don’t keep kosher for them and I’m not a vegetarian for others. I’m doing it for me in a way that feels good for me and that works for me.

InterfaithFamily supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Try something on. If it fits, wear it for a while. If it doesn’t, try something else.

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!

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

Understanding Our Commandments

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.

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.

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.

The Importance of Jewish Education

I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:

Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”

Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.

I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.

Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!

It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.

Language, Inclusion and Entry Points

I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families.  There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.

For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.

I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.

As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.

I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)

Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.

This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!