The Facts on the Ground

- 20% of all children will die before the age of five.
- 98% of all people are malnourished.
- Life expectancy is 48.4 years.

This is what life looks like in the Democratic Republic of Congo. DR Congo is my adopted country because that is where my adoption is supposed to happen. On an average day I know more about politics in this country than my own. But as I’ve written in the past, the program has been a disaster almost from the beginning. The government there is so broken and, quite frankly, corrupt that it’s nearly impossible to accomplish what adoption requires: determining the legal status of a child, establishing a transfer of guardianship, issuing an exit visa. So I contemplate changing to another program, another agency, another country.

- A 2011 U.N. study finds that of 187 countries surveyed, DR Congo ranks 187th in conditions adequate for sustaining life.  This means that it has the fewest people with access to cleaning drinking water, shelter, nutrition, education and personal security. It is by every measure the poorest country in the world. 

I look at other adoption programs. I think about getting pregnant. And I don’t move forward. One more month, I think. Maybe things will change. Maybe somehow someone in the government there will realize that they have a chance to change these kids’ lives. To save these kids’ lives.

- 15% of all children are orphans. That’s about 3 million kids.
- UNICEF reports that between 15,000 to 25,000 children live on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital. Children are often required to “pay” police in a percentage of stolen goods for the right to sleep in abandoned buildings and on sidewalks.

But there are tanks on the streets of Kinshasa as President Kabila tries to hang onto power. Violence and coup attempts have all but shut down the city over the last few weeks. And so we wait. And these kids wait. For things to get better. For a new start. A family. A miracle.

If you feel moved to, would you please say a prayer for these children and for all children who do not have families? As we create light in our houses this holiday season, let us hope for a better year for everyone from here to DR Congo.

Christmas Sharing?

Can we tolerate one more post about the December Dilemma?  I promise to be short.  I just want to share with you what my oldest child (he is in 6th grade) did at school recently. 

The district has a program called Christmas Sharing where they collect clothes and food for families in our area who are less fortunate.  Great program!  At our elementary school they call it Holiday Sharing.  When our oldest went to middle school we learned that the program is actually called Christmas Sharing.  As part of the program they ask the kids to donate money and then they can create an ornament to hang on the Christmas tree.  If they donate enough money, food, and clothing Santa will visit the school.  Yes, this is middle school.

For obvious reasons my son was upset that all other religions were being excluded.  He took it upon himself to write the Principal about the issue.  He detailed his concerns.  He said that he was uncomfortable donating to a Christian program.  That some of the Muslim or Buddhist families in our school might feel the same way.  He had questions about who benefited from the program.  Was it only Christian families?  There might be families of other faiths that need help too.

He told the Principal that he did not have an issue with the motives behind it, but would like to have the public school be more aware that not everyone is Christian and offer more inclusive activities.  He detailed some ideas that would be more inclusive.  Rather than creating ornaments, perhaps the kids could create holiday/winter pictures that could be hung on the walls in the cafeteria; instead of Santa, how about homework passes or a day with no homework?

Our Principal is great.  He asked Mac to participate in the newly renamed committee, Holiday Spirit.  It was Christmas Spirit until Mac brought up the issue.  He will be the only student on the committee, until now it was compromised entirely of teachers and staff.  He will be able to talk about ideas that will make things more inclusive.  The Principal has invited Mac to attend a meeting with the Superintendent and the local churches to discuss renaming Christmas Sharing to Holiday Sharing.

Mac is beginning to work towards creating a world that is more tolerant and understanding, more inclusive to people who are not Christian.   Not only is this a proud parenting moment, it proves that in spite of everything, our child is a Jew.

Santa or Star of David?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to narrow down the eleventy-seven questions that run through my head this time of year. (Couple that with my work barely coming out of busy season in time for the added holiday stress, and I’m often a real joy to be around this time of year.) I know my household isn’t alone in facing the December Dilemma, and I know we all have unique circumstances in our dilemmas. So, to keep the confusion in my head from just spilling out all over the page here, I’ll try to limit today’s post to just a couple issues.

We live in the Bible belt where, to put it nicely, people just assume you’re Christian. There are no Jewish day schools or daycares near where I live, so Baby goes to “school” at a wonderful daycare near our home. This school uses the A Beka curriculum, which is a Christian-based curriculum. We knew this when we chose the daycare, and we decided it was still the best place for Baby to go while we both work during the day. He’s happy there. His best friend (not coincidentally, the child of one of my best friends) is in his class. The teachers love him, the directors love him, and we’re quite pleased with the care he gets.

The school is warm and caring, and they decorate for all the seasons and holidays. Christmas is no exception. Yes, you read that right. Christmas is no exception. There are no menorahs or other Hanukkah decorations. There are no Kwanzaa decorations. It’s all snowflakes and Santa and stockings and trees. (At least it’s all “secular” Christmas decorations, even though many of you – my husband included – will tell me there’s no such thing as “secular” Christmas decorations. I hope we can agree to disagree on that for just this minute.) It’s festive and fun, and Baby LOVES the snowflakes and blue ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling all down the hall. As the Christian parent in the family, this actually doesn’t bother me…except…Baby is Jewish. Should it bother me? Should I request that the adorable Santa face outside the classroom that has Baby’s name on it be replaced with a Star of David or a menorah? We’ve not been overt about Baby’s religion, nor do we feel we need to be…should we be? Would it make things awkward at school? Should it matter to me if it does?

Bottom line, I know that the quality of care Baby gets at his school is the most important thing, and that he’s happy there. And I know that one day – or even one “season” (in the sense of the Christmas season) – won’t make him any less Jewish, if his Daddy and I do our jobs right as interfaith-parents-raising-a-Jewish-child. But still, these types of questions nag at the back of my mind. I’d love to hear thoughts from others in similar situations out there.

When is December Not A Dilemma?

As everyone who is reading this already knows, December is probably the most stressful/crazy/anxiety-ridden time of the year.  Or at least that’s what everyone wants you to feel.  Especially if you are intermarried or if you grew up in an interfaith family.  The questions – What are you doing for the holidays?  Do you have a tree?  Do your kids believe in Santa?  Do your kids get presents for both holidays?  Maybe it’s because I have been intermarried for 10 years and have had kids for the last 7, but thankfully I do not have a dilemma in December.  This is due to my amazing husband, in-laws and extended family and because we really did and continue to do the work to secure this non-dilemma situation during this crazy time of the year.  We celebrate Chanukah in our house and Christmas at my in-laws and extended family.  We each have our own menorah and bring it with us when the holidays overlap.  We have a great time and so do our kids.  While my in-laws celebrate Christmas as a truly religious one, we celebrate it as a truly fun day or two to spend with family – exchange gifts – and eat cinnamon buns.

The first year we were married, and I didn’t observe my family’s Jewish Christmas tradition of going to the movies and going out for Chinese food – unique, I know – I was completely overwhelmed by the gifts.  My in-laws are completely non-materialistic people so that made me even more taken aback.  Chanukah in my family was one nice gift and a bunch of little things for the rest of the seven nights.  Thankfully after we had kids, the bulk of the presents went to them – rightfully so – but I still haven’t been able to make my own peace with all of the presents.  Even today, I went to Macy’s in our local mall for a Chanukah Family Fest and was simply in shock at how many people were at the mall and all of the shopping bags they were walking out with.  Not that I am anti-gifts – my kids would never forgive me for that.  In fact, I am done with my shopping and I bought almost all of the gifts at non-commercial places like independent toy stores and book stores – crowds make me a little crazy plus I am a bad decision-maker so smaller stores with fewer options work out better for me. 

The first couple of years with our kids at Christmas, I was slightly adamant about their gifts being wrapped in non-Christmas paper: something wintery was fine – snowflakes or snowmen – and I definitely didn’t want any gifts from Santa – only from Grammy & Poppy.  I am beyond grateful that my in-laws respected my wishes – and humored me.   I also feel that my husband and I have done our job as parents for the other 364 days out of the year so one day is not going to make a lasting impact in their identity.

Now our 7 year old is the one asking questions – Why aren’t stores decorated for Chanukah?  Why do only people who celebrate Christmas put up lights in their yard?  Why do more people celebrate Christmas than Chanukah?  Is Santa real?  My husband and I try to answer these questions with simple yet truthful answers and in a way to let him know that we know these things can be hard to understand.  The Santa one is the hardest because it is such an honest question and one that we don’t want him to ruin for his friends – kind of like the tooth fairy.  It’s a tough one – what do you tell your kids?

Calendar Schmalendar

Spin the dreidels, light the menorahs, it is Hannukah time.  When we announced that Saturday was the first night of Hannukah, the kids dropped their electronic gadgets, stopped texting their friends, and cleaned the table off.  Everyone was so excited to start the celebration.

What, your calendar says that Hannukah is still a couple of weeks off?  Well, because Hannukah coincides with our trip to California to celebrate Christmas with my family we are doing it early.  We have always played loose with the dates for Hannukah.  When our kids were really small we made the decision to celebrate each holiday on its own.  We felt that by making each event stand on alone, it would eliminate the competition between the two.

The agreement Bob and I reached before we got married was that we would celebrate Christmas with my family but not in our house.  We have violated this one year when we didn’t have the time or resources to go to my family’s home.  We had a very low key celebration at our house.  I am not sure what we will do when my mother is no longer with us, and I don’t like to think about that.

At first I was disappointed about this.  I fought it, and tried to put up a tree and decorations.  Now, I love that we don’t have to worry about putting up lights and decorating a tree.  It is one less thing I have to do.  When we go to my mom’s the kids can do all the Christmas stuff.  I don’t have to try and squeeze it into our schedule.  When we are there we can do it without all the other stressors of our lives.  The kids get the full experience and I have less work, win/win!

But, back to Hannukah… it was great to watch my kids get over-joyed by lighting the menorah.  To actually want to sit down and play dreidel with us, we sure don’t have this response when we suggest family game night.  They immediately started in on determining when we would have latkes and who we would invite.  Because of the schedule, the idea of donuts for dinner was met with squeals of excitement.

My youngest who is 6, asked about presents.  We told her, that because we were doing it early that the only gifts they would get during our Hannukah would be the ones from us.  They would still get gifts from everyone else, but they would just come later.  We reminded them that they will just get the usual gifts from us.  We give money, clothing and an experience.  That is it.  Last year we swapped out a material gift for an experience.  The experiences were a trip to a baseball game, a pony ride and a professional soccer game.  It was something each kid got to do with their father, alone.  It was very well received.

So, while for most people Hannukah has not started, for us it is almost over.  That is ok, because we will leave the “coldest place on earth” and head home to California for two weeks of Christmas.  It works for us, what works for  you?

Christmukkah Redux

I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). As Jordyn Rozensky wrote on this website, I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.

When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.

The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.

So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a tree.” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.

This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!

Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.

Milestones

Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”

As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.

But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.

“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?

What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?

As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life -  after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be. 

Reality, on a green 3×5 card

As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche.  The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s Bar Mitzvah meeting.  I was a little nervous and didn’t feel like I fit in.

I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting.  I knit when I am nervous.  The meeting started right on time (odd, I know).  The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  I have no story.  The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now.  Knit, knit, knit.  I messed up the introduction.  Knit, knit, knit. 

The Rabbi begins to go over everything.  He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family.  I am still knitting, but it is slowing.  I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell.  More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away.  I am starting to think this is doable.  Planning is something I am good at.

Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out.  I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me.  I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later.  I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed.   I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.

I could have requested a date.  I didn’t do that.  I just figured they would give us the right date.  It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled.  When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind.  The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.

While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit.  She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be.  The people that are important will be there.  That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans.  That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there.  The people that love him will come.

I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown.  I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.

A Wedding to Remember

When my husband and I told our kids last weekend that we were going to attend a wedding, they were mildly interested. “Whose?” asked our 12-year-old, barely looking up from the book she was reading. But when we answered with two men’s names, she perked up. “Really? That’s so cool!” Yep, we said, it IS really cool. It was super cool for us, because it was a Jewish wedding in a synagogue close to our home and filled with neighbors, friends and various members of the community.

More than two hundred people gathered to celebrate the marriage of two men who have been devoted to each other for 21 years. They walked down the aisle together, they stood beneath the chuppah together, and best of all, they each broke a glass together! The rabbi did a wonderful job of honoring their relationship and talking about their commitment to each other as a model that any couple–gay or straight–could aspire to.

I have to say it was one of the most joyful events I have ever attended. At one point almost every single person was on the floor dancing while an amazing band played away. There was a couple next to us who appeared to be in their 70s, and my friend and I just jumped gleefully up and down. “This is so fun!” I shouted over the thump of the music. But it was not only fun, it felt liberating, because we all recognized that we were participating in an important event. My favorite moment came when both men danced with their mothers while a friend crooned Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

A sister of one of the grooms delivered the best line of the evening in her toast: “Here’s to the day when we won’t be celebrating a gay wedding, we’ll just be celebrating a wedding.”

Back To “Normal”

It’s been a crazy few weeks since my last post where I described my 7 year old’s 10 day sickness.  About a week after he finally recovered, I got the flu and a horrible cough – not normal since I usually get sick once every 5 years.  Then the weekend of Halloween, the Northeast, and Connecticut in particular, got hit with a crazy and very unexpected Fall snowstorm that left a foot of snow on the ground and us and most of our friends without power for 10 – 12 days.  School was cancelled for 7 full days – not normal.  The JCC, where I work, was closed for 10 days so I had no work and my 2 year old son had no day care – not normal.  Halloween was cancelled in our town and many others close-by due to downed trees, branches and power lines – not normal.  And we moved in with my in-laws for 8 days – definitely not normal!  Don’t get me wrong – I love my in-laws – but to be in someone else’s home, with no schedule, strange sleeping arrangements and no routine was tough on all of us.  Many of my friends and co-workers left town to stay with friends or relatives in other states  and those who did stay or had generators had multiple families over to shower, eat hot meals, charge their phones and computers and simply warm up on a daily basis.  Things that we all had planned to enjoy in these 10 days were cancelled – my son’s Consecration ceremony where he and all of his first grade classmates receive their own Torahs, soccer games, family get-togethers and birthday parties.  Finally when power was restored to our home, places of work and to our schools – things were FINALLY back to normal.  I had never wanted to go to work that badly in my entire life!

I also had a chance to reflect on the word “normal” at a training I attended in Boston last week for Jewish educators who work with intermarried couples and families.  The training started off with a panel of four intermarried couples who were all raising their children as Jews and had all found synagogues that they consider “home”.  They seemed to all feel normal as intermarried families in these synagogues because these synagogues and clergy were warm, welcoming, caring and respectful of them as an intermarried family – like any other family who is a member at that synagogue.

This got me thinking about how I feel like a perfectly normal family in my synagogue and in the Jewish community at large.  Our synagogue has many intermarried families as does the JCC pre-school where my younger son attends.  I get asked all the time by JCC members that I have just met “Are you Jewish?” because of my last name – MacGilpin.  When my husband and I got married I knew that I wanted to take his name because I felt like one day if we had kids, I wanted us all to have the same last name.  At that time, about 10 years ago, Soledad O’Brien was the news anchor on the TODAY Show and I thought, if she could have a Spanish and Irish name then I could have a Hebrew and Scottish name.  Completely normal, right?