Back to School, Back to Family

Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.

I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.

Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.

It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.

But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.

As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.

I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.

Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.

For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.

Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.

This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening  our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.

But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.

Sisterhood

I converted to Judaism about five years ago.  But I still feel a bit like a fraud sometimes.  Not in my spirituality, because I thought long and hard about conversion and what it meant for me, and for my family.  Not just my Jewish husband and children who were growing up as Jewish, but also my mother, my sister, my aunts – the family that wasn’t Jewish and would be confused and possibly hurt by the decision.  In the end, the decision to convert was easy – because I was Jewish, I was raising my kids in a Jewish home, and wanted it to be official.

But I still didn’t grow up Jewish.  I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, with entirely different foods, traditions, expressions and holidays.  And a dip in the mikvah doesn’t change that.  I still feel vaguely… new, and when people slip into Hebrew or Yiddish, I have to nod knowingly and hope nobody realizes I have no idea what they just said.  It’s not entirely comfortable, not all the time.   But it’s there.

Which is why I’m still somewhat surprised by the fact that I’m the new Sisterhood President at my synagogue.  I volunteered for it, because nobody else did, and I wanted to make sure that there was a Sisterhood.  I want my kids to see Judaism as something that we do, not just something we pay lip service to once a week.  If I want them to have a strong connection to their synagogue and their spirituality, I need to model that.  Part of what I love about Judaism is the sense of community, even if I don’t always understand the language or the food.

I’m a little bit in over my head, but I’m swimming.  I’m figuring it out, and maybe by the time I’m done, and my two year term is over, I won’t feel quite so out of my element at the synagogue.  And my kids will know that Judaism is more than just going to religious school and having challah on Friday nights.  It’s about a community being together, raising money and celebrating life’s passages.  It’s about friendship and learning and growing together.  Judaism will be part of who they are, not just activities that we attend.

My Resolution to Unplug

A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. It’s about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. It’s not a new idea, in fact I know I’m late to jump on the train. But it’s also about resolutions, and Shabbat, so hopefully I can bring in a little something new to the conversation. And if not, please indulge my unplugging declaration, and a Sweet and Happy New Year to you.

So here’s my story:

I am not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to change – quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change.  It’s just that when it comes to resolutions, I think people have a tendency to set their sights too high, to pick a goal for a 12-month period that is rarely sustainable for more than a few weeks.  Change is an iterative process, and if we’ve never done something very well before, it is rare that we can go from not doing something to doing it well every day. By setting ourselves up like that, by saying “I am never going to lose my temper with my kids,” instead of saying “I’m going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,” we fail to set up enough small victories to keep fuel in our tanks. In measured steps, I think anything is possible, but in huge bounds, as least for me, the hit rate is not always as good.

Cell phoneThis year, there’s a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Eric’s and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently – when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her – she was so phenomenally, well, phenomenal, and I loved being able to take a snapshot and immediately send it off to her grandparents or her dad. When Chaya was born, it seemed harmless to hand the iPhone over to Ruthie to play a shape-sorting game so I could buy five minutes and finish nursing in peace. And when we try to track down two or three friends at the hectic gate at the zoo, its great to have the tool of texting to save five minutes of searching with two hot kids hanging around my neck.

But despite its innocent beginnings, it is still getting in the way. Too often I catch myself taking the phone out to snap a photo of the girls and accidentally being caught up in an email that really could wait until nap time for a response. Or I complain about not having time to talk with Eric, and then get distracted by a news alert on the phone during our ten minutes of quiet together before bedtime. So how can I blame Ruthie for asking for a video more than I think she should, or begrudge Chaya’s fascination with the lit-up screen of the phone when the alarm sounds in the morning?

It’s not that the touchscreen has no place in my girls’ development – I believe that their comfort with technology will play a role in their future academic and professional success. And in my own childhood memories, anything that parents forbid became an obsession, so I think parenting around technology should be about limit setting rather than prohibitions. Truthfully, though, after reading lots of blogs and articles about unplugging (see introductory note), I don’t know what those limits should be.

So here’s our resolution, or perhaps experiment: This year, we are unplugging on Shabbat. Eric and I started talking a couple of months ago about the technology issue, but unplugging every day sounds like a bound to me, something so grand that we’d quickly fall short and taste progress-deterring failure. I started to ponder a middle ground – a set of small steps – and as the High Holidays approached, I realized that that small step is handed to me by Jewish tradition. Shabbat is not just a day of rest – it is a chance to practice a different way of living, and a different way of being as a family. So committing to do something differently 1/7 of our year is a natural thing to do as a Jew, and a great way to try on this no-technology thing.

I am not a dummy, and I know that tons of Jews have been doing this forever – that many believe we are not fulfilling the commandment by using electricity at all on Shabbat. But we are not becoming Shomer Shabbos – that’s not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids “Cell phones and computers off because we don’t use any electricity on Shabbat,” I am going to try this on: “Cell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,” to sing our own songs, tell each other our own stories, play games that require sharing a game board or using our bodies.

I see this experiment as twofold. First, I hope it lets us see how we like life without technology, and to inform what the best limits are for our family. As I said before, I don’t anticipate our final rule will forbid technology, but I hope that living without it for a controlled period every week will help us figure out how much we’d like to live without it over the course of a whole week. And second, I hope it will teach us some new things about how we want to be on Shabbat. Maybe we’ll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe we’ll love it and next year will decide to turn something else off for 24 hours.

The initial rules are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV – landline is OK.  We’ll see how it goes, and hopefully I’ll let you know on this blog.

What do you think? Have you tried this, or do you have a different resolution? How do you make Shabbat a different day than the other six?

Pray for Rain

The drought and high temperatures have caused large sections of our pond to evaporate.

My family is looking forward to Sukkot after the serious work of the Days of Awe. As I wrote about in my essay Beyond the Lulav and the Etrog, it is an easy holiday for my interfaith family to embrace. It emphasizes the concept of gratitude, a universal sentiment that is prized by many faiths and people, including those who subscribe to no religious tradition, and it directly connects to my family’s daily life.

We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each other’s work maintaining our garden space – Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammy’s assistance. During the holiday we give thanks for the produce we produce and the elements of nature that enabled us to grow such a delicious bounty.

This year we are especially thankful because Texas is in the third year of drought with most of the state experiencing severe to extreme conditions. We see the effects of the water shortage in the cracked soil surrounding our tomatoes and okra, and in our dry rain gauge. We also notice the impact of the weather on our neighborhood pond, which has large areas where most of the water has evaporated.

Recently, while walking our dog near the pond Sammy gasped when he noticed the water level. “Mommy, look at the pond!” he exclaimed. “There is almost no water in some areas. What’s going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!”

“I heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isn’t feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,” I said.

Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, “I’m really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?”

“Short of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rain…actually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?” I asked.

“No.”

“According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year when God judges the world for rainfall. The Water Drawing Ceremony, conducted in ancient Israel each morning during the holiday, asked for God’s blessing for an abundant rainy season,” I explained.

“What was the ceremony like?”

“It was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Temple’s Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.”

“Well, I learned to make rain at camp,” he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. “But that’s not a ceremony and let’s face it, it won’t fill the pond with water.” He thought for a moment and then said, “I know, the next time it is supposed to rain we can put buckets outside in different areas of the yard and collect rain. Then we can bring the buckets over to the pond and pour the water into it helping to fill it up again. It can be our own Water Drawing Ceremony!”

Water used to connect one bank of the pond to an island. Today little water remains.

“I like that idea,” I said.

“Me too,” Sammy replied. “I feel better knowing that we’re going to help.”

This year as you celebrate in the sukkah and give thanks for the abundance that fills your plate remember the precious natural resources that helped to make your meal possible. Show some appreciation for them too and please, don’t forget to pray for rain.