My Kid’s Love/Hate Relationship with Hebrew School

  

By Melissa Henriquez

Leaving for school

Every Sunday morning as I practically drag my 6-year old out of bed to go to Hebrew School, I’m reminded of the final scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Toula’s own daughter has turned six and is begrudgingly headed off to … where else?! Greek school.

Like Toula’s daughter and Toula before her, and Toula’s mother before her (and so on and so forth) my daughter knows she must to go to her own version of Greek School — she just doesn’t “want” to.

Personally, I began Hebrew School in third grade. Because I wish I’d started earlier, we enrolled my daughter when she started kindergarten last fall. I wanted her to have a better sense of Jewish community than I did growing up and an earlier start to Jewish learning. Since Hebrew School goes from 9:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m. every Sunday for all ages, it’s admittedly a hefty time commitment for the short-attention-spanned kindergartners–but it is what it is. Fortunately for us, Hebrew School overlaps when my (Catholic) husband normally goes to mass, anyway, so it’s not that my daughter is missing much family time–and it’s given me precious, special one-on-one time with my 3-year-old son.

It’s not that she doesn’t like Hebrew School once she’s there–she has adorable little friends, they sing, they have music class, they bake and participate in a mini-service. They do art projects and learn their Hebrew letters, colors and numbers. She learns about Jewish customs, history and holidays–and I love that now she peppers me now with questions about Judaism. Because she’d learned about Passover and the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, she asked me if I was a slave because I was Jewish (hoo boy!). I love seeing her little mind work and how she asks me who else in her world is Jewish, as well as who is not (her grandpa, her daddy, 99% of her friends).

But let’s be honest: while being Jewish is something I take deep pride in, it isn’t easy by any means. And it’s definitely not easy for a 6-year-old kid who just wants to stay home in her PJs, read, color and ride her bike on Sunday mornings, especially when all of her friends from school are Christian, and only a handful are regular Sunday church-goers.

I know first-hand how hard it can be to be “different”–to be one of just a few Jewish kids in my school and the only Jew among my close friends. I remember the pangs of sadness I felt having to miss a huge cheerleading competition in eighth grade that fell on my bat mitzvah day. I desperately wanted to be in two places at once, but could not.

Looking ahead, I know my daughter will face similar situations; it’s inevitable that Jewish life and sports/activities will at some point collide, and Judaism will often need to be the priority, as it was for me. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the significance of those sacrifices, and I hope she will, too. But whatever she thinks or decides about Judaism as an adult, I want her to at least understand it, and that’s why we’re doing this.

This first year of formal religious school has been a real adjustment for our little family, and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t all looking forward to summer break when we will have free Sunday mornings again. But all in all, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a great learning experience and I’ve been thrilled at the beginnings of her Jewish education. And come September, I think our soon-to-be-first-grader will be excited to go back to a familiar school where she has a newfound sense of belonging.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

headshotMelissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (6) and Ben (3).  By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.

Three Jewish Values to Teach Your Kids

  

sharing flowers

Ah, yes, it’s summer at last. Time, maybe, to wind down a little bit and contemplate some bigger-picture lessons that get lost in the shuffle during the school year. We talked to Rabbi Jillian Cameron of Newton’s InterfaithFamily, which supports interfaith families in embracing Jewish life, about three important Jewish values that kids should absorb as early as possible. Nothing big or daunting, just simple lessons to instill in everyday moments.

Compassion and respect

“We’re all created in the image of God,” says Cameron. “We’re each special and unique, but we’re also connected through a larger image of something greater, whether people look or act like us, or are different. We’re all worthy of respect.”

This can be tough for little kids to grasp: Why does one kid have two moms, and another has a mom and a dad? Why do some kids get to go to summer camp, and others can’t afford to go? Kids tend to define themselves by their visible differences, not by their unseen similarities, so they need some prompting.

Since this concept is abstract, Cameron recommends tying similarities to a real-life example through a story, like playing with a friend from a different country. “You have white skin and your friend has dark skin, but you both love ‘Despicable Me,’ right?” The more you can make those connections for your kids now, the less scary differences will be as they get older.

Shalom (peace)

Ah, peace. This can be elusive when your kids are bickering over who ate the last cookie, or who gets to sit by the window on the car ride to the beach, or who’s taller or…you name it.

In this case, Cameron recommends “going big.” Instead of begging your kids not to fight (ha!), try to help them think about peace on a larger scale.

“Get them talking: What does peace look like for you? When do you feel peaceful? Is it when you’re falling asleep? What makes you feel at peace? Is it living in a comfortable home or having toys to play with? How can you help create that for yourself, for your friends and for the whole world?”

Make them part of the big-picture solution, instead of admonishing them. If they realize how important peace is on a bigger scale, they might be more likely to think about how it applies to their own lives, too.

Tzedakah (charity)

It’s never too early to teach your kids the importance of charitable giving. While Jewish tradition holds that we should give 10 percent of our income to charity, kids don’t need to worry about that. At this stage, it’s more about seeing charity with their own eyes, like visiting a shelter to drop off toys or a soup kitchen and helping out.

Kids benefit from participating in these hands-on, real-world experiences far more than hearing about them. Offer your child experiences where he or she can see their impact firsthand.

“It’s not just about giving money. It’s about thinking of how to create a more just world,” Cameron says. “Instead of thinking about helping others in terms of financial giving, think about it as giving back a part of your life. There’s action involved in justice; we can’t rest on our laurels.”

The earlier your kids see that their actions can make a difference, the easier it will be to make giving back a habit.

Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com

Does Religion Dictate Where We Send our Daughter to Preschool?

  

dropping daughter off at daycare

I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.

It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?

With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.

My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, “Raising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,” to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.

The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether they’d had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a “Yes, we’ve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.”

We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noah’s ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.

I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own family’s celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular school’s curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.

In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:

What special days do you celebrate in your family?
How would you like our program to be involved in your celebration?
What are some of the myths/stereotypes about your culture that you would like us to understand so as not to perpetuate them?
How do you feel about celebrations at the center that are not part of your family’s tradition?
What kinds of things can we do to celebrate our center as an inclusive human community?

This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.

Bringing Some Dharma to My Jewish-Catholic Household

  

Insomnia. It’s awful and I’ve never had it before. Until now.

Part of this has to do with me getting pregnant again shortly after a miscarriage. Another part has to do with the anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness, joy and gratitude I feel approaching motherhood for the second time. The second time is different, of course. With a toddler at home the exhaustion level of pregnancy is overwhelming. This is how I found myself a few weeks ago at two in the morning with the refrigerator door open asking myself, “What else can I eat?” After making my way through a bag of potato chips, a bowl of cherries and the rest of a half-eaten Kit-Kat bar, I get the feeling I should be doing something else…like meditating.

A long time ago I worked at a yoga studio. I was the desk girl and I would check people in and only occasionally take a yoga class. But, on Wednesday mornings they would have a meditation group and I would go and sit in the middle of the sunny studio and listen to a woman in a long kimono tell me to relax. It was relaxing, though not at first. At first there was total panic. Why couldn’t I turn my brain off? Why did everything else seem more important than just sitting with myself for 30 minutes? Eventually I got better at it. But, at two in the morning I feel a need to sit down with myself again.

My household is a testament to two faiths being able to coexist peacefully and even intertwine and become something even more beautiful than what they already are. A walk through my apartment will reveal the Jewish and Catholic aspects of my family’s life. There are prayers for the home in Hebrew at the entrance. A mezuzah in the doorframe and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe protecting my daughter’s bed while she sleeps. At two in the morning I look to all of these objects in order to steady my thoughts.

The Dalai Lama calls Buddhism not a religion but a “science of the mind.” So on my way back from the fridge I grab a pillow from the couch and sit on it in the lotus position hoping that Buddhism will help me in my Jewish/Catholic home. I want to stay calm. I want my thoughts to stop if only for a minute. I also want to relax so that I can finally get some sleep!

The pillow is uncomfortable. My already growing belly feels smashed. I forget the pillow and sit on the floor. The floor is too hard. My back hurts. Those potato chips were a bad idea. I lie on the floor. The carpet is too itchy, and so on and so forth for the next ten minutes. I exceed Julia Roberts’ performance in Eat, Pray Love. Meditating is hard.

I decide to commit to sitting in a chair for at least ten minutes every day and trying to quiet my mind. I look up mantras and then I realize that I can use any mantra I want. I’m part of an interfaith family! I can use a prayer, a word or even a saying. I choose something that I’ve been saying before bed since I was a little girl. “Shema Yisrael,” the prayer in Hebrew of “Hear O’ Israel.” Traditionally said before one goes to sleep I repeat it over and over again breathing in and out and trying to focus on my breath and the sound of the words.

By 4 o’clock in the morning I’m still awake. At 6 a.m. I fall asleep. My daughter wakes up at 9:30. But, I keep saying the Shema. Every night when I can’t fall asleep I sit upright in a chair, close my eyes and invoke Israel’s name. Every night it gets easier. Some nights it actually puts me to bed.

I think about that prayer and the way I learned it. It was not taught in my house but in my school when I was a child. This gets me thinking about my daughter and my child to come. How beautiful faith in something, anything is. That a prayer so etched in my memory can come to me when I need peace and quiet. It makes me happy that my daughter and my future children will have a plethora of prayers to choose from. There is the Jewish “Shema,” there is a Catholic prayer of St. Francis that I love which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” and then there are the Buddhist prayers for loving-kindness or forgiveness.

One night I try a specific meditation in which one is supposed to meditate on a difficult situation one is having and then replace oneself with a saint or a holy being like Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I do this thinking that of course mother Teresa will show up in my mind’s eye. But, as soon as I close my eyes it’s not Mother Teresa at all. It’s my Grandma Rosie and she’s holding a bowl of chicken soup. So I say, “Grandma, what are you doing here?” She says, “I heard you couldn’t sleep so I made you some soup.” I laugh when I open my eyes.

The next night I make the family my Grandmother’s chicken soup. I kiss the Hebrew prayer on my wall, I kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe and I kiss Guadalupe. That night I sleep like a baby. Sometimes faith, any faith begins right at the kitchen stove.

Naming Our Past, Present & Future

  
Baby naming ceremony

Quinn receiving her Hebrew name

Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.

A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and are not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinn’s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.

Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone when we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.

It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberly’s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she is going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.

We closed this memorable day by reading this special poem:

“We didn’t give you the gift of life,

But in our hearts we know.                                                                                          

The love we feel is deep and real,                                                                               

As if it had been so.                                                                                                     

For us to have each other,                                                                                         

Is like a dream come true!                                                                                           

No, we didn’t give you the gift of life,                                                                           

Life gave us the gift of you.”

-Unknown