A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Do I Need to Censor the Word “Jeez?”

My 9-year-old son, Sammy, was bursting to tell me something after his robotics class the other day. I assumed it was about his class activities, so I was surprised when the first thing he told me was this:

“I was working with my partner to design something in a computer program and I made a mistake. I said, ‘Oh, jeez’ because I was annoyed that I needed to redo my work. My partner says, ‘Don’t speak The Boy’s name in vain!’ I looked at him like he was crazy. All I said was ‘jeez.’ I didn’t say Jesus or Jesus Christ, but that’s what he thought I meant. I also didn’t understand why he used ‘The Boy’ to refer to Jesus.”

I have to admit, I was as dumbstruck as Sammy, and I rolled my eyes at this only-in-the-Bible-Belt moment. When I shared the story with my husband, who was raised in a Christian home, his reaction was the same. Neither of us had ever heard anyone take offense to the word “jeez” or use “The Boy” to describe Jesus. Our Christian family and friends have always used “jeez” in the same way that Sammy did–to express surprise or annoyance.

I never imagined that we might have to censor a word that we felt was simply an innocent expression of shock or frustration. I could think of many other four-letter words that Sammy could use to express the same emotions that I’d never want to come out of his mouth.

But I’m also a Jew. I know that words can have negative and hurtful meanings. I reconsidered my give-me-a-break response.

Maybe Sammy did say something offensive. Maybe “The Boy” is a common way to describe Jesus. I decided that since we live in the Bible Belt, I had better find out. I headed for the dictionary and computer to see what I could learn in hopes of preventing us all from making any more offensive remarks.

Various dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster defined “jeez” as an interjection used as a mild oath or introductory expletive used to express surprise, astonishment, disappointment, etc. All of the entries noted that it was a euphemism for Jesus first used in the 1920s. I understood why Sammy’s partner thought using the term was taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I also found a discussion on LDS.net, a site affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ about whether or not to chastise a person for saying “jeez.” Some commenters believed they should because Mormons are taught to avoid the use of any sensitive words or similar sounding substitutes in speech including gosh, dang, shoot, jeez, etc. Others felt that they should only admonish people when the words are said with intent to offend.

One person said if the speaker does not consider the word “to be a shortened form of taking the name of the Lord in vain, but instead” considers it a nonsense “exclamation then there is” no reason to chastise.

But someone else pointed out that all substitute words are offensive including gee whiz, geez, goodness, and jeepers because they are based on the offensive word. After reading the debate, all I could say was, “Oy vey.”

Regarding the use of “The Boy” to refer to Jesus, I found nothing. There was a religious school lesson plan on the LDS website called “Jesus Christ was a Child like Me.” The purpose of it was “to strengthen children’s desire to be like Jesus Christ by increasing their knowledge of Jesus’ childhood.” Maybe that’s where the term came from. Or maybe it came from the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. In Trinitarian Christianity, God is referred to as “The Father.” Since “boy” can mean “son,” it follows that “The Boy” could mean Jesus.

After spending a good portion of the day trying to understand the reaction of Sammy’s partner, I decided that you could go crazy trying to scrub your speech so that no group is offended. Since that is nearly impossible to do, especially for a child, it made me ask: Where do we draw the line? How do we, with our limited knowledge of every religious, ethnic, and cultural group, know what is and is not disrespectful? How do we, in a hypersensitive environment, prevent ourselves from being forced into silence by our fear that we might offend someone?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that I don’t want my child to be afraid to speak.

I’m not going to tell Sammy never to use the word “jeez” given the context in which he used it. But I am going to reinforce what we’ve taught him about offensive speech: don’t use stereotypes, don’t use speech that attacks an individual or group on the basis of a trait or characteristic, don’t use language to disparage or intimidate, apologize if you unintentionally offend someone and learn from the incident.

In the meantime, I told Sammy that the next time he gets annoyed or frustrated in class, just say, “Oy vey!”

I Stand with Israel

As I left the gym early this morning, I walked past a TV showing an MSNBC interview with the Israeli Counsel General in New York. I paused to read the closed captions at the bottom of the screen and then made my way to my car.

While Israel has been on my mind for weeks, I have kept my thoughts about what is going on at a distance, and focused more on the pictures of my son enjoying his last weeks of overnight camp. But by late afternoon yesterday, I could no longer push away Israel. Two things drew me in:

A friend, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah, posted about her experience in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on Facebook. She wrote, “A peaceful stroll…turned scary as sirens blared and people started running towards the basement for safety.” She said a salesperson calmly told her group that they must go to the basement immediately. She commented that after no more than 10 minutes in the shelter, the mall returned to normal: “people eating, shopping, smiling, playing music…it was surreal.” She said she felt strangely unafraid, and that the experience gave her and her family a genuine appreciation for this sadly regular part of Israeli life.

Reading this post made me think about one of our 16-year-old babysitters who is in Israel on an NFTY trip. I immediately sent a text to his mom, who happens also to be a friend. I needed to know, what she had heard. She said the kids were safe and enjoying the trip. Today’s plan was for a hike up Masada and a float in the Dead Sea. She said she was staying abreast of the situation, but she was calm, hoping her son would be able to complete his journey in peace and safety. She said that other parents were concerned and wanted to bring their children home before the trip’s scheduled end.

These two situations got me more engaged because they touched people I know. But they also moved me to verbalize my support. I stand with Israel.

I stand with Israel, not out of blind obedience to my people, or because I believe all Israel’s actions to be just. I stand with Israel, as I stand with the United States–sometimes with a critical eye, always with a loving heart.

How I feel about Israel mirrors how I feel about this country. I am proud of her accomplishments yet disappointed by some of her policies; frustrated by her politics but unwilling to disengage from the discussion of the issues; angry at the rhetoric of some government officials or the behavior of some of her citizens, but reluctant to give up my allegiance.

Israel is not perfect, nor is any country. Like all human societies, she fights to balance moral excellence and self-defense. As Paul Johnson writes in the epilogue to his 1987 bestselling book A History of the Jews (read it, if you haven’t already), Israel was “founded to realize a humanitarian ideal,” and discovered “in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.”

Combining moral authority with, as Johnson says, “the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself,” is not an easy task, especially when the eyes of the world are watching–closely, very closely. Israel is threatened by rockets, and as Ed Case, states on the IFF Network blog, “by negative opinion and vilification around the world.” It is important to support her and efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully.

So here is why I stand with Israel:

I stand with Israel because of the good she does and the hope she embodies. I stand with Israel because of the ideals she represents and the safe haven she provides. I stand with Israel because I dare to hope for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.

A Reminder to Diligently Teach Our Children

Sammy's first letter from camp simply fulfilled his promise to my husband.

Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.

“Daddy says I have to write to you once a week. I’m going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”

“We would love to hear from you while you’re away,” I said, “but we also know that if we don’t get a letter it’s because you’re having a great time.”

“That’s what I told Daddy!”

“Sammy, it’s up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. We’d love to get an update on what you’re doing, but it’s your choice. It’s not a big deal if you don’t write.”

I don’t like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of camp–no news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.

But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.

As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.

She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriend’s mother, or if she should “put her foot down” before it’s too late.

I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, “The Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesn’t require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parents’ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.

As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameron’s request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy “putting his foot down.” I thought, “How can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriend’s mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?”

I couldn’t. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. “You know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?”

“Yeah,” said Sammy.

‘Well, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.

We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, “Maybe I’ll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kid’s to brush his teeth!”

“You can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,” I said.

I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was – an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.

While his second letter home was a little silly, Sammy did thank us for sending him to camp.

In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach God’s words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicit–“This is what the Torah says.” We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.

The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I don’t expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully I’ll be mindful enough to grab them more often.

And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.

Community: It’s What Makes Camp Special

My feeling that the community is what makes camp special was reinforced when we dropped-off our son.

Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer camp’s specialness came from its sense of community and that feeling was recently reinforced when my husband and I brought our son to camp last week.

On the two-hour drive home after drop-off, my husband and I talked about camp and what makes the one we’ve chosen for our son such a wonderful experience for our family. As we talked, one word kept coming up: community.

We all have many communities that we are a part of including neighborhoods, synagogues, workplaces, schools, volunteer organizations, social media, and ethnic and cultural associations to name a few. But while my family finds connection and fellowship through many of these outlets, there is something unique about our son’s camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, “We have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.”

Now, this is not an advertisement for my son’s camp, but I do think our experience is worth considering as you look at and evaluate camps for your child. Here are several things that make our son’s camp community remarkable:

1) Community is built before opening day. A connection to camp is nurtured months and weeks before a child (and family) arrives for the summer. New families are matched with existing camp families in their area who have children in the same age group. The seasoned campers act as buddies for the freshman, welcoming them into the camp family and getting them excited for the summer. The families form relationships too and parents of existing campers become a resource for first time moms and dads.

Another way community is created pre-camp is through The Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My son’s camp brings the Israeli staff to the US several weeks before the start of summer for training.

When the Israeli staffers arrive, they spend two to three days with a camp family before traveling to camp for training and summer prep. This creates a beautiful home-camp connection. The families welcome the Israeli staff to Texas and the camp community, and in the 48 to 72 hour period, relationships are formed between the counselors and the families, deepening everyone’s bond with camp.

We have been a host family for the past two years. It has been a great experience, especially for our son who greeted “our Israelis” with huge embraces on opening day.

2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our son’s camp is that the experience is a family affair. While there is a tremendous focus on developing a child’s relationship to other campers, counselors, and the camp itself, the camp also works to make the entire family a part of the community.

Camp starts on a Sunday, which allows parents to drop off their kids. This gives families a chance to experience the beginning of camp together, to visit the facilities, and meet the staff and other parents. Because of this opportunity to participate in the start of camp, we have developed relationships with the families of our son’s bunkmates and stay in touch with them throughout the year.

On opening day, parents and campers reconnect in the field outside the camp gates while they wait to check in. In between lines of cars are clusters of parents and children, greeting each other with hugs, talking, laughing, and catching-up on each other’s lives. Parents are encouraged to stay for lunch to continue the bonding. I think my husband and I had as much fun on opening day as my son did!

3) Audacious hospitality is practiced. One of the most notable things about our son’s camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the camp’s DNA and is embodied in the phrase, “Welcome to camp!”

The family guide begins with “Welcome to GFC.” Counselors and campers yell out, “Welcome to camp” in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty “Welcome to camp” when you arrive. Campers welcome visitors in the same way, without a counselor asking them to.

You might think that this phrase sounds canned and insincere, but it’s neither. It’s simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And it’s contagious.

At lunch on opening day, my husband and I sat with a couple that was sending their child to overnight camp for the first time. Neither parent grew-up in Texas or had a prior connection to camp. When they told us this we said, “Welcome to camp!” We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to “our Israelis” and other people we knew who stopped by our table. I’m sure that if their child continues at camp, that one day this couple will welcome another new family in the same way.

This community is a big reason why we chose this camp for our son. We like the super-sized (or Texas-sized) Jewish welcome, as do many kinds of Jewish families including inmarried, intermarried, multi-cultural, LGBT, and more. There is something special about hearing someone say, “Welcome to camp!”

As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. It’s what makes camp special.

Community is created pre-camp when Israeli staff arrive before the start of summer and stay with a camp family, creating a home-camp connection.

Make Jewish Behavior Contagious, Hire Jewish Babysitters

 

One of Sammy's favorite babysitters recently returned from a semester in Israel. When he's old enough, Sammy wants to do a similar program.

One of the things I’ve learned about being a parent is that while my husband and I are our son’s primary role models and key influencers of the choices he makes, raising a child is a communal effort. Teachers, coaches, siblings, camp counselors, clergy, extended family, babysitters, and peers play a part in shaping who and what our child will become.

Cameron and I often talk about how fortunate we are to have found many excellent teachers and coaches for our son Sammy. Over the years, they have helped to nurture his love of learning, bolstered his confidence and self-image, and reinforced the values and behaviors that we work to instill at home. 

But some of the most influential people in Sammy’s life are not the adults or family members he interacts with, or even his peers, but rather his teenage and young adult babysitters. For Sammy, our first and only child, these young people are like older siblings and the influence they exert on him is significant.

This isn’t surprising. Recent research has shown that older siblings are often more influential than parents. While many studies focus on how bad behavior by older siblings foreshadows similarly bad behavior by younger ones, findings also suggest that older siblings’ good behavior can be just as contagious.

We’re lucky, the kids – well kids to me – who sit for Sammy are mensches. A mensch has rectitude, dignity, and a sense of what is right. It is a person to admire and emulate. What makes this Yiddish word a fitting description of our sitters is that they also all happen to be Jewish.

The hiring of Jewish babysitters was coincidental. We were connected to them through friends, teachers, rabbis, and acquaintances at our synagogue. This access to teens and twenty-somethings with strong characters and a desire to earn a few dollars watching children has been a fringe benefit of temple membership.

Over the years our sitters have shown Sammy how to interact with adults and children in positive ways, be responsible, respectful, and goal- and achievement-oriented. They have nurtured his love of reading, architecture, and sports; and encouraged creativity and physical activity.

This accidental Jewish babysitter pool also has, through their actions and choices, fostered Sammy’s connection to Judaism. These Jewish teens and young adults show Sammy that there is more to living Jewishly than services, religious school, and holidays; and demonstrate that there is Jewish life post-bar mitzvah.

For example, our teen sitters have all continued or are in the process of continuing their Jewish education through confirmation. They attend or attended Jewish summer camp. They play baseball in the JCC Maccabi Games, a yearly Olympic-style sports competition for Jewish teenagers in North America. They travel to Israel.

One is active in his campus Hillel and is a founding member of a Jewish fraternity at his university. Another teaches in our synagogue’s religious school, sits on its board of directors, and is involved with the temple’s young adult group.

Hearing about all of these Jewish experiences is making an impression on Sammy. He tells us that he wants to engage in Judaism in similar ways.

When one of Sammy’s favorite sitters told us he would spend the spring semester of his junior year on the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program, Sammy announced that he would do the same. After this teen returned home and shared his experience, it intensified Sammy’s desire to go.

Listening to another talk about participating in the staff-training program at the Jewish summer camp that both he and Sammy attend caused Sammy to state that he too will be working as an Avodah when he is old enough. Knowing that another teen that helps us will be traveling to Israel with his family next summer on our synagogue’s trip is one reason why Sammy is eager to go.

I love that Sammy has Jewish young people to look up to because, as a kid, I didn’t. I lived in a town with only a handful of Jews, didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, and didn’t have any Jewish babysitters.

The closest person in my life to a Jewish older sibling was my youth group advisor, who was married with young children. While he encouraged me to participate in youth activities, taught me the importance of social justice, and nurtured my connection to Israel, he was not participating in Jewish activities that could be part of my Jewish experience in the near term.

I also didn’t meet him until I was in high school. Sammy has had young Jewish role models in his life since age four, exposing him to Jewish activities that he will have the opportunity to do in the coming years–youth group, Israel, confirmation, working at Jewish summer camp, and participating in high school and college programs. He plans to be very busy.

With all of the talk in the Jewish community about encouraging Jewish engagement, maybe what we need is a corps of Jewish babysitters who play the role of older siblings for our children. I know that I worry less about Sammy making Jewish choices when he gets older because of the teens that help us.

If you want to make Jewish life contagious, ask your Jewish friends, acquaintances, and fellow temple members if they know any Jewish teens or young adults interested in babysitting. It will not only give you the opportunity to spend an evening with your spouse or partner, but it will also be an investment in you children’s Jewish future.

Church, State, and Jewish Engagement

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening prayers at government meetings, even if predominately Christian, do not violate the Constitution. How do Jewish and Jewish interfaith families prepare to confront the mixing of church and state?

I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.

In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.  

The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider. 

The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America – adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?

Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes – they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.

As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.

All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.

Why Go to Israel

Sunset in Israel.

As we prepare to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, I find myself thinking about the land of milk and honey. I’m not dreaming of pita and falafel, or gaga or any of the other activities at my community’s Israel Independence Day celebration. I’m thinking about why travel to Israel is important.

I’ve got this on my mind for two reasons: my family is considering going on my synagogue’s Summer 2015 congregational Israel trip, and Taglit-Birthright, the nonprofit sponsor of free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults has announced that it is expanding its outreach to children with one Jewish parent who have little or no formal connection to Jewish life. But why go to Israel?

Many believe that a visit to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity that can strengthen bonds with the land and its people, spark interest in Jewish history and practices, and create solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide. The belief is that going to Israel will make Jewishness more important to a Jew, even one with a marginal connection to Jewish life.

I think this is true and it is one of the reasons why interfaith families and children of intermarriage should be encouraged to go to Israel, especially as the Jewish community seeks to get more intermarrieds to engage in Jewish life. But I also think going to Israel is like studying the humanities, it is an important part of our intellectual repertory regardless of the faith we identify with or how we do or do not practice a particular religion.

Israel’s position at the place where three continents and two seas meet made it a crossroads of ancient trade routes where various cultures, customs, and traditions mixed. Over the centuries, it has been home to many peoples and multiple religions. Touching history in Israel–ancient and modern–helps us better understand and think more deeply about the world around us. Visiting Israel provides context.

Learning about Christianity in the birthplace of Jesus, Islam in the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven, and Judaism in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah provides insight into three major faiths and background for the current state of each. Traveling to Israel, like literature, art, and philosophy challenges us to think differently–to step outside our comfort zone, to consider other perspectives, to confront our fears and prejudices, and see life’s complexities.  

I think about my experience traveling to Israel as a 16-year-old on a teen tour organized by NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth arm, and how it opened my heart and mind. I recall having emotional experiences that brought me to tears: Touching the Western Wall, standing atop Masada watching the sunrise, and the dark and somber Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem. Never before had anything Jewish moved me in this way.

I remember touring the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent Muslim holy site that is believed to enshrine the sacred rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven and asking myself if I could admire the shrine’s architectural beauty even though there was a tumultuous history of conflict between Muslim and Jews. I discovered that I was capable of separating one thing from the other.

A visit with an ultra-Orthodox woman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim and encounters with non-practicing Israelis highlighted the growing tensions between the secular, and religious–an issue that has only intensified in recent years. I remember sitting with the other girls on my trip in the woman’s apartment as she discussed her daily religious rituals and shaving her head. She told us that we were “bad” Jews because we did not live as she did. I thought who is she to judge my Jewishness.

Contrast that with our more regular encounters with secular Israelis who felt little obligation to observe Jewish rituals and practices because they lived in Israel. Living in the Jewish state was enough. They shared their dislike of the control the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate had over personal affairs such marriage, divorce, and the status of who was a Jew. The interactions with people who held two contrasting perspectives helped me understand just how important I felt the separation of church and state was and made me realize that I could love Israel but disagree with its policies.

Like many areas of the world, Israel is complicated. The Israeli-Palestinian issue and the role of religion in a democratic society challenge our liberal American Jewish values. But Israel’s complexities are precisely why I think interfaith families and their children should go to Israel. Experiencing the contradictions is part of the journey.

When we go to Israel, we discover our roots and understand our personal connection to Judaism’s past, and the Jewish people. We explore the links between the three faiths that consider the land sacred. We learn about the importance of this area in history–religious and otherwise. We gain perspective on current events–my visit took place shortly before the First Intifada and as internal politics was heating up-and our experience with art and literature is enriched–reading Alice Hoffman’s novel The Dovekeepers is different after you’ve been to Masada and walked the ancient fortress where much of the story takes place.

I hope more children of intermarriage take advantage of the opportunity presented by a Birthright trip because visiting Israel can be transformative. It can help you better understand what you believe in, and galvanize you to advocate for the change you want to see in Israel and elsewhere in the world. It can educate you about the Jewish community. What you learn on a trip can enable you to make informed choices about Israel, Judaism, faith, politics, and culture.

Why should you go to Israel? You should go because it connects you to the past and adds meaning to the present. I know, because 27 years ago it did these things for me.

Do you live in the greater Philadelphia area and want to bring your interfaith family on a memorable trip to Israel? Come join IFF/Philadelphia for an incredible opportunity to do so.

Finding a Way to Embrace the Fifth Child

The five children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, one silent and one with interfaith parents.

The other day, I received an email from an organization that supports unaffiliated and intermarried Jews encouraging me to recognize the “fifth child” at my seder. Curious about who the “fifth child” was I opened the note.

The message highlighted how Passover has long been a holiday that pushes Jews to acknowledge critical Jewish and non-Jewish issues of the day. Using the haggadah story about the four children – the wise, wicked, simple, and silent, as a foundation, the email suggested that seder facilitators explore the questions and challenges faced by a fifth child – a child of intermarriage.

A discussion guide was included, but before I opened it, I felt myself grimace – something about the child from an interfaith home being labeled the “fifth child” made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew that the material was developed with the intention of making Judaism more welcoming and I assumed that the language was scrutinized to ensure that it wasn’t offensive or exclusionary. So, why was I bothered by it? What rubbed me the wrong way?

As I considered the language of the email, I realized that a part of my discomfort stemmed from the use of the term “fifth child.” It called to mind, the negative connotations sometimes associated with “step-child.” It felt that children like my son, who come from interfaith homes, were being labeled as “other,” outsiders, not part of the larger Jewish family.

But, I didn’t want to dismiss the material based on my initial reaction, so I put aside my feelings and continued reading. After an overview of the number of Jewish children being raised in interfaith homes, the guide suggested that leaders ask seder participants, “What does the child of intermarriage ask?” The child of intermarriage asks, “What is my place in all this?”

I thought, Sammy and the other children of intermarriage in my circle would never ask this question.

I knew that they wouldn’t ask it because they already believed that the Passover story was their story. They didn’t question their place among the Jewish people. They were all raised, from birth, in single-faith Jewish homes, in a supportive temple community. They all attended Jewish preschool, and now participate in religious education and youth activities. They were sure of their Jewish identity in part because of the commitment to creating a Jewish family made by their not Jewish mom or dad.

Suggesting to these children, who come from Jewishly engaged interfaith families, that they might not have been a part of one of the defining moments in Jewish history, would be inappropriate and confusing. It would cause them to question what they see as their place among the Jewish people.

As I read further, I saw that one of the goals of the piece was to reassure children of intermarriage who were uncertain of or insecure about their Jewishness, that they, like all Jews regardless of age, background, upbringing, or parentage, had a place in the Exodus. When I realized this, I understood that this discussion was not intended for children like my son, who feel wholly Jewish and have strong Jewish identities.

Still, what I didn’t like about the content was that it reminded me that many Jews still considered a child like mine to be outside of the Jewish community. The supplement touched a sore spot that I assumed, because of our high level of Jewish engagement, no longer hurt. I thought that after a dozen years of living an interfaith and Jewish life, that I had developed a callus. Apparently, my religious skin is not as thick as I thought.

But, after considering the information some more, I found the supplement’s value. I saw how it could encourage thoughtful and constructive dialogue about interfaith relationships, and how it could start a conversation about the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in communal forums such as committee meetings and outreach workshops, and at holiday tables with participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds, affiliations, and observance levels. I saw how, if used in the right setting, it could produce robust discourse.

One of the things that helped to change my feelings was an article I found on Chabad.org explaining the four children. Included in the essay, was the concept of a fifth child. It quoted the denomination’s former leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who said 37 years ago, that there was “another kind of a Jewish child,” one who was absent from the seder, not interested or not aware of the Exodus or Torah. Schneerson went on to state that this child presented the biggest challenge to the Jewish community but that regardless of how difficult it was, every effort should be made to bring the absentee child to the seder table because “no Jewish child should be forgotten” or “given up” on.

The Rebbe, as he was known to his followers, makes a valid point, one that may be even more valid today given the number of unaffiliated, “Just Jewish,” or non-traditional – interfaith, LGBTQ, multicultural – Jews. Yet, sadly, there are some who want to forget or give-up on Jewishly different children, especially those from interfaith homes.

What the fifth child is really about is welcoming the stranger (see Jessie Boatright’s recent blog), and making a place for part-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, or Jewishly unengaged interfaith children at seder tables in order to encourage them and their families to explore Judaism or live a more Jewish life. That is a message I can embrace. The haggadah supplement isn’t the right fit for my Passover guests, but I’m no longer bothered by it.

The Lord of the Rings’ Passover Connection

The third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy triggered a discussion about Pharaoh and Passover.

My son Sammy and I have a tradition – we read a novel together on the weeknights during dinner. Usually, the book has themes or ideas that are targeted to a child several years older than Sammy, making it helpful to have an adult with whom to discuss the book. Over the years, we have read the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit to name a few.

The other night, we were nearing the end of The Return of the King, the last book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had reached the part when the primary protagonist, the hobbit Frodo Baggins, returns to his homeland, the Shire, after succeeding in his quest to destroy the One Ring of power. He finds that the area has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman who was defeated during the War of the Ring by Frodo’s companions.

In an act of revenge, Saruman enslaves and oppresses the hobbits and moves to destroy the natural beauty of the countryside. When Frodo discovers what he has done, he confronts him and orders him to leave the shire forever. But the other hobbits want Saruman to be killed for the murderous and villainous acts he has committed. Frodo will not allow it, saying, “I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way.”

As Saruman leaves, he passes Frodo and stabs him with a knife. Frodo is wearing an armored coat, so the knife breaks. Even though Frodo is unharmed, a group of hobbits lurches forward trying to kill Saruman, but Frodo stops them. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

As I read this section, Sammy interrupted. “I can’t believe he didn’t kill Saruman!”

“Do you think he should have killed him?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, and paused to think about his answer.

“Consider the situation in the context of Passover, which we’re about to celebrate,” I said. “Do you think drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea changed Pharaoh’s evil ways?”

“Probably not,” Sammy said. “Killing all of the firstborns didn’t either and it also punished innocent Egyptians.”

“You’re right. As we think about the plagues and fate of the Egyptians at the sea, we have to ask, does one crime justify another? Frodo doesn’t think so, he says it’s useless and doesn’t heal anything. His language suggests that he believes it just perpetuates anger and hate.”

“I think Frodo was right to show mercy to Saruman because I think if the hobbits killed him, then Saruman would have been allowed to escape from his crimes,” Sammy said. “By letting him go he has to live without the power he once had and with the knowledge of what he has done. This is, in a way, a punishment too.”

“I agree, and I think Frodo and Saruman recognize this also.”

“How so?” Sammy asked.

In answer to his question, I read the next section.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!’

“Saruman is like Pharaoh in that his heart is so hardened that he has lost all ability to change, and, therefore, any chance at ever really being free. Sometimes making someone carry the burden of their wrongful actions is the harshest punishment,” I said.

After dinner, I could tell that Sammy was still considering our discussion, and I suspect that he will continue to think about it over the next few weeks as we celebrate the holiday. The convergence of epic high fantasy and Torah has made the issues and questions raised in the Passover story more relevant to his 9-year-old world. That is a good thing. Because the more he sees how his everyday secular life intersects with his Jewish life, the more salient Judaism and his connection to it will be.

I did not plan to link the fictional narrative created by Tolkien to Passover or Judaism. It just happened. The key to making these kinds of Jewish connections is in recognizing and being open to these opportunities, and then seizing them when they present themselves.