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Before I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.
I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.
My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.
By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, â€śBy the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,â€ť he was OK with what I put together.
Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.
What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.
â€śTheyâ€™re not going to come,â€ť he said.
â€śSo what? We can invite them so that they feel included,â€ť I responded.
â€śThey wonâ€™t know what a bar mitzvah is.â€ť
â€śSammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they havenâ€™t, they know Jewish people to ask.â€ť
â€śThey will think that we are asking for gifts.â€ť
“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”
â€śI donâ€™t want to invite them.â€ť
Exasperated by my husbandâ€™s response, I said, â€śIâ€™m calling your parents!â€ť I assumed theyâ€™d be more reasonable.
They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.
I contrasted my husband and his parentsâ€™ response to my motherâ€™s. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.
“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”
My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.
I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.
Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.
I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.
With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.
Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.
Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.
Itâ€™s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkinâ€™s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.
Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.
Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.
There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.
I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?
I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.
I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.
These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. Iâ€™d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.
Last Friday morning I took my cup of coffee and my smoothie outside to my patio. I sunk into an Adirondack chair with my cup of Joe, breakfast, and the newspaper. It was early. I had finished my workout, my husband was asleep, and my son was at overnight camp. It was just the dog and me enjoying a few moments of peace before I got ready for work.
As I finished the paper and savored my last few sips of coffee, I felt a calmness wash over me. Hmmâ€¦I thought, a little bit of Shabbat to start my day. A preview of what was to come when the sun set. I peeled myself out of the chair and headed inside to shower.
While I was getting dressed, I remembered a video that my sonâ€™s camp made a few years ago. There was a shot of Kabbalat Shabbat services. A teen camper was speaking about what camp had meant to her over the years and how it was unlike any of her year-round experiences. As she concluded her remarks, she said, “Camp is the Shabbat of the year.” I smiled at the thought. The girl was right; camp was the Shabbat of the year for kids and parents.
Iâ€™m not suggesting that Shabbat with my son isnâ€™t special. On the contrary, it is the most meaningful and connective family experience of the week. Our daily lives are so hectic as we juggle work, school, sports and extracurricular activities that striking the match to light candles feels like crossing a finish line. We all relax into the evening, talk about things other than family logistics and linger over dinner so long, that I often find myself shocked to see that itâ€™s after 10 pm. Because of the magic of our family Shabbat, I guard our Friday nights. With few exceptions, we rarely deviate from our routine.
But the three-and-a-half weeks that my son is away at camp is deeply connective and spiritual in a different way. It is said, that to be an effective parent, we must take time for self-care and to care for our relationship with our spouse or partner. Often the time we take for ourselves consists of an hour workout, watching TV or reading after the kids go to bed, occasionally catching up with a friend over dinner or lunch or a little time at the spa or salon. The time we reconnect with our partner is called “date night” and is a couple of hours spent in a dark movie theater or talking mostly about our kids and plans. These moments are passable. They give us a pause or a break but are not especially rejuvenating.
The slower pace of our life when our son is at camp gives us time to be with friends without rushing to get to the next activity. It gives me a chance to spend some time each day with myself, alone in thought without distraction or just daydreaming, rather than thinking about the next appointment on my calendar. It gives my husband and me the opportunity every night to talk, not about what the plan is for the next day or who is picking our son up from sports practice, but about life, family, relationships, politics and more. It reminds me of our pre-child years and all the reasons I fell in love with my husband.
It would be difficult to celebrate the daily Shabbat moments that my husband and I enjoy when our son is away if our son wasn’t safe and happy. This time is guilt-free because of the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing that our son is in a place that he considers sacred space with staff and kids who he thinks of as family.
Ten days before camp, we were in Austin for a water polo tournament. On the drive home, we passed the camp exit. When we saw it, I asked my son if he was looking forward to going. He said, “I can’t wait. Three-and-a-half weeks of FREEDOM! It’s the best. And I bet it’s good for you and Daddy too. It’s good for all of us to have a break.”
Yes, camp is good for all of us. Itâ€™s the Shabbat of the year.
Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my sonâ€™s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and itâ€™s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.
This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most peopleâ€™s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, â€śThere are Jews in Uganda?â€ť Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.
About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.
Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (â€śPeople of Judahâ€ť), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20thÂ century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.
Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.
When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.
Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the â€śconversionâ€ť of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didnâ€™t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, â€śMany people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”
I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of â€śWho is a Jew.â€ť We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.
The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how weÂ outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.
There are days when my preteen son is angry with me for reasons that neither of us knows. There are days when heâ€™s embarrassed by me because of a comment or action that Iâ€™m quite certain no one has seen. There are days when heâ€™s ornery, gloomy, argumentative or grumpy or sometimes all of the above.
And then there are days when the sweet, loving boy with the heart filled with goodness shines through. Days when he is quick with a smile, a hug or an I-love-you and wants to snuggle close or just do something with me. Days like today, when he reminds me that while being his mom is the hardest job Iâ€™ll ever have, itâ€™s also the very best job Iâ€™ll ever have.
As I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought Iâ€™d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.
As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, Iâ€™d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friendâ€™s and another at our house.
The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.
During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our sonâ€™s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. Iâ€™ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.
From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. Weâ€™ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And thatâ€™s why we were flyingÂ to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friendâ€™s seder table.
Our son has been playing water polo for a year on his schoolâ€™s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, heâ€™s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament theyâ€™ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said Iâ€™d find a way to adapt our observance.
When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.
I canâ€™t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, weâ€™ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.
I have no idea if the choices weâ€™re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isnâ€™t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesnâ€™t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.
As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I donâ€™t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.
As my son and I watched coverage of Super Tuesday, I mentioned that regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders got the Democratic nomination or won any states on this big voting day, he made history as the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary. As the results rolled in, I amended my comment, “He’s the first Jewish presidential candidate to win more than one primary. That’s cool.”
My 11-year-old responded in a sarcastic voice, â€śOf course, no one knows Bernie is Jewish.â€ť
I was surprised by my sonâ€™s remark. In his younger, pre-tween days, he would have thought that a serious presidential contender who was Jewish was â€śawesomeâ€ť and would probably have been pro-Bernie just because he was Jewish.
Now, on the cusp of teen-hood, he was more discerning and shrewd and often offered sharp analysis of situations and eventsâ€“all good things. But his comment made me wonder if he was bothered by the fact that Sanders didnâ€™t wear his Jewishness on his sleeve.
â€śDoes it bother you that Bernie doesnâ€™t talk about his Jewish identity more?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo,â€ť my son said.
I wasnâ€™t convinced. â€śDo you think that because he doesnâ€™t talk about being Jewish on the campaign trail that his Jewish identity isnâ€™t important to him?â€ť I probed.
â€śNo. Iâ€™m proud to be Jewish, but I donâ€™t talk about being Jewish all the time at school. But still, everyone knows Iâ€™m Jewish and if they have questions about Judaism or Jewish rituals they ask me.â€ť
â€śOk, well, maybe Bernie feels the same way,â€ť I suggested. â€śMy guess is that he is proud to be Jewish and would acknowledge heâ€™s Jewish if asked, but feels he doesnâ€™t need to talk about his Jewishness all the time. My sense is that he wants to talk about the issues facing our country and not about his faith or religious identity.â€ť
My son didnâ€™t respond. As I watched him think about what I said, I felt that while he agreed with it, there was something that bothered him about Sandersâ€™ minimal display of his religious identity, but he couldnâ€™t put into words what rubbed him.
It is likely that there are other Jews who, like my son, want Sanders to identify more strongly as a Jewish American. And there are probably many, who like me, are OK with Senator Sandersâ€™ seeming choice to identify as an American Jew.
It was 56 years ago that a Democratic presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy asked the nation to see him as an American Catholic, not a Catholic American. In September 1960, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was high, Kennedy delivered a major speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on the issue of his religion. An excerpt follows. You can read the full transcript here.
â€śWhile the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influenceâ€¦the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues â€” for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscuredâ€¦So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in â€” for that should be important only to me â€” but what kind of America I believe inâ€¦I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that officeâ€¦But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholicâ€¦â€ť
For me, the fact that Bernieâ€™s religious identity is a non-issue is as historic as his primary wins. Unlike Kennedy, Bernie can talk about the issues and not his religion. And that signals that even though there have been recent incidences of anti-Semitism and there are still country clubs and other organizations that excluded us, Jews have achieved the kind of acceptance that our ancestors who fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Russia and other areas of the world dreamed of.
After our conversation, I shared Kennedy’s speech with my son. After reading it, he said it gave the religious identity issue more context and he understood how it laid the groundwork for a candidate like Sanders. He said it didn’t bother him that Bernie didn’t speak about his Jewishness more often and he saw why it’s important to celebrate the success of this Democratic candidate for president, who also happens to be Jewish.
Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football Leagueâ€™s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.
As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didnâ€™t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving backâ€“regardless of whether their families had much to give.
The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didnâ€™t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.
Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.
Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.
When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs arenâ€™t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you donâ€™t see something that youâ€™re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.
Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you donâ€™t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu bâ€™mitzâ€™votav, vâ€™tzivanu lirâ€™dof tzedek.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.
At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Donâ€™t worry about what you see as the causeâ€™s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.
Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.
Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.
Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someoneâ€™s day.
Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.
Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.
Every day, I open the newspaper or listen to the news, and I am disheartened by what is happening in the worldâ€”violence at home and abroad, food shortages, disease, natural disasters, drought and environmental issues. There are days when I just have to tune out because what is good seems to have disappeared.
But recently, two things have restored my faith in humanity. After the devastating storms in Dallas following Christmas, I watched as friends and neighbors mobilized to help complete strangers try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Then in the early hours of Saturday morning, the home of my sonâ€™s classmate burned to the ground. The family had built the house and had only moved in two weeks ago during winter break. Thankfully, the family escaped unharmed, but they lost everything. As news of the tragedy spread on the class Facebook page, parents mobilized to help make sure the familyâ€™s immediate needs were met.
One family arranged for temporary housing and stocked the kitchen with groceries, and another parent set-up an online sign-up for gift cards, clothing and more. Other parents offered their home as a collection point for donations. I arranged for the schoolâ€™s resale shop to open on Sunday so my sonâ€™s classmate and his brother could get the uniform clothing they needed. Teachers purchased school supplies; the head of school provided a laptop, the school counselor reached out to the family. The senior class purchased items and parents from the community that didnâ€™t know the family whose home was destroyed called to offer help. It was amazing what was accomplished in the span of a few hours.
I told my son when he woke-up on Saturday morning what happened. As I was cooking breakfast, he said, “I want to help James and his family.”
Our son’s Hanukkah gift this past year was gelt or money. Each night he received “Gelt to Get” and “Gelt to Give.” The idea was that he received money that he could spend on himself and received an equal amount that he had to distribute to those in need in any way he chose. The “Gelt to Give” was given in small bills so that he could choose to distribute a little to many people or organizations, or pool it and give a large lump sum.
After watching the news of the tornadoes in Dallas on TV while we were on vacation, my son decided that he wanted to adopt a family and give his gelt to them. As of Saturday, a week after getting home from our trip, we had not identified a way to get the money to a family in the affected area.
After hearing the news about his friendâ€™s house fire, my son changed his tzedakah or charity distribution plan. He was going to use his money to help his classmate. Later that day, I took my son to the grocery store so he could buy a gift card for his friendâ€™s family so that they could buy food. As I watched with pride as my son paid for the gift card with his wad of cash, I thought of the saying, â€śCharity begins at home.”
The phrase expressed the demands of taking care of one’s family, before caring for others. But for me, it meant something else. It was a reminder that learning to be charitable, learning to be a tzadik or righteous person began at home. As parents, we were primarily responsible for modeling the values and behaviors that we wanted our children to see as important and to embrace. If we wanted our kids to take their responsibility to the world around them seriously, then it was up to us to show them what it meant to help others and our community.
I knew that my husband and I were far from perfect parents. There were many things we had done wrong or could have done better, but teaching our son what it meant to act justly and serve the community was one thing weâ€™d gotten right. Whether it was helping a friend in need, raising money for education and clean water for children in Haiti, volunteering at the local food bank, purchasing prayer books for a synagogue with limited resources or doing a park cleanup, my son’s actions showed that charity did, in fact, begin at home.
I was supposed to celebrate my birthday, which fell on the seventh night of Hanukkah with my husband Cameron and son Sammy. We were going to light the hanukkiah, exchange gifts and go out for a sushi dinner. The plan sounded ideal to meâ€“I love Hanukkah, sushi and spending time with my guys.
But the celebration did not turn out as planned. The night before, as we were getting ready to leave to go to Sammyâ€™s string concert at school, we got a message from the dad of one of Sammyâ€™s friends with a last minute request. Could Sammy come to his older sonâ€™s bar mitzvah tomorrow night?
Apparently, cousins with children the same age as Sammy’s friend just cancelled, and Sammy’s friend was not going to have anyone his age to hang out with at the reception. He would love Sammy to be his running mate for the evening.
It would have been easy for me to call back and say, “I’m sorry, Sammy can’t make it. We have plans,” or “It’s my birthday tomorrow and we are celebrating as a family.” As a parent, I could have made an executive decision. But I did not. I shared the invitation with Sammy and let him decide. I knew we needed to start to loosen the strings that tied Sammy to us and empower him to make decisions for himself.
Sammyâ€™s reaction to the invite was excitement followed by a blank stare. â€śItâ€™s your birthday tomorrow,â€ť he said. I could tell he was worried that the decision he wanted to make would upset me.
I said, “There will be many more birthdays and Hanukkahs to celebrate together. If you want to go to the bar mitzvah, you should go.”
I realized that now that we were in the tweenage years there would be many more of these types of requestsâ€“requests that came with choices. I also knew that as commitments go, a quiet Hanukkah and birthday celebration were small. There would be times when the answer had to be â€śno.â€ť Call it a good parenting day, but intuitively I knew that saying â€śyesâ€ť now was like putting money in the bank. It would make the necessary â€śnoâ€™sâ€ť easier to take.
Sammy said he wanted to go. I called the friend’s dad and told him that Sammy would love to celebrate with their family.
As we drove to the strings concert, I told Sammy that I would be happy to go with him to the bar mitzvah service and then he could go on the bus to the party with the other kids. â€śNo thanks,â€ť he said. â€śYou donâ€™t need to.â€ť My little boy was now an independent 11-year-old.
Saturday night, Cameron dropped off Sammy and another friend who was invited at the bar mitzvah service. He walked them into our synagogue, got them seats and left. They were now responsible for navigating the evening themselves.
Later, as Cameron and I celebrated my birthday over dinner, we talked about how this was Sammyâ€™s first â€śnight on the townâ€ť without us. And the various parenting questions that arose when you entered this stageâ€”should you send them with a phone and if so, what are the appropriate usage guidelines; in the absence of anything illegal or dangerous, when do you rescue your child from a situation and when do you make them stick it outâ€”dominated our dinner conversation.
We knew we were entering rookie territory. As we toasted the occasion and I reflected on the year ahead, I realized that it would be a year of learning, learning to parent to a way more suited to Sammy’s new stage of life, and learning to let go.