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.

The Blessing of the Broken Garage Door

The tarnished mezuzah on our front door has been on our doorposts in four states.

We have a mezuzah on the front door to our house. It is a lovely silver object that my mother gave to me and Cameron when we lived in New York. It has journeyed with us from the Big Apple to the doorposts of our homes in Connecticut, Ohio, and Texas. After more than a dozen years, it has accumulated the worn and tarnished look of a family heirloom.

I don’t think about or notice the mezuzah that much because we live in a house with an attached garage. We park our cars inside and enter our home through a door that connects the garage to our laundry room and kitchen. We mostly use the front door to let in visitors. Because of this, the mezuzah is more a sign to others that we are Jewish, than a reminder to us of our connection to Judaism or our responsibility to follow God’s commandments.

In preschool, Sammy even asked why we didn’t have a mezuzah. I said, “We have one,” and I took him to the front of the house, opened the door and pointed to the mezuzah.

“I didn’t know we had one,” he said, “because we never use the front door to come into the house! I think we should get a second one to put on the door near the garage because that is the way we come in. Then we can touch it. You know that you are suppose to touch it when you pass it, right?”

“Yes, I know that.”

Touching a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a room is a Jewish custom rather than a commandment. Many people place a hand on it when passing; others kiss the hand after touching it because they believe the holiness of the mezuzah transfers to the hand.

The tradition first appears in the Talmud in a story about a Roman convert to Judaism, who tells Roman soldiers that God protects the departure and arrival of his servants. The custom is also a reminder of love for God, the sanctity of the home, and God’s mitzvot.

I was glad Sammy was learning about Jewish traditions. I was also happy to add a mezuzah to the door from the garage into the house. I took Sammy to our synagogue’s gift shop and let him select one. He chose a wood mezuzah painted in vibrant colors.

The mezuzah Sammy selected for the entryway from our garage.

I asked a rabbi friend to help us hang it. He came over with his family and together we held a Chanukat HaBayit, the ceremony for hanging a mezuzah. We affixed it to the entry from the laundry room to our kitchen at a level that Sammy, then four-years-old, could reach. (The ceremony name sounds like Hanukkah and comes from the same root. Both mean dedication. Chanukat HaBayit is Dedication of the Home.)

Once the mezuzah was up, Sammy touched it when he passed. But after awhile, I stopped noticing if he continued to do so. I paid as much attention to this mezuzah as I did to the one on the front door. Usually, I was busy thinking about other things as I entered the house.

But then, a few weeks ago, a spring on our electric garage door broke. Cameron could not get the part to fix it, so we needed to park on the street in front of our house until the door was repaired. As soon as we began using the front door, I saw that when Sammy entered the house he tapped the mezuzah as he passed through the entryway. I didn’t say anything; I just assumed it was something that he did at his day school and that sometimes he remembered to do it at home.

But then I noticed that he touched it every time he entered the house. The consistency of his mezuzah “high-five” made me conscious of touching it myself.

One afternoon after school, Sammy asked if I knew why he was touching the mezuzah when he entered the house. “Because it’s Jewish tradition?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but that’s not why I’m doing it,” he said.

I expected a typical Sammy response, one that would offer some profound nine-year-old insight into this old Jewish custom. I was wrong.

“I’m doing it because we’re having a ‘who can touch every mezuzah that they pass contest’ at school.”

“Oh,” I said, a little disappointed in the mundaneness of his explanation. I guess these are the games kids at day school play. I asked, “Do you think anyone will know if you touch the mezuzah at home?”

“No, but I don’t want to stop because then I might forget when I’m at school and lose the game.”

The more I thought about Sammy’s rationale for touching the mezuzah, the more I realized that he was forming a habit. A habit can be defined as an acquired behavior that becomes nearly, or completely involuntary. While we often take habitual actions for granted, they are the things that provide comfort to us in the midst of the uncertainties of life.

The Jewish habit that Sammy was forming through the game might not be deeply meaningful or important now, but one day, it might take on a more significant meaning. During high and low points in his life, touching the mezuzah might remind him that he’s not alone, that he’s part of the larger Jewish community; or that his home is sacred, a refuge, a sanctuary; or that something bigger than us exists in the universe.

Observing the consistency of Sammy’s mezuzah tapping made me consider in a conscious way my own Jewish behaviors; how they sustain me and provide a measure of predictability in the craziness of daily life. Watching Sammy caused me to be more mindful of my habits. I guess that was the hidden blessing of the broken garage door.

What Would Esther Think?

Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.

Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.

As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).

The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.

Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.

But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.

When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.

Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.

Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.

She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.

She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.

After the Tough Questions About Sochi Were Answered, the Scantily Clad Women Arrived

What do these two things have in common? Both are reminders that soon, my little boy will not be so little anymore.

The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owen’s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Games’ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.

Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.

But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammy’s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.

I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.

But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a mother’s eye, a Jewish mother’s eye, and thought, there’s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but I’m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible – like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.

At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammy’s innocence for as long as possible. I’m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross – he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has “girls who are friends” instead of girlfriends.

With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. I’m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.

But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.

I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment – thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, “But she’s Jewish,” to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasn’t wearing much clothing.

The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? I’m not naïve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.

I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.

At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I can’t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.

I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammy’s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. I’m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.

 

Talking Sochi with my 9-Year-Old Son, Sammy

 

Sammy and I have been talking about more than sports during the Sochi games.

On Thursday night, Cameron was working late and instead of reading the next chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King after dinner, Sammy wanted to watch coverage of the opening day of the Olympics. Sammy, a huge sports fan, had been eagerly anticipating the start of the games.

While Thursday was the official start of the Winter Olympics, there was not much to watch. We saw the preliminary rounds of slopestyle snowboarding and the team competition in figure skating. With a lack of events to cover, I assumed NBC would fill their primetime coverage with travel and culture stories, and athlete profiles designed to whet viewers’ appetites before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.

But instead of the fluffy filler, we found ourselves listening to Bob Costas talk with David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The New Yorker, and Vladimir Pozner, a Russian-American journalist about the hot political issues surrounding the games – LGBT rights, Edward Snowden, terrorism. I thought Sammy would be uninterested in these more adult segments of the show, but that was not the case. He was as engaged in the discussion of current events as he was in the early rounds of the ice skating and alpine competitions.

Some background on Sammy. He is a very curious child, and he loves to learn. While sports, Legos, and reading are particular passions, he wants to know more about most things.

Not surprisingly, Sammy fired off a bunch of questions. “Why does Putin want to let Snowden stay in Russia? Why are they worried about terrorism? What kind of anti-gay laws did Russia pass?”

So much for powering down our brains before bed while watching skaters twirl and snowboarders jump. This was going to be a thinking kind of night.

“I guess Putin thinks Snowden has valuable information on the American government,” I replied to the first question. “They are concerned about terrorism because there is an area in Russia called Chechnya where some residents want full independence. There has been fighting on-and-off since the 1990s. Sometimes the people who want to separate from Russia do things that hurt innocent people like attack theaters or schools. They do this in order to put pressure on the Russian government to recognize them as an independent state. The have a lot of security at the games because they want to keep everyone safe,” I said.

On to question number three. “Do you remember what I told you the word gay is sometimes used to describe?” I asked. Sammy shook his head no. “The word gay is sometimes used to describe people who love someone of the same gender,” I said.

“Like George and Alex?”

“Right, like George and Alex.” George and Alex are our good friends, who happen to be a same-sex couple. Sammy feels very close to them. When we talk about marriage equality or gay-rights cases before the Supreme Court, we relate the discussion to George and Alex so that Sammy understands how these issues affect people in our life.

“So, what the journalists are saying is that Russia is not friendly towards people who are gay,” I continued. “There is a lot of discrimination, and recently, the Russian government passed laws that essentially make it illegal for anyone to suggest or promote that people in same-sex relationships have equal rights.”

“Oh, that’s not good,” he said. But before Sammy could ask any follow-up questions, figure skating came back on. I was saved from giving other details for the moment, but not for long. Sammy often thinks about things for awhile. I knew additional inquiries would come over the coming days.

After Sammy had gone to bed that night, I found that his questions stayed with me, and I thought about the many parallels to events in Jewish history. Snowden reminded me of Jonathan Pollard; the Jewish-American civilian intelligence analyst convicted of passing classified information to Israel.

The discussion of terrorism made me think of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the terrorist acts committed by Israeli and Palestinian groups in their struggles for statehood. The actions of organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas are well-known, but the operations of the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization are less familiar to some. (The Irgun believed that it was justifiable to use any means necessary, including acts of terror, to establish a Jewish state. Irgun operations included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946 and the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948, which killed over 100 residents of a Palestinian Arab village.)

My mind moved from terrorism to gay-rights and the parallels to the many periods of persecution that populate Jewish history – slavery in Egypt, near annihilation in Persia, battles for religious freedom against the Seleucid and Roman Empires, the Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms, Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism. And what about Hitler’s attempts to exclude Blacks and Jews from the competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

It was clear to me that the hot topics surrounding the Sochi games were issues Jews had seen play out before. I considered how to connect current events to Jewish history in a way that did not ignore the complexities, but was still understandable to a grade-schooler. I decided to use the parallels to teach Sammy about his heritage, remind him of the values we aspire to live by, and explain how we can learn from the past in order to work towards a better future.     

Sammy’s Sochi questions have not yet resurfaced, but when they do, I am ready for a detailed discussion. These Olympics offer more than outstanding feats of athleticism. They present an opportunity for a Jewish history and values lesson.