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I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregationâ€™s Womenâ€™s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and â€ś
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameronâ€™s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, â€śI have a Shabbat gift for you.â€ť She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing â€śMay I Suggestâ€ť by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
Cantor Nirenâ€™s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my â€śme-dayâ€ť spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. â€śHi buddy!â€ť I said. â€śHow was the day with Daddy?â€ť
â€śHi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddyâ€™s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,â€ť Sammy said.
â€śWow, sounds like youâ€™ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?â€ť
â€śWell, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?â€ť
â€śOf course. Iâ€™ll see you at home later.â€ť
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, â€śThis was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!â€ť
Seeing Sammyâ€™s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameronâ€™s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Womenâ€™s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the programâ€™s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.
The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, â€śIs it really that time again?â€ť
It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving â€“ holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailersâ€™ shelves â€“ now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.
For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.
In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.
My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.
Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.
So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a childrenâ€™s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.
Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.
Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.
Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.
Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.
The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammyâ€™s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.
Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.
The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.
Prior to one of Sammyâ€™s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. â€śAbsolutely!â€ť I responded, â€śJoin us for dinner and Sammyâ€™s birthday celebration.â€ť
We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammyâ€™s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.
During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.
With Giladâ€™s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of â€śour Israelisâ€ť and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. â€śYes!â€ť he said with a celebratory fist pump.
It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.
No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.
I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child â€“ help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that campâ€™s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.
According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.
But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.
Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.
So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.
So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:
1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.
I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, â€śIn our society you donâ€™t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.â€ť
2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaismâ€™s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.
Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.
3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.
â€śYour child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,â€ť said the rector. â€śShe must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And thatâ€™s a decision no child wants to make.â€ť
The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a childâ€™s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.
I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because letâ€™s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.
I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, heâ€™s been in school since late August, for me.
Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.
It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasnâ€™t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.
But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people â€ścome to synagoguesâ€¦and other Jewish organizations for programs, but theyâ€¦stay for relationships.â€ť I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.
When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.
As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world â€“ Jewish and otherwise – through each otherâ€™s eyes. We expanded each otherâ€™s minds, but also each otherâ€™s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.
I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasnâ€™t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.
Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaismâ€™s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves â€“ and bad â€“ deaths, illness and job loss.
For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each otherâ€™s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each otherâ€™s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.
Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our groupâ€™s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.
This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengtheningÂ our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.
But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.
My family is looking forward to Sukkot after the serious work of the Days of Awe. As I wrote about in my essay Beyond the Lulav and the Etrog, it is an easy holiday for my interfaith family to embrace. It emphasizes the concept of gratitude, a universal sentiment that is prized by many faiths and people, including those who subscribe to no religious tradition, and it directly connects to my familyâ€™s daily life.
We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each otherâ€™s work maintaining our garden space â€“ Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammyâ€™s assistance. During the holiday we give thanks for the produce we produce and the elements of nature that enabled us to grow such a delicious bounty.
This year we are especially thankful because Texas is in the third year of drought with most of the state experiencing severe to extreme conditions. We see the effects of the water shortage in the cracked soil surrounding our tomatoes and okra, and in our dry rain gauge. We also notice the impact of the weather on our neighborhood pond, which has large areas where most of the water has evaporated.
Recently, while walking our dog near the pond Sammy gasped when he noticed the water level. â€śMommy, look at the pond!â€ť he exclaimed. â€śThere is almost no water in some areas. Whatâ€™s going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!â€ť
â€śI heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isnâ€™t feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,â€ť I said.
Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, â€śIâ€™m really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?â€ť
â€śShort of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rainâ€¦actually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?â€ť I asked.
â€śAccording to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year when God judges the world for rainfall. The Water Drawing Ceremony, conducted in ancient Israel each morning during the holiday, asked for Godâ€™s blessing for an abundant rainy season,â€ť I explained.
â€śWhat was the ceremony like?â€ť
â€śIt was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Templeâ€™s Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.â€ť
â€śWell, I learned to make rain at camp,â€ť he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. â€śBut thatâ€™s not a ceremony and letâ€™s face it, it wonâ€™t fill the pond with water.â€ť He thought for a moment and then said, â€śI know, the next time it is supposed to rain we can put buckets outside in different areas of the yard and collect rain. Then we can bring the buckets over to the pond and pour the water into it helping to fill it up again. It can be our own Water Drawing Ceremony!â€ť
â€śI like that idea,â€ť I said.
â€śMe too,â€ť Sammy replied. â€śI feel better knowing that weâ€™re going to help.â€ť
This year as you celebrate in the sukkah and give thanks for the abundance that fills your plate remember the precious natural resources that helped to make your meal possible. Show some appreciation for them too and please, donâ€™t forget to pray for rain.
I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.
Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.
But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We donâ€™t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.
When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasnâ€™t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammyâ€™s pursuit of victory. I just donâ€™t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.
Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammyâ€™s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.
I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didnâ€™t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, â€śThat ball was in!â€ť
â€śIt looked clearly out to me,â€ť I said. â€śIt landed in the green space behind the baseline.â€ť
â€śNo it didnâ€™t! It was in,â€ť he yelled. â€śYouâ€™re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!â€ť
â€śSammy, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?â€ť
â€śYou do cheat!â€ť he shouted before he started to serve the next game.
Â As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.
â€śZero serving three,â€ť he said. â€śBut it should be deuce!â€ť
â€śOut,â€ť I called when his serve landed wide.
â€śI donâ€™t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!â€ť Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of â€śUggh,â€ť as he fired his next serve.
The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.
Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammyâ€™s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasnâ€™t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.
â€śIâ€™m done,â€ť I said.
â€śIâ€™m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. Iâ€™m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. Iâ€™m going home,â€ť I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.
Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. â€śCan I give you a hug?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo! I donâ€™t deserve one,â€ť he mumbled.
â€śSometimes when weâ€™re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,â€ť I replied. â€śI may want to believe this because Iâ€™m your mother, but I donâ€™t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť he sobbed.
â€śI know you are. Listen, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. Iâ€™m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes Iâ€™ll get the calls right and sometimes Iâ€™ll make mistakes â€“ just like you. But Iâ€™ll always try my best to make an honest call.â€ť
Sammy inched closer. We hugged. â€śIâ€™m really, really sorry,â€ť he said.
â€śI know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we donâ€™t mean, but because we are so emotional we canâ€™t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didnâ€™t mean what you said. I forgive you.â€ť I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, â€śI love you â€“ always.â€ť
I didnâ€™t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want Godâ€™s forgiveness, but also each otherâ€™s.Â
As the High Holidays approach, Iâ€™ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when Iâ€™ve been my best self and those when I havenâ€™t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As Iâ€™ve gone through this psychological housecleaning Iâ€™ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
Iâ€™ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are wellâ€¦minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holidayâ€™s food restrictions. Sammy said, â€śWeâ€™ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re right,â€ť I said. â€śSome years Iâ€™m good at making sure we keep it, and others years Iâ€™m not. Itâ€™s always easier when weâ€™re home. Since weâ€™re away Iâ€™ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think God cares,â€ť replied Sammy. â€śI donâ€™t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I donâ€™t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.â€ť
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point â€“ eating matzah instead of bread on Passover wonâ€™t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, â€śA Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,â€ť that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless â€śuniversal spirit.â€ť Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, â€śIâ€™ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of Godâ€¦ I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.â€ť
After re-reading Pittsâ€™ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy â€“ care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Donâ€™t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if weâ€™re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year Iâ€™ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I donâ€™t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.
Iâ€™d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogueâ€™s pews, but we donâ€™t. Thatâ€™s not to say we donâ€™t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, itâ€™s just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain weâ€™ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but itâ€™s not for others. In my extended family the â€śrightâ€ť way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. Itâ€™s OK to refer to a beautiful place as â€śGodâ€™s country,â€ť but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God â€“ be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legosâ€“ itâ€™s the right way for him.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogueâ€™s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when weâ€™re on vacation. In fact, when weâ€™re away we donâ€™t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, â€śMommy, its Friday.â€ť
â€śI know, one more day of skiing,â€ť I responded.
â€śNo, itâ€™s Friday,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s Shabbat!â€ť
â€śOh yeah,â€ť I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
â€śHow are we going to celebrate?â€ť Sammy asked.
â€śWell, we donâ€™t have candles or matches and even if we did, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while weâ€™re out or asleep,â€ť I answered. â€śWeâ€™ll celebrate next week when weâ€™re at home.â€ť
â€śWe can still say Shabbat Shalom,â€ť Sammy replied.
â€śYouâ€™re right, we can do that,â€ť I said.
â€śShabbat Shalom,â€ť we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasnâ€™t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is veryâ€¦un-Shabbat. Itâ€™s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phoneâ€™s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to â€ślightâ€ť the candles by dragging a â€śflameâ€ť to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles â€śburnedâ€ť over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.