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The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, “Congratulations! You’re pregnant!” Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. “Helen! Helen!” we cry, “Helen you are going to have a little brother or sister!” Helen pushes our faces away not exactly understanding and gallops into the bedroom in search of her favorite stuffed animal, Senor Buho (Mr. Owl). Adrian and I are elated and we head out to our local kosher grocery store in search of kosher meat to cook as a celebration. Of course Adrian wants pork, but our home is kosher so celebrating is limited to all other delicacies.
On the Avenue, I feel lightness in my step and I whisper to Helen all day about how we are going to welcome a little bean into the family. I do everything right: I get my prenatal vitamins, buy Omega-3, stock the refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, rest and drink tea. I am five, maybe seven, weeks pregnant. That’s when everything goes wrong.
One morning, I wake up early and see blood. It’s not a lot and it’s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. “Don’t worry,” she assures me, “it’s normal.” Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, I’ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while I’m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.
The next day I start to make promises. “Hashem, God, if you make everything OK I will be the best person in the universe this year. I will do good deeds and feed the poor and work harder and pray more,” I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesn’t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.
“Bebe,” he says in a serious tone, “that’s not how God and the saints work.” I laugh because even with our interfaith family, I obviously think I can trick myself into convincing God of something.
I do everything right. And then, everything goes wrong.
The next day, I wake up and there is a lot of blood. It’s not brown, but it’s red. My body feels heavy like it’s losing something. “Bebe,” Adrian says, “call the doctor.” The doctor tells me to go the hospital right away. I rush to Manhattan and am attended to at Beth Israel/Mount Sinai with the thought, “This is a place of miracles.” I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called “Tefillas Channah” meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me she’s sorry—I have had a miscarriage. She adds, “But it was very early, which is good.”
Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. “Bebe,” I say to Adrian on the phone, “I have some bad news.” I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesn’t feel normal. I have not cracked my Hebrew prayer book to defy my God the way I feel he has defied me. I realize that these thoughts are irrational, but this grief is overwhelming.
After one week on the couch, my daughter brings me a book. It is a book about animals and I flip the pages for her. “Bubbles!” she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I haven’t been able to pay attention to. By far, Helen is the grandest miracle that has been gifted to me. Over a year ago, Adrian and I, out of fear for her life, decided to put Helen on formula when she had dropped down to 4 pounds. I prayed to God then. Now, Helen is in the 90th percentile for height, walks, babbles, speaks some words in Spanish and English, points to the Virgin of Guadalupe before bed and I sing her the prayer of Israel in Hebrew at night. As I get up to get the bubbles, my body feels like it has been crouching in a cave.
“Bebe,” Adrian says a week into his own grief, “we will try again.”
I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what I’m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: “And so I come before you, Hashem, Eternal who reigns over rulers, and I cast my supplication before You. My eyes dependently look toward You until You will be gracious to me and hear my plea and grant me sons and daughters.” I look at Helen as she plays on the rug and I understand that I have been granted a miracle. With the two faiths that shine brightly through my house, I will be granted another one when the time is right.
It’s Purim again and I’m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976—only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, it’s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.
When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit soda—not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).
Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my mother’s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.” The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.
Adrian thinks it’s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as we’re walking to the car, he says to me, “You know, in my town there’s a guy whose name is Purim.” I absolutely don’t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, “I’m so serious!” Then he laughs and yells, “Feliz Purim!” to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.
Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?
This year, when Purim wasn’t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogue’s Purim celebration. I paused at my brother’s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last year’s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.
This year, I opted out of Purim even though I’m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, I’m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.
Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purim—everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like it’s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that he’s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Don’t we know it’s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, “Man I shouldn’t have done that last shot of tequila.” But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.
I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, “Chag Sameach” (Joyous Festival) and then, “Feliz Purim.”
Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?
The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castro’s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castro’s name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.
The reporter posed this question to me: “Should we pray for bad people or bad leaders?” My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.
In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.
I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.
I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.
They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to “save a person’s soul.”
The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.
I’m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
This morning, the meeting I was in at the synagogue I work at in Dallas was interrupted by one of the rabbis on the clergy team. “I’m sorry I need to miss the meeting. There’s been a bomb threat at the JCC. Last week, 17 JCCs in cities around the country received threats. Today, seven more received them, including the one in Dallas. We’re meeting to determine our response and next steps. There will be a staff meeting in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is the world we now live in.”
Yes, unfortunately, this is the situation in which we live. I called my husband after the staff meeting at which we were briefed on the threat and security protocols for our building were reviewed. I shared what I knew.
“Hateful cowards!” he responded. After we had spoken, I went back to my office to try to return to my “to do” list. But my thoughts kept returning to the state of our union.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 cases of reported hateful harassment and intimidation in the 10 days after the November election, including in schools, business and on the street. The post-election incidents followed a year in which the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, and similar crimes against Jews, African Americans and LGBT individuals also increased. Overall, reported hate crimes spiked 6 percent. Since many incidents go unreported, the actual number was probably higher. As a Jew and a member of an interfaith family, it is my responsibility to demand and work toward inclusivity in the Jewish community and in this country.
Our country has been through dark periods before with leaders who refused to speak up and stand up for those suffering injustice and experiencing violence. We know the consequences of hate both on our soil and abroad. So why are our leaders and fellow Americans not doing more to stop this alarming trend of hateful harassment, intimidation and episodes of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic behavior? And, what will it take for our leaders and communities to say, “Enough”?
When will those who #ChooseLove speak louder than those who hate?
Being stuck in a car for three hours with my mother, Adrian (my significant other) and our baby girl, Helen Rose, is just part of the beauty of Thanksgiving. I should note that being born and raised in Mexico, Adrian doesn’t know a lot about our American holiday, so I began by explaining that sitting in traffic is not just a rite of passage, but also a tradition. I should also explain that he hates turkey and can’t stand the way I drive. But no one else wanted to drive, so our holiday began with a two-hour traffic delay through Staten Island on our way to New Jersey.
Here is something else: The last time Adrian met my cousins, uncle and aunt was at Helen’s baby naming, when we were consumed with being new parents as she was then only two months old. So this was going to be a new rite of passage. Meeting family can be nerve-wracking, especially since I have a very Jewish family. Almost everyone in my family has gone to yeshiva, keeps kosher and lives following Jewish law, and some even live or have lived in Israel.
Helen, Adrian and I follow different rules and laws within our interfaith family. Some we make up along the way as we try to find our place in both a Jewish and Mexican-Catholic culture. We make sure to keep both faiths present in our household so that nothing is lost for Helen. Both religions and traditions live and speak through her. And as she grows she will decide what to keep.
We eventually made it to New Jersey. There were 23 people at my cousin’s house, not including babies. It felt like a new year. I remember lonely Thanksgivings working in restaurants. I remember Thanksgivings without my father, without my grandparents and without hope. This year felt so different and alive.
Adrian was nervous but excited, and Helen looks so much like him that people kept commenting that they seemed like twins. My baby cousins (now grown and almost all engaged) said I looked happier than they’ve ever seen me. Also, when we first arrived, my cousin saved us some mini hot dogs from the appetizers they had passed around, and Helen ate almost three of them. My nephews, just two-and-a-half months older than Helen, were there as well, and they all played and ran around chasing the two dogs.
At one point my cousin’s father made a speech about my baby cousin’s recent engagement. During his speech he talked about living a Jewish life and passing down Jewish traditions. I thought about this deeply. I asked myself, what from my culture, my tradition and my religion do I want to pass to my daughter?
As a child I had a lot of trouble in school. Sent to an Orthodox yeshiva at a young age, I learned how to fit into a black-hat community while wearing jeans and swearing on weekends. I was taught that there was only one way to do something. I was taught that God was almighty, all-knowing and pissed off all or most of the time.
It wasn’t always bad though. I learned Hebrew and spirituality. Later on in my life when I picked up a book by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan called “Meditation and the Bible,” I could follow the deep meaning of the Torah. When I returned to the Judaica store to purchase another book by the same rabbi, I could answer the religious boy behind the counter who asked me what I thought about Rabbi Kaplan’s observations.
Sometimes it feels as though Adrian, Helen and I are walking through a biblical desert. We have our own beliefs; our traditions and obstacles rise up from the sand all the time. How we react to those obstacles is an integral part of our spiritual growth.
My cousin turned to me mid-meal and asked if it was hard for Adrian to be at the Thanksgiving feast with us. It was hard for him, but not because of a difference in religion. It’s hard because his family is a million miles away. It’s hard because his mother is sick. It’s hard because his brothers are not united and his sister just broke up with her boyfriend and doesn’t know what to do. It’s hard in a lot of different, normal ways. But it’s also easy. It’s easy for him to smile when Helen smiles. To laugh when she chases one of my cousin’s dogs all over the house. It’s easy because there’s food on the table, a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in when we get home. It’s easy because so many people do not have these simple luxuries.
What about the Jewish tradition do I want to pass down to our daughter? Gratitude. Love. Life. Traditions new and old.
After we said our thank yous and goodbyes, we drove back to our little apartment in Brooklyn, where I put Helen to bed and unpacked the blue-and-white menorah for the Hanukkah holiday to come. Then I opened the package containing our matching family Christmas pajamas and set them aside in a special holiday drawer.
Thanksgiving came about when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at a table to eat and celebrate together. That’s one story, anyway. What were they celebrating if not their differences, their two ways of living, their double faiths?
I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.
Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.
Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.
One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.
One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.
The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.
As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.
One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.
In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.
Recently I had an article published on a Jewish site about a dream I had. It was a political piece, and during these rough, media-frenzied times I received a ton of comments, most of them not the loving kind. I am often asked to write pieces about my Jewish experience, my interfaith experience and my everyday experience as a mother. How do I incorporate two faiths in my home when I am Jewish and Adrian, my partner, is Mexican Catholic? What and how do we teach our daughter about our vastly different cultures and faiths?
The first comment I received was harsh: “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Just pure drivel!” I had struck a political nerve. Also, I should mention that I talked a lot about Hitler in my piece, a little about Anne Frank and how my dream was recurring—a real nightmare. But nowhere in my piece did I tell my audience who to vote for, or condemn them for choosing a particular party they feel represents them. What I did question was how to teach my daughter to have loving-kindness and tolerance for the things I don’t believe represent me.
As I scrolled down, I saw there were almost 80 comments. One man said, “Ms. Keller would look great in my oven.” That same man uploaded a picture of a bar of soap from a concentration camp with a Jewish star on it. There were also all sorts of comments about my interfaith relationship. “You have shamed your people and disobeyed the Torah by mating with a goy.” (“Goy” is a term used by Jews to describe people who aren’t Jewish.) One person took my article and posted it on another blog, where people commented again about my family, saying, “I feel bad for your guinea-pig daughter.” Then I got some personal hate-mail emails.
One person wrote: “You neurotic Jews are so hilarious. You preach to us about ‘paranoid style of American politics’ and the scare mongering of Joe McCarthy, but you see Hitler under every bed. LOL.” And, “Before you morally supremacist and narcissistic Jews pontificate about how holy shmoly you are, you should consider a few things.” I had clearly raised some eyebrows. Someone else told me to pack my daughter’s bags full of tacos and burritos and prepare her for her trip south.
Ellen DeGeneres says she never reads anything about herself, good or bad. Now I understand why. It’s easy to get sucked in to all that hate. It’s easy to want to respond to every single person who has something to say. But I believe in freedom of speech; I just don’t believe in stupidity. I also believe in Shakespeare, which is one of the reasons I only replied to one person who had personally stalked me via email to get her point across. I simply replied, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s one of my favorite lines of all time from “Hamlet.”
What bothered me the most wasn’t the blatant anti-Semitism; it wasn’t the insults to my writing. What bothered me were the insults on the blog where my article was re-posted. Those people were talking about my daughter, my beautiful, innocent, carefree 1-year-old daughter. It was a moment of clarity: There are people who love to hate other people. There are people who are so unhappy with their own lives, their own situations and their own senses of self that they have to troll around the Internet to find someone they can hate.
The funny thing about the computer is that it doesn’t have a face. If I had written an article for a class or a conference and people disagreed with it, there would probably be some hand-waving, some discussion, maybe even a healthy debate. Because there is no face on the Internet there is no consequence to what people say. Many of these commenters hide behind fake names. One man’s name was “Bill Kristolnach,” a pun on “Kristallnacht” (the “Night of Broken Glass” when the Nazis shattered everything Jews owned as the Holocaust began) and Bill Kristol, the political analyst.
But the comments about my child threw me for a loop. Is this what she will come up against in school? What will I tell her to do? How should she respond? What if someone tells her to go put tacos and burritos in her backpack because she’s being deported, even though she’s an American citizen? Will she believe them? Will she be scared? What will I tell her to respond if they say she has shamed the Torah? Will she believe in a God who is merciful, who will save her from this hatred? My 11-year-old self would tell her to put her fist through someone’s face. But that’s one of the reasons I was kicked out of an Orthodox yeshiva, and I’m trying not to repeat the past.
What will I say? Because there will be days she won’t understand who she is or where she comes from. There will be days she asks what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be American, what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be Jewish. I hope to continue the traditions of both the Jewish and Catholic holidays in our home in order for her to learn, grow and one day decide who she is and who she will become. That is her choice to make, not mine.
One of my favorite quotes to repeat when I am faced with adversity is by Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The hateful comments were later deleted from the original site, but a few more personal hate emails did make their way into my inbox. Hate is a good lesson. It teaches us that history really does repeat itself. It gave fuel to my original article and had people reading and thinking. Hate twists and turns itself around to fit in the places where love never existed. There are people who already hate my daughter because of her skin, her two religions, because of me and who I am, because of Adrian and who he is. All we can do in response to hate is to love. We can love and love and love. Then we can also punch a wall and scream into a pillow.
I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
“I had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
“Simply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp are…55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.”
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. That’s a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.
Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.
Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.
Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?
Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.
By Melissa Henriquez
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2). By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.