Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Moses’ time asking, “Chicken, brisket or both?” But what I’ve always loved the most about Passover at my mother’s house was the kids’ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, there’s a new kids’ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brother’s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didn’t realize this phenomenon about the kids’ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my mother’s house. “My Mom used to do that at Christmas,” Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my mother’s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my mother’s rendition of a kid’s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his mother’s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldn’t totally grasp matzah.
“It tastes like paper,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.”
The kids’ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because he’s sick and my aunt couldn’t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cooking—it made me realize that the original Passover kids’ table was now the adults’ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. “I told you so,” I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting “Helen, Helen, Helen!” When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, “Challah, challah, challah!” But on Passover, we can’t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, “Matzah, matzah, matzah!” And then continued with, “Adi! Adi! Adi!” for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kids’ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. “No se,” she says, which means, “I don’t know,” and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. “Why is this night different from any other night?” begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, “Seriously?” But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: “Get rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough – as you really are.” (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
I’ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. I’ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblings’ and my friendships. But repeatedly, I’ve realized that their tolerance doesn’t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.
My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrum–they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.
I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasn’t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Greg’s sexual identity might somehow influence our son’s sexuality.
So, it wasn’t surprising that from the time my stepsister’s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girls’ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.
Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.
“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”
I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.
When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didn’t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didn’t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didn’t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsister’s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephew’s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.
*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the “she” pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the child’s pronoun is “he” and he is using his given name.
I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. “It’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. We’re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. We’re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.”
I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.
I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan just announced some pretty big news: They’re going to be parents again–making their 15-month-old daughter Max a big sister-to-be. Of course, the Facebook CEO made the announcement on his Facebook (because where else would he?).
The 32-year-old shared the happy news alongside childhood photos of himself and his wife, which makes the whole thing feel even sweeter (and also makes you feel old, because doesn’t it feel like yesterday when you were just a kid yourself?). His post, while full of happiness and joy, is also marked by his honesty and candidness about his fatherhood–as he admits why he had hoped their second child to be a girl:
“Priscilla and I are happy to share we’re expecting another baby girl! After our difficult experience having Max, we weren’t sure what to expect or whether we’d be able to have another child. When Priscilla and I first found out she was pregnant again, our first hope was that the child would be healthy.
My next hope was that it would be a girl. I cannot think of a greater gift than having a sister and I’m so happy Max and our new child will have each other.
I grew up with three sisters and they taught me to learn from smart, strong women. They weren’t just my sisters but some of my best friends. They’ve gone on to write books, excel at performance, music, sports, cooking and their careers. They showed me how to compete and still laugh together afterwards.”
He goes on to say how Priscilla grew up with two sisters herself, and how valuable this was to who she has become:
“Priscilla grew up with two sisters and they taught her the importance of family, caring for others and hard work. They supported each other as first generation college students and in their careers in medicine and business. They have so many inside jokes — the kind only siblings can understand.”
Part of the reason why the couple’s announcement is so striking is the fact that Chan has been upfront about her fertility and pregnancy struggles in the past, including multiple miscarriages, stating previously:
“It’s a lonely experience. Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you.”
“There are really dark moments where you think you’re alone. And when we realized that we weren’t and that there were other people traveling along the same road with you. I think having that, knowing that you’re not alone, was incredibly important for us. And we wanted others to know that they weren’t alone, either.”
Mazel tov to the growing family! We hope the pregnancy goes smoothly.
In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didn’t know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)
Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.
Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where you’re going—what choices you’ll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live in—you need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.
We’ve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and that’s OK.)
We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. It’s tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.
Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.
The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of “Ma Tovu” down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the children’s service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesn’t mind one’s child singing (to the tune of “Rose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?”), “My toe’s blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoe” as a way of working toward “Ma Tovu.”
Every week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a few sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).
A young girl, maybe a young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I can’t quite name.
As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. It’s clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here it’s the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.
After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. “Sisters!” calls out my older daughter; “Owls,” her sister says. No mater the complexities, I’m glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.
Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.
A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.
“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.
“Me too,” the woman said.
We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:
Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.
Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.
We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.
The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.
This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parshawritten not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.
From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.
Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.
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.
We are sitting in the aftermath of a riveting, polarizing election. It has been all too easy to lose sight of the common humanity of those with whom we disagree. Recently, Anne posted a link to one of her Wedding Blog posts that has become relevant once again. However, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of this, because it is no longer just about Anne and me- now it is about Jack.
The children of interfaith relationships have an enormous advantage in today’s world. They are exposed to two people who hold differing religious views while still loving each other. That exposure will hopefully result in our children recognizing that the people with whom we agree may not have all the answers, and that those with whom we disagree have valid and valuable viewpoints.
the future generation
How do we pass the values of respect and acceptance on to our children? Half of that challenge requires regular demonstrations of love – hugs, verbal declarations, and the like, between the parents themselves, and between the parents and the children. The other half, no less important, requires respectful discussion of points of disagreement. We shouldn’t disregard the differences in our faiths; rather, we should openly communicate as to why we disagree, and what we see differently, and most importantly that we still love each other in-spite of these differences. By combining these messages, we communicate that conflict can be healthy only through respecting people who hold different worldviews from you.
The past few years have seen a dangerous rise of hatred, pointing fingers, name calling, and evil. Many people are constructing ever-thicker social bubbles and shutting out those with whom they disagree. We, as interfaith parents, are in a prime position to raise our children that will reverse these trends. This gives me enormous hope for our future generation.
Helen Rose in her Hand Made Birthday Dress from her Abuelita in Mexico
I burned myself last week. Right after Rosh Hashanah I went into the kitchen to pour hot water into a single-cup coffee filter and ended up with a pot of boiling water splashing down the right side of my body. On the week of the Jewish New Year, my 1-year-old daughter, Helen Rose, had a bad head cold and I had a second-degree burn across my chest. Everything would have been fine, except it wasn’t.
A little while later, the blisters that had formed on my breast ruptured while I was trying to carry Helen down four flights of stairs in our apartment building. I was in pain for five days. I walked around the apartment without a shirt on and tried to keep the area clean. Then, one night a few days before Yom Kippur, I noticed a thin red line spreading from my breast to my armpit; I could hardly move my arm.
As a Jew I feel that guilt has played a large role in my life. There are jokes in our community about “Jewish guilt” and “Jewish mothers’ guilt.” So my mind automatically went to that place we tell ourselves not to go: “What did I do? I did something wrong and it’s almost Yom Kippur. I’m paying for something.” Adrian, my Catholic partner, heard my lament.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It was an accident.”
I asked him if there was such a thing as Catholic guilt, especially in Mexico, where he’s from. I even tried to find the word for “guilt” in Spanish. The only word I could come up with was “culpa.” But culpa doesn’t really mean “guilt”; it means “fault.” It comes from the Latin root “culpa,” also used in the well-known term felix culpa. The phrase means “happy fault.” Catholics believe that Jesus dying on the cross was a felix culpa, because although he died for mankind’s sins, which was bad, the Catholics got to have him as their savior, which was good. So to me it was as if Catholic guilt, if there is such a thing, could never compare to Jewish guilt. For me, guilt is guilt, and there is no happiness involved.
As soon as Adrian got home from work, I rushed to the emergency room carrying all my guilt with me. My burn had become so infected that the doctors at my local hospital transferred me to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I cried. Adrian was taking care of the baby, and I felt alone. It turned out I had cellulitis and was to stay at the hospital with an IV until my burn healed. I cried again. Helen’s birthday was two days away and Yom Kippur was the day after her birthday, but I was informed I might have to stay in the hospital for three days.
Hospitals are lonely, but if they do one thing it’s test your faith. They test your faith in God and your faith in other human beings. One of my nurses wore a cross. Another wore a Star of David, and the third wore a heart with the word “Mom” in the middle. I felt that all three of those nurses represented all three parts of my family and myself: Jewish, Catholic and motherly (and fatherly) love. They took great care of me while I thought more about guilt, about the New Year and about the Day of Atonement coming up. I thought about my daughter’s smile and Adrian’s sweet face.
I tried to remember that my wound was nothing. A burn center cares for people who have been truly disfigured by fire. I was lucky to have only been partially burned, and not across my entire body or face.
I thought of my little Helen Rose. How could I have let myself think God was punishing me for something by burning me? I burned my own breast! And it was an accident! Some people sit in the hospital for days, weeks, months. And then some people’s children sit in the hospital. Guilt has nothing to do with it—life happens. Tragedy happens. Sometimes death happens. These things happen to Jews, Catholics, Muslims and every human being on earth. They don’t happen to make us pay; they happen to make us learn.
But Jewish guilt can come in handy sometimes. I dished out the Jewish guilt that was passed down to me to every doctor who came in contact with me. “You know,” I said as the IV dripped, “my daughter’s first birthday is on Monday, and if you don’t fix me I may not be home for it.” I remember one doctor said, “She won’t remember.” I could feel my Jewish ancestors rise up in my blood to reply, “But I’ll remember! And what kind of mother would I be if I missed her birthday because of my burned breast?”
I was released from the hospital on Monday, just in time for Helen’s birthday. I took the kosher cake I had made days before out of the freezer. Our party plans were cancelled, but Adrian, my mother, Helen and I blew out a candle.
The Kosher Aztec Birthday Cake
I couldn’t go to synagogue because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a week, but I felt I had already atoned. A week later at my follow-up visit at the hospital, a doctor asked, “Why didn’t I see you when you were here? Were you in the burn unit?”
“Yes,” I said, “I was released on Monday, just in time for my daughter’s….”
Before I could finish, he cut me off: “Your daughter’s first birthday? Yes, I know who you are now. There was a lot of talk about you. The staff felt so guilty about keeping you here that they decided it was OK for you to leave a day early.”
With the drama of the High Holidays receding into the past, I find myself thinking about the charms and challenges of bringing a toddler to synagogue services.
This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearby suburb, one that’s full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didn’t attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.
Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtually forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time she’s also moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, “Mommy, why?”
Given these two facts, I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as “family friendly.” We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat on benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang “Bim Bam” over the harmonious strains of a guitar.
That’s when the questions began.
“Mommy, why are we on benches?”
“There aren’t enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.”
“Why aren’t there enough chairs?”
I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. “It’s a busy night, sweetie.” The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.
“Mommy, who are the people up front?”
“Why are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?”
“What is everyone saying? I don’t know the words to this song.” (We were singing “L’cha Dodi.”)
“Mommy, they said ‘stars!’ I know that word!” This caused particular excitement.
When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.
“Mommy, I know this song,” she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. “Mommy, are there candles up there?” She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.
At various points, she asked me, “Mommy, why are we sitting outside? When are we going inside?”
On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: “Mommy, when is it time for dessert?” She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.
“I don’t know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,” I replied cautiously.
“But I really want dessert,” she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.
“I know,” I replied. “We’ll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.”
My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.
Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, “Mommy, how do these people know this song too?”
“It’s a very important Jewish prayer,” I whispered between syllables.
The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, “Why is everyone being so quiet?” I leaned down and whispered, “Shhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.”
“I am being quiet,” she stage-whispered. One moment later: “Can we talk louder now?” Me, still whispering: “Not yet, OK?”
And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when “dessert” would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.
I’m an interfaith parent. As an outsider, it’s tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with a remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughter’s constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that “this night is different from (most) other nights,” at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.
By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had always worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sister’s incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us? I felt torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriate (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my children’s participatory joy.
I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions weren’t so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families – and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first Friday “family service,” but at most Shabbat services at Sam’s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” program on Sunday mornings. In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual lifeat the synagogue?
Jack’s first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents’ synagogue earlier this month. Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services. We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year. I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only. Even during Friday night services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like families with young children are always present at Catholic churches. During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass. During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families. Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass are anything but distracting, saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue match what you’ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith’s continuity for the next generation?