Church, State, and Jewish Engagement

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening prayers at government meetings, even if predominately Christian, do not violate the Constitution. How do Jewish and Jewish interfaith families prepare to confront the mixing of church and state?

I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.

In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.  

The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider. 

The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America – adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?

Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes – they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.

As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.

All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.

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Why Go to Israel

Sunset in Israel.

As we prepare to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, I find myself thinking about the land of milk and honey. I’m not dreaming of pita and falafel, or gaga or any of the other activities at my community’s Israel Independence Day celebration. I’m thinking about why travel to Israel is important.

I’ve got this on my mind for two reasons: my family is considering going on my synagogue’s Summer 2015 congregational Israel trip, and Taglit-Birthright, the nonprofit sponsor of free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults has announced that it is expanding its outreach to children with one Jewish parent who have little or no formal connection to Jewish life. But why go to Israel?

Many believe that a visit to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity that can strengthen bonds with the land and its people, spark interest in Jewish history and practices, and create solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide. The belief is that going to Israel will make Jewishness more important to a Jew, even one with a marginal connection to Jewish life.

I think this is true and it is one of the reasons why interfaith families and children of intermarriage should be encouraged to go to Israel, especially as the Jewish community seeks to get more intermarrieds to engage in Jewish life. But I also think going to Israel is like studying the humanities, it is an important part of our intellectual repertory regardless of the faith we identify with or how we do or do not practice a particular religion.

Israel’s position at the place where three continents and two seas meet made it a crossroads of ancient trade routes where various cultures, customs, and traditions mixed. Over the centuries, it has been home to many peoples and multiple religions. Touching history in Israel–ancient and modern–helps us better understand and think more deeply about the world around us. Visiting Israel provides context.

Learning about Christianity in the birthplace of Jesus, Islam in the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven, and Judaism in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah provides insight into three major faiths and background for the current state of each. Traveling to Israel, like literature, art, and philosophy challenges us to think differently–to step outside our comfort zone, to consider other perspectives, to confront our fears and prejudices, and see life’s complexities.  

I think about my experience traveling to Israel as a 16-year-old on a teen tour organized by NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth arm, and how it opened my heart and mind. I recall having emotional experiences that brought me to tears: Touching the Western Wall, standing atop Masada watching the sunrise, and the dark and somber Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem. Never before had anything Jewish moved me in this way.

I remember touring the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent Muslim holy site that is believed to enshrine the sacred rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven and asking myself if I could admire the shrine’s architectural beauty even though there was a tumultuous history of conflict between Muslim and Jews. I discovered that I was capable of separating one thing from the other.

A visit with an ultra-Orthodox woman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim and encounters with non-practicing Israelis highlighted the growing tensions between the secular, and religious–an issue that has only intensified in recent years. I remember sitting with the other girls on my trip in the woman’s apartment as she discussed her daily religious rituals and shaving her head. She told us that we were “bad” Jews because we did not live as she did. I thought who is she to judge my Jewishness.

Contrast that with our more regular encounters with secular Israelis who felt little obligation to observe Jewish rituals and practices because they lived in Israel. Living in the Jewish state was enough. They shared their dislike of the control the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate had over personal affairs such marriage, divorce, and the status of who was a Jew. The interactions with people who held two contrasting perspectives helped me understand just how important I felt the separation of church and state was and made me realize that I could love Israel but disagree with its policies.

Like many areas of the world, Israel is complicated. The Israeli-Palestinian issue and the role of religion in a democratic society challenge our liberal American Jewish values. But Israel’s complexities are precisely why I think interfaith families and their children should go to Israel. Experiencing the contradictions is part of the journey.

When we go to Israel, we discover our roots and understand our personal connection to Judaism’s past, and the Jewish people. We explore the links between the three faiths that consider the land sacred. We learn about the importance of this area in history–religious and otherwise. We gain perspective on current events–my visit took place shortly before the First Intifada and as internal politics was heating up-and our experience with art and literature is enriched–reading Alice Hoffman’s novel The Dovekeepers is different after you’ve been to Masada and walked the ancient fortress where much of the story takes place.

I hope more children of intermarriage take advantage of the opportunity presented by a Birthright trip because visiting Israel can be transformative. It can help you better understand what you believe in, and galvanize you to advocate for the change you want to see in Israel and elsewhere in the world. It can educate you about the Jewish community. What you learn on a trip can enable you to make informed choices about Israel, Judaism, faith, politics, and culture.

Why should you go to Israel? You should go because it connects you to the past and adds meaning to the present. I know, because 27 years ago it did these things for me.

Do you live in the greater Philadelphia area and want to bring your interfaith family on a memorable trip to Israel? Come join IFF/Philadelphia for an incredible opportunity to do so.

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Tikkun Olam Ted and the Importance of Small Steps

My family is one of the many families who benefits from the amazing PJ Library, an extraordinary program that mails free Jewish books and music to 125,000 homes throughout the country. Ruthie enjoyed the program for three years, and last year Chaya got her very own subscription. It is a real gift to have colorful, modern media to use to talk to the girls about different aspects of Jewish life. This week I’d like to talk about Chaya’s current favorite, Tikkun Olam Ted, and how reading it has reminded me how to boil big ideas down into bite size pieces for my young kids.

The book, by Vivian Newman, is about a little boy named Ted, who “is small. But spends his days doing very big things.” Ted got his nickname because of his interest in helping to “fix the world and make it a kinder, better place.” For each day of the week, Ted takes on a different task. What is brilliant about the book, aside from the adorable, colorful illustrations by Steve Mack, is how Ted’s big things are completely age-appropriate for a preschooler. Ted does not heal the world by going to a soup kitchen, running a blood drive, or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity. He does things that any kid could easily do in the course of their daily life – he recycles, he does yard work, he feeds the birds and he remembers to turn off the lights.

Reading this book, I am reminded of my own eagerness as a parent to teach my girls big lessons, and to endow them with a sophisticated toolkit of ideas and approaches to having a full and successful life.  I dream of raising them to know how to make good choices, to be resilient, to pursue their passions, and to try to fix the world because doing so is meaningful for them.  Before I had kids, and throughout my first pregnancy, I often schemed about how I would engender these traits in them, but I spent more time thinking about a Bat Mitzvah-age service project, or the feminist literature I might sprinkle into a 16-year-old’s Hanukkah gifts, than what the building blocks might be for a two-year old.

But it is a long time before those Bat Mitzvahs, and that toolkit will be even stronger if I can start now. Reading Tikkun Olam Ted aloud to my girls reminds me of the significance of the things that they can do independently now, and that those are probably as important as that adolescent reading list. Sure, I’ll keep bringing them to political events with me, and telling them of the bigger things Eric and I do to fix the world in our adult way.  But I will also remind them how turning off the faucet really matters, or how re-using yesterday’s sandwich bag actually has a ripple effect on the health of our planet. Judging by how frequently Chaya hands Newman’s book to me, I think she’s already starting to grasp the connections.

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Jewish Summer Camp: The Questions You Should Be Asking

Camper and counselorThinking of sending your kids to Jewish summer camp (this year or in the future)? Not sure where to start or what you might want to keep in mind about the experience of your child, a child of interfaith parents? It’s possible you haven’t considered any of these questions yet, but a camp that may seem warm and fuzzy may not be the most schooled in how to project an open and welcoming atmosphere to interfaith families.

Here’s what Jane Larkin, InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, Jodi Bromberg, IFF President and Lindsey Silken, Editorial Director, suggest asking the camp director. (Of course, you’ll want to adapt these questions as appropriate for your family.) And once you’re ready to start searching for a welcoming camp, our resource page can help.

1. Do you welcome children of interfaith families at your camp?

2. Does the camp require that the child is being raised Jewish?

3. Can dual-faith or secular interfaith children qualify? What about children who are in the process of converting to Judaism? Does it matter which parent is Jewish?

4. Do you have a definition of who is considered Jewish by the camp and who is not? How is that communicated to staff and campers?

5. What’s the percentage of interfaith campers and counselors at your camp?

6. What training or education do administrative staff get on working with interfaith families?

7. What training or education do counselors or CITs get on working with interfaith families?

Counselor and camper8. What programming is specifically done regarding Jewish education, ritual or practice? (Ask yourself: How “Jewish” do you want your child’s experience to be? There is a wide range of options.)

[Related questions to consider: Is the camp kosher or kosher-style? Is there Jewish education? Israel education? How frequent is it? Do the children pray? When? What about Shabbat? Is the camp aligned with a Jewish denomination or movement? Are Jewish clergy on staff? Are they welcoming and accepting of interfaith families?]

9. Will I receive information on what my kids are doing each week, including any Hebrew words that they are learning (or any other Jewish education), so that I can understand and participate?

10. Do you do specific outreach to children of interfaith families, or anything specific to ensure that they are welcome at your camp? And what will you do to ensure that my children are welcome at camp?

11. What philosophy does the camp emphasize? For example, Jane’s son Sammy’s camp places a strong emphasis on personal growth and positive self-image. They accept Jewish kids of every race and ethnicity, from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds including many who are from interfaith homes, with learning differences, etc. The camp’s philosophy indicates that a significant amount of energy goes into making a broad spectrum of Jewish kids feel comfortable.

A few suggestions for parents:

1. Visit the camp. Go the summer before you are ready to send your child to see the camp in action. Take your child with you. Ask if the camp offers a family retreat weekend during the school year that your entire family can attend. The whole family can get a taste of the camp experience: see if they are comfortable with the Jewish aspect of the camp and meet other prospective camp families. Many families do this and friends their child makes during the weekend often plan to attend camp together or request to be in the same bunk during the summer.

2. Let your child experience overnight camp before they go to overnight camp for the summer. Many of the camps—especially those affiliated with a denomination or movement—offer weekend youth retreats for children, usually in third to fifth grade. These are kid-only experiences with camp staff. They are not billed as “check-out camp” but rather youth retreats so they are a mix of experienced campers and kids going for the first time. These outings are opportunities for children to “live” camp for 48 hours. If a child comes home excited about the experience, it is a good indication that they are ready to go to camp, and that the camp is a good fit.

3. Camp can be expensive. Determine what you can afford. If you need additional help, there are scholarships available for first time campers and some camps offer assistance for interfaith families. We recommend learning about Foundation for Jewish Camp’s programs: BunkConnect (matches eligible families with affordable camps) and One Happy Camper (need blind grants of up to $1,000 for first-time campers).

4. Does your child have a specific passion? Jewish summer camps have become hip to specialization. There are now Jewish sports, art and sci-tech focused camps. Today kids can have an interest-specific and Jewish camp experience at the same place.

If you have questions we didn’t cover, please comment below or email us at editor@interfaithfamily.com and we will do our best to answer them, or find the answers for you from a camp expert. 

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Thinking about Kansas City at the Seder Table

Our Seder Table

Yesterday, as we were putting the final touches on our seder menu, a violent and horrible tragedy occurred at not one but two centers of the Jewish community in Kansas City. Today is a mournful day for those lost, and not necessarily a day of answers or political rhetoric.  But it is the day of our first Seder, and it is impossible not to think about how this impacts our celebration of freedom.  So here is my humble attempt to acknowledge the weight of this crime on this most important of days.

 

The most important thing to say is that I mourn for the three innocent victims of this senseless shooting.  My heart goes out to their loved ones as they try to face this new and bitter day.  I grieve for all of the people in Kansas City who witnessed this evil; especially the parents whose children have now witnessed the worst of human behavior firsthand, and who I imagine have been forever changed.  I quiver a little bit more knowing that the place where these events took place is very similar to the place where I work, as the randomness and horror feel that much closer to me.  I am deeply saddened, saddened as I am by every senseless act of violence, and saddened as a Jew, an American, and a human being.

 

It is premature to try to make meaning out of something so unthinkable, but I also feel like yesterday’s events cannot go unrecognized at my Seder table.  They bring a wave of solemnity, as I will be thinking about the people in Kansas City and elsewhere who have family members missing from their own tables because of violent and unexplainable crimes. They also demand a recognition of of good fortune, that we have one more day to celebrate life with those we love the most.  While we may be thinking of those we have lost, we must celebrate the joy of the present moment.  They remind us of the need to constantly strive for a better world, that the work is not over, and it will never be completed by a single generation.  On Passover, I am reminded that we are all members of the community of the human race, and that the price of our freedom is the responsibility of looking out for one another.  For today, that means sending a little bit of extra love to Kansas City, and a challenge to think even harder about what we might do tomorrow to repair the world.

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Finding a Way to Embrace the Fifth Child

The five children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, one silent and one with interfaith parents.

The other day, I received an email from an organization that supports unaffiliated and intermarried Jews encouraging me to recognize the “fifth child” at my seder. Curious about who the “fifth child” was I opened the note.

The message highlighted how Passover has long been a holiday that pushes Jews to acknowledge critical Jewish and non-Jewish issues of the day. Using the haggadah story about the four children – the wise, wicked, simple, and silent, as a foundation, the email suggested that seder facilitators explore the questions and challenges faced by a fifth child – a child of intermarriage.

A discussion guide was included, but before I opened it, I felt myself grimace – something about the child from an interfaith home being labeled the “fifth child” made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew that the material was developed with the intention of making Judaism more welcoming and I assumed that the language was scrutinized to ensure that it wasn’t offensive or exclusionary. So, why was I bothered by it? What rubbed me the wrong way?

As I considered the language of the email, I realized that a part of my discomfort stemmed from the use of the term “fifth child.” It called to mind, the negative connotations sometimes associated with “step-child.” It felt that children like my son, who come from interfaith homes, were being labeled as “other,” outsiders, not part of the larger Jewish family.

But, I didn’t want to dismiss the material based on my initial reaction, so I put aside my feelings and continued reading. After an overview of the number of Jewish children being raised in interfaith homes, the guide suggested that leaders ask seder participants, “What does the child of intermarriage ask?” The child of intermarriage asks, “What is my place in all this?”

I thought, Sammy and the other children of intermarriage in my circle would never ask this question.

I knew that they wouldn’t ask it because they already believed that the Passover story was their story. They didn’t question their place among the Jewish people. They were all raised, from birth, in single-faith Jewish homes, in a supportive temple community. They all attended Jewish preschool, and now participate in religious education and youth activities. They were sure of their Jewish identity in part because of the commitment to creating a Jewish family made by their not Jewish mom or dad.

Suggesting to these children, who come from Jewishly engaged interfaith families, that they might not have been a part of one of the defining moments in Jewish history, would be inappropriate and confusing. It would cause them to question what they see as their place among the Jewish people.

As I read further, I saw that one of the goals of the piece was to reassure children of intermarriage who were uncertain of or insecure about their Jewishness, that they, like all Jews regardless of age, background, upbringing, or parentage, had a place in the Exodus. When I realized this, I understood that this discussion was not intended for children like my son, who feel wholly Jewish and have strong Jewish identities.

Still, what I didn’t like about the content was that it reminded me that many Jews still considered a child like mine to be outside of the Jewish community. The supplement touched a sore spot that I assumed, because of our high level of Jewish engagement, no longer hurt. I thought that after a dozen years of living an interfaith and Jewish life, that I had developed a callus. Apparently, my religious skin is not as thick as I thought.

But, after considering the information some more, I found the supplement’s value. I saw how it could encourage thoughtful and constructive dialogue about interfaith relationships, and how it could start a conversation about the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in communal forums such as committee meetings and outreach workshops, and at holiday tables with participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds, affiliations, and observance levels. I saw how, if used in the right setting, it could produce robust discourse.

One of the things that helped to change my feelings was an article I found on Chabad.org explaining the four children. Included in the essay, was the concept of a fifth child. It quoted the denomination’s former leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who said 37 years ago, that there was “another kind of a Jewish child,” one who was absent from the seder, not interested or not aware of the Exodus or Torah. Schneerson went on to state that this child presented the biggest challenge to the Jewish community but that regardless of how difficult it was, every effort should be made to bring the absentee child to the seder table because “no Jewish child should be forgotten” or “given up” on.

The Rebbe, as he was known to his followers, makes a valid point, one that may be even more valid today given the number of unaffiliated, “Just Jewish,” or non-traditional – interfaith, LGBTQ, multicultural – Jews. Yet, sadly, there are some who want to forget or give-up on Jewishly different children, especially those from interfaith homes.

What the fifth child is really about is welcoming the stranger (see Jessie Boatright’s recent blog), and making a place for part-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, or Jewishly unengaged interfaith children at seder tables in order to encourage them and their families to explore Judaism or live a more Jewish life. That is a message I can embrace. The haggadah supplement isn’t the right fit for my Passover guests, but I’m no longer bothered by it.

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The Lord of the Rings’ Passover Connection

The third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy triggered a discussion about Pharaoh and Passover.

My son Sammy and I have a tradition – we read a novel together on the weeknights during dinner. Usually, the book has themes or ideas that are targeted to a child several years older than Sammy, making it helpful to have an adult with whom to discuss the book. Over the years, we have read the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit to name a few.

The other night, we were nearing the end of The Return of the King, the last book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had reached the part when the primary protagonist, the hobbit Frodo Baggins, returns to his homeland, the Shire, after succeeding in his quest to destroy the One Ring of power. He finds that the area has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman who was defeated during the War of the Ring by Frodo’s companions.

In an act of revenge, Saruman enslaves and oppresses the hobbits and moves to destroy the natural beauty of the countryside. When Frodo discovers what he has done, he confronts him and orders him to leave the shire forever. But the other hobbits want Saruman to be killed for the murderous and villainous acts he has committed. Frodo will not allow it, saying, “I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way.”

As Saruman leaves, he passes Frodo and stabs him with a knife. Frodo is wearing an armored coat, so the knife breaks. Even though Frodo is unharmed, a group of hobbits lurches forward trying to kill Saruman, but Frodo stops them. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

As I read this section, Sammy interrupted. “I can’t believe he didn’t kill Saruman!”

“Do you think he should have killed him?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, and paused to think about his answer.

“Consider the situation in the context of Passover, which we’re about to celebrate,” I said. “Do you think drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea changed Pharaoh’s evil ways?”

“Probably not,” Sammy said. “Killing all of the firstborns didn’t either and it also punished innocent Egyptians.”

“You’re right. As we think about the plagues and fate of the Egyptians at the sea, we have to ask, does one crime justify another? Frodo doesn’t think so, he says it’s useless and doesn’t heal anything. His language suggests that he believes it just perpetuates anger and hate.”

“I think Frodo was right to show mercy to Saruman because I think if the hobbits killed him, then Saruman would have been allowed to escape from his crimes,” Sammy said. “By letting him go he has to live without the power he once had and with the knowledge of what he has done. This is, in a way, a punishment too.”

“I agree, and I think Frodo and Saruman recognize this also.”

“How so?” Sammy asked.

In answer to his question, I read the next section.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!’

“Saruman is like Pharaoh in that his heart is so hardened that he has lost all ability to change, and, therefore, any chance at ever really being free. Sometimes making someone carry the burden of their wrongful actions is the harshest punishment,” I said.

After dinner, I could tell that Sammy was still considering our discussion, and I suspect that he will continue to think about it over the next few weeks as we celebrate the holiday. The convergence of epic high fantasy and Torah has made the issues and questions raised in the Passover story more relevant to his 9-year-old world. That is a good thing. Because the more he sees how his everyday secular life intersects with his Jewish life, the more salient Judaism and his connection to it will be.

I did not plan to link the fictional narrative created by Tolkien to Passover or Judaism. It just happened. The key to making these kinds of Jewish connections is in recognizing and being open to these opportunities, and then seizing them when they present themselves.

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Welcoming the Stranger (to Judaism) at the Passover Table

As the calendar begins to hint at the end of a very long winter, a lot of people are thinking about having more time in the sun and packing their winter coats into storage.  I’m excited about those things, too, but I also have a little case of Passover fever. I love Passover for many more reasons than I’ll write about today. Today I want to talk about the guest list. As I plan my big April dinner party, I am not only thinking about the menu and the order of the seder. I am also thinking about the strangers, the people who come not knowing what the seder means to me, and the opportunity Passover grants to share that meaning.

Passover is my favorite holiday. My birthday falls right around the beginning of Passover, and as much as I complained as a kid about putting candles into Passover brownies instead of “real” cake, I’ve always loved that there is a big gathering of people I love right around my birthday.  In cold years like this one, especially, I appreciate that we have a day on the calendar where, rain or shine, we can announce our readiness for spring and rebirth.

Red WineAs an adult and often the seder planner and leader, I have also come to appreciate Passover for the way that it lends itself to sharing my own Jewish beliefs with friends and family, Jewish and not Jewish. On Passover, rather than inviting someone to a synagogue or a text study to learn what Judaism means to us, we invite them into our homes, to a great meal with plentiful wine and lots of good conversation.

During the seder we are commanded to invite the stranger into our home. We could debate the meaning of this phrase for days, but to me the first step of observing that is to think about who might be alone that night, and give them a call. My next step is often to consider who is a stranger to Judaism who might want to know a little bit more about both the religion and what it means to our family.

The seder encapsulates so much of what is most important to me about my Jewish practice. It demands thoughtful engagement, asks us to wrestle with difficult ideas, and spurs countless conversations. With storytelling as the primary tool, the seder reminds us to look to our past to inform our present and instruct us about the future. It includes a call to action and tikkun olam, to continue to work to make the world a better place. The seder also provides space to celebrate what we have, to sing and laugh and play games together. And, of course, there’s all of that food and the wine I talked about before.

Some people who are not Jewish probably identify some of those elements as the good parts of their own culture or faith as well. On top of that, the seder is chock full of universal themes. The story of enslavement and redemption is one common across many groups. The reliance on faith for hope and wisdom about how to be better people is something that draws countless parallels. A structure for welcoming and celebrating spring is something in which we all can participate. As parents, the seder reminds us of our dual responsibility to be both models and teachers, a practice that extends into the entirety of the job of raising children.

For me, the seder is one of the best parties I’ll have all year. The kitchen is a mess, the table overflowing with food, and the china makes its annual appearance. What better time to open up my home to our interfaith circle of family and friends, and to invite those who are strangers to Judaism to pull up a chair and join in the party.

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The Blessing of the Broken Garage Door

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I know that.”

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

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

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

The mezuzah Sammy selected for the entryway from our garage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ending the Shabbat Protests

Ruthie's Homemade Challah

Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.  Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, it’s the kind of challenge I’ve longed for in contrast to what’s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.

Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates “an event” even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.

But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.

In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didn’t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didn’t get very far at first. “Because it’s stupid.” “Because I don’t like the prayers.” “Because I am hungry.”

And then, finally, an answer I could work with:

“I don’t want to be Jewish, Mommy.”

Ouch. That hurt. But I didn’t want to let on just yet.

“Why, Ruthie?”

“Because I don’t understand the prayers. We don’t say them in English, and I don’t know what we’re saying.”

Aha!

“Could we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthie’s request.

Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.

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