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When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an âall inâ model for a Jewish household. For our future childrenâs sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. Â It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Ericâs personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The âall inâ model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our familiesâ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Ericâs parentsâ and sisterâs homes. Â
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So hereâs where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We donât celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Ericâs parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together. Â
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I canât help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something âall inâ and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there canât possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didnât have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didnât rule out the possibility that one day maybe Iâd even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasnât focused on finding a lifelong mate â and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends werenât Jewish, and besides, I didnât want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
Itâs not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they werenât with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everettâs 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didnât want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didnât want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was âthe oneâ and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
Thereâs that whole clichĂ© of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. Thereâs no explanation, thereâs no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish thereâs a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But weâve both been there, done that, so thereâs no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids â both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids donât even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
Itâs more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasnât an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldnât have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me heâs bringing his TV because itâs bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, Iâve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things Iâve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. Iâm ready for this next phase but also know thereâs going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. Thereâs a mezuzah on the front door. Thereâs a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still havenât gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. Thereâs no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I canât think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that Iâd walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I donât know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, andÂ that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but Iâm hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that itâs really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movementâs Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didnât flinch knowing Iâd be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their momâs DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, âhealing the worldâ â and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what weâd ALL learn by doing.
I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.
Iâm so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that weâre doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.
Itâs a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected â that thereâs a place for everyone at the table because weâre all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, itâs the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.
After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him whatâs become a pretty central concept in our family. Itâs not like he doesnât know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. Itâs not like he doesnât know that Iâm involved in planning this stuff. Itâs not like he doesnât know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. Itâs not like he doesnât know any of these things about me or the kids. But Iâve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and Iâm not quite sure why.
The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their âJewishâ life and what is their âsecularâ life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think itâs clear cut. Sometimes I still think Iâm living in a weird gray area where I wish I didnât have to explain things â to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isnât always just healing the giant world, itâs also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.
When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parentsâ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshonâs home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didnât care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didnât have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didnât show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshonâs residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a âmitzvah,â a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshonâs house to play. He didnât speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didnât see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
âIâm so sorry about your father,â he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my ânot Jewish enoughâ family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says âWhy?â
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.
If youâre a parent, thereâs always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like âwhere do babies come from?â âWhatâs sex?â and âHave you ever tried drugs?â I think over the years Iâve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donât know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: âHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â
Me: âUm, no, not really.â
Kids: âBut isnât he supposed to go to church? Isnât that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenât Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â (Yeah, my kids still donât get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenât paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâs be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: âWell yeah. I guess heâs *supposed* to go to church. If youâre part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnât belong to a church and he doesnât go. We donât go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâs OK, right?â
Kids: âYeah itâs OK, but did he EVER go to church?â
Clearly they werenât letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâs connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: âDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâs a subject that Iâm not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: âUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâs really hard to explain guys.â
Kids: âWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâs converting, but the longer weâre together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâs experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâm proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâs family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. My parents were liberals who met in the theatre where they had been professional actors. My father was a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in Crown Heights. My mother, a Baltimore native who said she always wanted to marry a Brooklyn boy, and so she did. They moved to Midwood, a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They wanted to be close to my Grandmother and to buy a house and to teach their children my brother and I the importance of our Jewish heritage. My father wanted us to always remember where we came from.
My parents were not religious but we celebrated every High Holy day. Every year it is a tradition to walk with my mother one mile to the Orthodox synagogue that is around the corner from where my Grandmother used to live. The walk to synagogue has always been part of my tradition with my mother. Our synagogue separates men on one side and women on the other. I never saw myself as less than anyone else, although I know there is much debate about a womanâs role in Judaism. I always knew I was a Jew. I knew inside my heart what that meant and I spent a lot of my childhood defending my differences to those from more devout households.
We were not a religious household by any means. My father drove on Saturdays; my mother got her hair done on Friday nights. We were traditional Jews who knew all the stories from the Torah, but I wore jeans and my brother played electric guitar and learned every AC/DC song by heart to play on his Gibson SG (the same guitar Angus Young had). My friends would often invite me over on Shabbat so that I could turn on their electronic appliances for them, something they were not permitted to do on the Sabbath.
Fast-forward to today, and my life partner, Adrian, is Catholic. He was born in a small village in Mexico and left his home to work at 13. He came to the United States at 15, and when he left his village, his mother tied a scapular around his neck that had been blessed by the local priest for guidance, safety and luck. He has never taken it off.
When times are difficult Adrian directs his prayers to the spiritual mother of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is well known for having appeared to a poor village man named Juan Diego. No one would believe Juan Diego when he said the Virgin appeared to him but Guadalupe urged him to go back and convince the village people. When he returned to the village, and a crowd formed around him, he opened his cloak and 100 red roses fell out. There, on the inside of the cloak was an apparition of Guadalupe. The great Basilica in Mexico City was built where the Virgin is said to have revealed herself.
As a Jew and a deep believer in Kabbalah and all things mystical, the stories of the Torah and the stories from the Bible are the lessons I would like to pass down to the next generation. It is the message of each of these stories that make the traditions of both religions so rich. On the 12th of December Catholics from Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupeâs birthday. Here in Brooklyn we light Hanukkah candles. Both traditions celebrate life.
AdrianÂ and I recently had our first child, a baby girl. She already hears the coos of Spanish, English and Hebrew echoed throughout our household. At two months old she has already witnessed her mother burn Christmas cookies, light the menorah in the wrong direction and forget to buy half the ingredients to make tamales on a trip back from the grocery store. But, in all the chaos she is witnessing traditions new and old. Our baby is named after my two Grandmothers and we recently had a baby naming ceremony for her at the East Midwood Jewish Center. It was an incredible day because my family was meeting my partnerâs family for the first time. We were all there together from different cultures and religions celebrating this new and precious life.
I have always wanted children and I was always worried about it never being the âright time.â It was never the perfect situation, there was never enough money or the right job or the Jewish boy I was âsupposedâ to marry. Finally one day after having been with Adrian for three years I stopped waiting for the âright momentâ to have a child. We just decided to have one. We talked about our different cultures and religions. We talked about what our child would grow up learning about and believing in. One night we said, âshe will learn from both of us and the biggest lesson she will learn is love and respect.â Those are the two basic themes of any religion.
Delivering a baby was the most spiritual journey of my life so far. Both Adrian and my mother were in the delivery room and when the baby came out we all burst into tears. Adrian ran around the table to hug my mother, the baby was on my chest for skin-to-skin and in that moment I thought of a quote I had heard as a girl in Yeshiva. It was a quote from the Talmud: âEvery blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers âgrow, grow.â Thatâs what we were put on earth to do. Iâd like my daughter to grow to ask questions and not always do something because itâs the way itâs been done for centuries.
Iâd like her to respect and love and admire where both her parents come from so that she can respect, love and admire herself. So that she can know that there is never just one faith – but to have faith in something, in anything will catapult her toward her dreams and whomever she wants to be.
Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac nâ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.
âI am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,â she said.
âOh, that must have been fun,â I replied.
âYeah, it was tons of fun!â
âWhat other holidays do you celebrate?â I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.
âWe also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,â she continued, âbut we have Christmas too,â she said, âbecause my mommy is Christian.â
âOh, really?â I replied. âThatâs interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,â I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldnât call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack,Â what do I say! Iâm much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, butâŠ how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old!Â
I continued to play along with theÂ conversation. âI suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. Sheâs a very, very liberal Christian,â I added. âAnd she celebrates Christmas, yes.â Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.
When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christianâs Journey Through the Jewish Year. Weâd only been dating for a fewÂ weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his fatherâs holidays.
This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.
I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.
When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least thatâs how I remember the conversation going. Weâd just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, âIâve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.â
I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. âReally? Youâd do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,â he told me, âmeaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. Iâm so glad youâre open to this!â
Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. Iâve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would âhonor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.â This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say weâre going to raise our children as solely Jewish!
Thatâs funny, I find myself thinking. I thought weâd agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didnât I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?
Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, childrenÂ who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, childrenÂ who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.
At least, it sounds confusing to me. Iâm not sure itâs confusing to our older daughter. Itâs simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, âIâm the only Jewish kid in my school.â Iâm not sure thatâs quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewishâand whether sheâd say it this way or not, she knows, too, that itâs not quite that simple.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. Â I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. Iâve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But thatâs not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but Iâd imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” Itâs that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in todayâs society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and Dâvar Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you werenât raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our sonâs Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didnât mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasnât, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our sonâs third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didnât work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldnât consider it.
I didnât care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didnât care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didnât care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didnât care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didnât go heâd feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasnât sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didnât matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. Itâs not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, âevery additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came beforeâ on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up âwith more densely Jewish social networks areâŠmore likely to engage in ritual practiceâŠand to raise their children as Jews.â
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, itâs the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, itâs a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. Iâm surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandiâs recent blogÂ post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
Over winter break, an inmarried Jewish friend told me that her son was no longer dating the nice Jewish girl from his summer camp. He was now dating a not Jewish girl from his high school. I could tell my friend wasnât enthusiastic about the relationship.
The following week, I received a message from another inmarried friend with two teenage sons. She had just read about the decision by the USY board to drop its policy prohibiting teen board members from interdating. She asked if I could write about the topic since dating was an extension of the intermarriage conversation.
I sensed that both of my friends were a little anxious about the subject even though they were Reform Jews with open minds, open hearts, and intermarried friends that live Jewishly. I also sensed that they werenât sure how to talk about interdating, and no one was discussing it with them either. My friends were looking for information and some guidance.
This post is for them and other parents who are navigating teenage interdating. Dealing with adolescent romance is not easy, and the issues of Jewish continuity and intermarriage can add a layer of stress. Here are few things for parents to keep in mind.
Few high school couples marry. Estimates suggest that high school sweethearts comprise only 2% of new marriages, and a 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that only 14% of respondents age 18-27 met their partner in either high school or college. With dating abuse receiving much attention of late, it is more important that your child is in a healthy, positive adolescent relationship than a relationship with someone of the same faith. Talk to your teens; teach them how to date, how to respect themselves and others, and how to protect themselves from abusive behavior.
Critical Jewish experiences are better predictors of future Jewish engagement than the faith of a romantic partner. I note in From Generation to Generation that the level of Jewish activism in a homeâritual observance, Jewish education and social networksâis a stronger predictor of Jewish continuity than the faith of a love interest or marriage partner. Do you regularly celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays in your home? Do your teens participate in Jewish education post-b’nei mitzvah? Are they involved in Jewish youth organizations and activities? Do they attend Jewish camp? Has your family or teenagers traveled to Israel? Do they have Jewish friends? Answer “yes” to some or all of these questions and it’s likely that your children have a solid Jewish identity and will choose to make a Jewish home, regardless of the religious identity of their mate.
Telling your children âdonâtâ wonât ensure Jewish continuity. In From Generation to Generation, I quote an Orthodox father of five who says, âGuaranteeing Jewish identity is the sum of everything you do when you raise your children. Itâs not just telling them donât.” Simply prohibiting interdating won’t make Judaism important to your children and unless you plan to arrange your childâs dates, you have little control over the identity of his or her romantic partners. But you do have influence. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness, parents have the biggest impact on their children’s Jewishness when they are involved in and show a strong commitment to Jewish activities and regularly explain in an honest manner why they engage in Judaism. Talk to your teen about why Judaism and its continuation is important to you. Share your hope that he or she will want to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children irrespective of the faith of their partner. Donât just do this once; make it an on-going conversation. Show them that you mean what you say by engaging in Jewish life in your home and community.
Welcome the stranger. Make an effort to get to know your childâs not Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend and create opportunities for him or her to learn about your family and your childâs upbringing. Invite them to join you for Shabbat dinner, a Passover Seder or High Holiday meal. Ask them to participate in your Hanukkah celebration. Use these occasions to expose your childâs beau to Jewish life, show them that Judaism is important to your family and give them insight into a different tradition. These experiences are an opportunity to break down stereotypes and build understanding and acceptance.
Interdating during the teen years is part of teenage social experimentation, but it can be difficult for parents. Preventing interdating is unrealistic and fearing the future you have little control over is unproductive. Focus your energy on influencing your teen’s connection to Judaism by planting Jewish seeds, nurturing them often and talking about the importance of Judaism in your lives. Not only will this help strengthen your familyâs ties to the Jewish faith today, but it will increase the chances that Judaism will continue to blossom through your children tomorrow.