Back to School, Back to Family

Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.

I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.

Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.

It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.

But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.

As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.

I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.

Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.

For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.

Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.

This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening  our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.

But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.

Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.

Reason # 1: Why Being Interfaith is a Plus

When you are a mixed-faith couple, you loose the ability to assume from the get go.  The question is not when we celebrate Yom Kippur, with whose family will we break fast?  We need to start from more basic questions: Will we celebrate Yom Kippur? Will we both fast? And now that we have kids, how will we celebrate with our kids?

This inability to assume, and therefore the need to have an intention about our practice, is one of the greatest things about being from different faiths. In my marriage and co-parenting, I think this sometimes gives us a leg up, and its something that I wish was celebrated more.

When my husband and I were first thinking about marriage, we went to meet with a rabbi who ran a course for interfaith couples. Before he told us about the class, he asked us if we thought we’d have a Jewish home. We told him we thought so, but we hadn’t figured everything out yet. With this in mind, he recommended that rather than taking his interfaith class, we take his Intro to Judaism class, to figure out if we were going to be an interfaith family or a Jewish family (he had marriage classes for both).

ParentingSo we took the class. It was a great class. We learned that we loved to study together.  And the class triggered a long series of conversations, about what holidays we wanted to celebrate, and how, about how we imagined marking life cycle events, and, at the core, about what it meant that we would create a home and life together, a nuclear family that melded the two individual histories we brought to the coupledom.

[As an aside, InterfaithFamily has a great online workshop for interfaith couples called “Love & Religion” that you can learn more about here.]

This is where the “leg up” comes to bear. All pairings, whether you were raised next door to one another or in different countries, bring two separate perspectives on life to the table when they marry. In an interfaith pairing, the separation between the perspectives is pronounced, highlighted by the difference in two easy to identify components of family history. This can be a gift – a gift in that the differences shout out to us, and demand attention. For Eric and me, it meant the dialogue about how “he” and “I” would become “we” started before our engagement, before we were thrown into trying to make a wedding that was fun for everyone (it was!), building a home together, and raising kids. It demanded a way to talk about things, to identify difference, and to navigate it.

I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but sometimes in same-faith couples, the differences are subtle, and they whisper until they need attention, often coming as a surprise. While our life together is not without our share of these surprises, I am thankful, particularly as we try to parent a 4-year-old who is as strong-willed and self-determined as I know I was at 4, that the interfaith dynamic of our relationship made negotiating differences a part of our life and commitment from day one.

Being interfaith is often talked about as a challenge, a barrier that separates you from the rest of the community. While I won’t deny the challenges, I think perhaps we have a few positive things we can teach to those who “in-marry.” Can you name some others?

Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor

Shabbat at camp is "cool" and adds a sense of sacredness to the camp experience.

My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.

I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.

I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.

But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.

As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.

Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.

My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.

An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.

I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.

Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”

Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?

Here we go again

It is that time of year again.  The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees.   Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved.  Thanksgiving seems like a million years away.  But the conversation about Christmas has already started.  Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.

In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity.  They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian.  That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit.   I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it.  (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)

Usually, I get no response.  This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers.  She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year.  The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric.  I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade.  What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.

I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular.  I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal.  But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah.  What about the Muslim kids?  Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma.  But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me.  Why do we have to do this?  I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree.  Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.

So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers.  I used to get fired up about it.  Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools.  But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that.  I guess I am tired of trying.  Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.

There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year.  (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)

Why I’m Blogging

Hi, my name is Suzanne and as this is my first blog post I thought I would start out by introducing myself. I am a Conservative/Reform Jewish woman (not sure where I really fit yet as I was raised Conservative but do not keep kosher anymore or follow many other rules so maybe I’m Reform?) married to my Catholic husband, Alex. We have two daughters, Kaitlyn, almost 9 (born Christmas Eve, what better day for an interfaith family?), and Megan, who is five. We live in Staten Island, New York, where we are raising our daughters in the Jewish faith, but we also celebrate the Catholic holidays as we love and respect my husband/their father.

My older daughter is in the Bet class (second class) at our Conservative synagogue but we started out at a Reform synagogue for her with Sunday School. I didn’t switch because of my personal confusion; I switched synagogues because I couldn’t get my daughter to Hebrew School on Wednesdays at the Reform temple but the Conservative temple had an arrangement with our JCC for busing if you are in their after-school program. This was being practical, not spiritual. It turned out to be a good fit for my daughter as she has more girls in her class that also attend camp with her and the boys are pretty great too (as my 5 year old would attest to with her first crush on an older man, another interfaith child who is 9 like my daughter). I miss my Reform temple, not for the spiritual way it conducted itself but for the friends I had made there. I have made some great friends at my new temple but you can’t help looking back, can you?

I’m hoping by blogging that I can help myself sort out what is going through my own mind spiritually. I feel very torn and confused at times and at others feel like I am in exactly the right place. I love being Jewish and sharing it with my daughters. I love that they are the ones who make sure we go to temple on Friday nights (which my sister and I never did with two Jewish parents!). I love how they identify themselves as Jewish, not half-Jewish. I’m torn at times when my girls ask questions about their dad’s faith or assume that all males are Catholic and all females are Jewish since their mom is Jewish and their dad is Catholic and we have no sons to show that their brother would be Jewish too (I am not Nellie from Little House on the Prairie who chose how to raise her kids by gender).

By blogging and almost forcing myself to have a conversation in my head maybe I can sort out how to continue teaching my daughters about our faith and how to respect everyone else’s too. I look forward to hearing from other parents who have handled similar situations as well.

The Facts on the Ground

- 20% of all children will die before the age of five.
– 98% of all people are malnourished.
– Life expectancy is 48.4 years.

This is what life looks like in the Democratic Republic of Congo. DR Congo is my adopted country because that is where my adoption is supposed to happen. On an average day I know more about politics in this country than my own. But as I’ve written in the past, the program has been a disaster almost from the beginning. The government there is so broken and, quite frankly, corrupt that it’s nearly impossible to accomplish what adoption requires: determining the legal status of a child, establishing a transfer of guardianship, issuing an exit visa. So I contemplate changing to another program, another agency, another country.

– A 2011 U.N. study finds that of 187 countries surveyed, DR Congo ranks 187th in conditions adequate for sustaining life.  This means that it has the fewest people with access to cleaning drinking water, shelter, nutrition, education and personal security. It is by every measure the poorest country in the world. 

I look at other adoption programs. I think about getting pregnant. And I don’t move forward. One more month, I think. Maybe things will change. Maybe somehow someone in the government there will realize that they have a chance to change these kids’ lives. To save these kids’ lives.

– 15% of all children are orphans. That’s about 3 million kids.
– UNICEF reports that between 15,000 to 25,000 children live on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital. Children are often required to “pay” police in a percentage of stolen goods for the right to sleep in abandoned buildings and on sidewalks.

But there are tanks on the streets of Kinshasa as President Kabila tries to hang onto power. Violence and coup attempts have all but shut down the city over the last few weeks. And so we wait. And these kids wait. For things to get better. For a new start. A family. A miracle.

If you feel moved to, would you please say a prayer for these children and for all children who do not have families? As we create light in our houses this holiday season, let us hope for a better year for everyone from here to DR Congo.

Back To “Normal”

It’s been a crazy few weeks since my last post where I described my 7 year old’s 10 day sickness.  About a week after he finally recovered, I got the flu and a horrible cough – not normal since I usually get sick once every 5 years.  Then the weekend of Halloween, the Northeast, and Connecticut in particular, got hit with a crazy and very unexpected Fall snowstorm that left a foot of snow on the ground and us and most of our friends without power for 10 – 12 days.  School was cancelled for 7 full days – not normal.  The JCC, where I work, was closed for 10 days so I had no work and my 2 year old son had no day care – not normal.  Halloween was cancelled in our town and many others close-by due to downed trees, branches and power lines – not normal.  And we moved in with my in-laws for 8 days – definitely not normal!  Don’t get me wrong – I love my in-laws – but to be in someone else’s home, with no schedule, strange sleeping arrangements and no routine was tough on all of us.  Many of my friends and co-workers left town to stay with friends or relatives in other states  and those who did stay or had generators had multiple families over to shower, eat hot meals, charge their phones and computers and simply warm up on a daily basis.  Things that we all had planned to enjoy in these 10 days were cancelled – my son’s Consecration ceremony where he and all of his first grade classmates receive their own Torahs, soccer games, family get-togethers and birthday parties.  Finally when power was restored to our home, places of work and to our schools – things were FINALLY back to normal.  I had never wanted to go to work that badly in my entire life!

I also had a chance to reflect on the word “normal” at a training I attended in Boston last week for Jewish educators who work with intermarried couples and families.  The training started off with a panel of four intermarried couples who were all raising their children as Jews and had all found synagogues that they consider “home”.  They seemed to all feel normal as intermarried families in these synagogues because these synagogues and clergy were warm, welcoming, caring and respectful of them as an intermarried family – like any other family who is a member at that synagogue.

This got me thinking about how I feel like a perfectly normal family in my synagogue and in the Jewish community at large.  Our synagogue has many intermarried families as does the JCC pre-school where my younger son attends.  I get asked all the time by JCC members that I have just met “Are you Jewish?” because of my last name – MacGilpin.  When my husband and I got married I knew that I wanted to take his name because I felt like one day if we had kids, I wanted us all to have the same last name.  At that time, about 10 years ago, Soledad O’Brien was the news anchor on the TODAY Show and I thought, if she could have a Spanish and Irish name then I could have a Hebrew and Scottish name.  Completely normal, right?

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – no – not Christmas and not back to school – but back to Hebrew School.  Remember that amazing Staples commercial from a few years back with the dad dancing through the store while tossing school supplies into the cart with the song playing in the background?  Well that’s how I feel now that it’s back to Hebrew School for my almost 7-year-old first grader.  My family joined a wonderful Reform synagogue in our area last year, just before my son started Kindergarten.  He had been at the JCC for daycare and preschool since he was 10 months old, so on a weekly and daily basis he got all of the loveliness of being at a Jewish school – Shabbat, challah, Jewish holidays, songs, crafts, PJ library books, Shabbat box, etc. I also work at that JCC so we got plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish activities.   So when he wasn’t going to be getting that from school we felt we needed to step up to the plate and choose a synagogue and choose to send him to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.

I don’t have particularly strong or happy feelings about my own Hebrew school days and my husband is Episcopalian so his Sunday school was completely different – although probably similar in many ways – holidays, bible stories, music, prayers.  We both wanted our son to enjoy his time at Hebrew School but wasn’t sure that was going to happen based on our own experiences.  Many people I know have said, “Well, I went to Hebrew School, so now my son/daughter is going to go – whether they like it or not”.  In our case, I think the “liking it” factor has definitely gone beyond my son – I actually like it.

I like it because he gets to spend time with other Jewish kids on a weekly basis – solely for the purpose that they are all Jewish and that their families think it’s important to have a Jewish education.  I like it because he gets to learn more about the holidays, prayers and Hebrew than I am able teach him.  I like it because it gives my husband and me another Jewish community to belong to.  I like it because the families there are all Jewish, yet all different in their own way – whether the parents are both Jewish, intermarried, gay, single parents or adoptive parents.  I also like it because our temple invites the parents to join the service every Sunday at 11 am.  I am able to see my son listening to the rabbi, going up on the bimah to lead songs and see his Jewish education in action. 

The best part for me is that I really enjoy the service myself – and I am not one to go to temple on a weekly basis on my own – no regular temple go-er here.  I love the songs and the sign language that the rabbi and cantor teach the kids.  I love connecting to Judaism through music and the absolute best part is the last song of the service.  It’s Tefilat Haderech by Debbie Friedman z”l and the rabbi asks everyone to “hold someone close to you” – and simultaneously all the kids put their arms around their friend’s shoulders and join in singing.  It brings me to tears – almost every time – to see this and to see my son grab his friends swaying in song.  It brings me back to my days at Jewish sleep away camp – which hold a special place in my heart.  It also brings to mind my dad, who passed away 2 years ago, and how proud he would be of me and my husband for choosing this kind of education and Jewish path for our family.

I also have to be honest and say that I also like having two hours to clean the house, go to Trader Joe’s and Target, go to the gym or spend quality time with our 2-year-old son.  I’m not going to lie – its pretty great.  But I mostly look forward to the 11:00 hour when I can be in the sanctuary and be an active participant in the Hebrew school service.