Finding Shabbat When It Feels Like Shabbat is Nowhere to be Found

  

Woman having coffee and reading newspaper. Taking a quiet moment.

In a class I teach to engaged and recently married young couples, I talk about the importance of finding time to recharge, refresh and reconnect with one another. We discuss this not in the context of “date night,” but rather in the context of Shabbat.

I like to point out that Shabbat is a state of mind, as much as it is a ritual. While the rituals of going to services or having Shabbat dinner at home can help us achieve Shabbat’s goals of rest, relaxation, and mindful connection, our lives don’t always lend themselves to Shabbat’s prescribed timetable or observances. Especially for families and parents, finding Shabbat during Shabbat can be hard.

Two weeks ago, I planned to take a little time for myself on a Shabbat afternoon. I was looking forward to practicing yoga and then treating myself to a facial at a local spa. My family’s spring schedule had been crazy, and I thought I had picked a time when things were beginning to wind down as the school year neared its end. I dropped my son at water polo practice and drove to my yoga class. My son was going with a friend to watch the varsity team from his school play in the state water polo tournament after practice, so I had several hours free to indulge in some relaxation.

As I laid down on my yoga mat and closed my eyes, my Apple watch started to vibrate on my wrist. I opened my eyes to see who was calling me. I hoped I could dismiss the call. It was the mom who was taking my son to the water polo tournament. I got up, walked out of the studio, and took the call. The parent said everything was OK; she was just picking up lunch for the boys and wanted to find out if my son liked his bread toasted and the sandwich heated. I said he would eat it either way and she should get what was easiest.

I hung up and went back to my mat. About 25 minutes later as I was finally mentally focused on my practice, my watch vibrated again. A text from my son appeared, “We’re up 3-1.” For the remainder of the class, game updates repeatedly distracted me.

I left class hopeful that my spa time would help me find that Shabbat feeling. As I was changing into my robe before my treatment, I received a text from my friend with an update on when she and the boys would return from the game. “I think we should be back at my house by 2 p.m. depending on the end of the last afternoon game. I will text when we are on the way.” Yikes! My appointment would not end until 2 p.m.

Knowing that I might be late to pick up my son occupied my thoughts during the facial. Rather than relaxing during my treatment, I kept thinking, “Hurry up!” and “Are we almost done?” When the facial ended and I returned to the locker room to change, I had 32 new texts. Texts from my friend and other parents about pickup logistics. Texts from my son with game updates. A text from another parent from my son’s team asking if I, as the team parent for the sixth-grade team, could send out an email sharing the news that the varsity team made the finals and would be playing at 6 p.m. for the championship and encouraging the younger boys to attend. I took a deep breath and…laughed. My plan to find Shabbat was foiled. On this Saturday, Shabbat was nowhere to be found.

For parents, the logistical responsibilities of parenthood can make finding Shabbat impossible sometimes. It’s because Shabbat can be so elusive, especially once you become a parent, that I teach my young couples that sometimes you must expand your idea of what Shabbat is and when it happens. If they get in the practice of identifying Shabbat moments pre-children, hopefully, they will have an easier time savoring them once they enter the craziness of parenthood.

A Shabbat moment can be a peaceful walk with your dog in the morning before work. It can be an enjoyable family dinner on a Sunday night that has no distractions. It can be a Thursday morning yoga class. It can be a morning cup of coffee sipped slowly while reading the paper.

That’s how I found Shabbat on Friday morning. School ended on Thursday so I didn’t need to rush out of the house to get my son to school and I could go into work a little later. I stood at the island in my kitchen sipping a cup of coffee as I finished reading several sections of the previous Sunday’s New York Times. As I drank my Joe, I savored the flavor and the time, 7:30 a.m. Usually, I was gulping my coffee as I wove through traffic to get my son to school by 7:45. But this morning, I could drink my coffee and read in a quiet house. I took a deep breath and smiled. A little Shabbat to start my day.

The Religious Identity of an Interfaith Home is a Journey, Not a Destination

  

Religious Identity is a Journey. Mother and three kids hiking through a dense forest. Kids are aged 6 and 10.

Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”

But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, I’ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.

For my husband and me, our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post, I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.

We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a b’nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.

I’ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audience—dating, engaged or married young adult couples.

There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.

As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, “Just because you make a decision doesn’t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, “Of course, they do.” I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my book From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reason—because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?

One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background “still haven’t figured it out.” Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.

For me, their request was a call to action. I’m now helping these partners form a small group. I’m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.

My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.

Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.

What (I Hope) My Interfaith Marriage Taught My Parents

  

diversity

I’ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. I’ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblings’ and my friendships. But repeatedly, I’ve realized that their tolerance doesn’t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.

My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrum–they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.

I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasn’t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Greg’s sexual identity might somehow influence our son’s sexuality.

So, it wasn’t surprising that from the time my stepsister’s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girls’ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.

Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.

“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”

I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.

When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didn’t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didn’t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didn’t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsister’s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephew’s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.

*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the “she” pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the child’s pronoun is “he” and he is using his given name.

I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. “It’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. We’re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. We’re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.”

I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.

I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.

When Will Those Who Love Speak Louder Than Those Who Hate?

  

fear

This morning, the meeting I was in at the synagogue I work at in Dallas was interrupted by one of the rabbis on the clergy team. “I’m sorry I need to miss the meeting. There’s been a bomb threat at the JCC. Last week, 17 JCCs in cities around the country received threats. Today, seven more received them, including the one in Dallas. We’re meeting to determine our response and next steps. There will be a staff meeting in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is the world we now live in.”

Yes, unfortunately, this is the situation in which we live. I called my husband after the staff meeting at which we were briefed on the threat and security protocols for our building were reviewed. I shared what I knew.

“Hateful cowards!” he responded. After we had spoken, I went back to my office to try to return to my “to do” list. But my thoughts kept returning to the state of our union.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 cases of reported hateful harassment and intimidation in the 10 days after the November election, including in schools, business and on the street. The post-election incidents followed a year in which the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, and similar crimes against Jews, African Americans and LGBT individuals also increased. Overall, reported hate crimes spiked 6 percent. Since many incidents go unreported, the actual number was probably higher. As a Jew and a member of an interfaith family, it is my responsibility to demand and work toward inclusivity in the Jewish community and in this country.

Our country has been through dark periods before with leaders who refused to speak up and stand up for those suffering injustice and experiencing violence. We know the consequences of hate both on our soil and abroad. So why are our leaders and fellow Americans not doing more to stop this alarming trend of hateful harassment, intimidation and episodes of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic behavior? And, what will it take for our leaders and communities to say, “Enough”?

When will those who #ChooseLove speak louder than those who hate?

A Thank-You Note to My Mother-In-Law

  

Christmas gift

My mother-in-law’s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: “Have composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).

As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: “Jewish prayer book like in the temple.” I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my son’s bar mitzvah in October.

I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregation’s gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.

On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.

“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.

I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, “No,” or “I won’t” or even “I’m not comfortable” to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.

I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know I’m lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.

About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line “Your Gift.”

Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and I’m trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!

The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.

Everywhere You Go There’s Always Someone or Something Jewish

  
Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

Digging into some fish and chips, a meal with Jewish roots.

A week before Thanksgiving, I stood in the doorway of a building on Skulagata, a street in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my husband and son looking out at the North Atlantic and trying to find shelter from the blustery wind that was making the 30-degree evening feel much colder. We were waiting for our tour guide to pick us up for our search for the Northern Lights. Other tourists were waiting to be picked up by other tour operators. I started talking to a young American woman who was traveling alone. Our conversation turned to the election. I mentioned that I was concerned about some of the president-elect’s choices for advisors because of their association with the alt-right movement.

“My son and I are Jewish,” I said.

“Me too,” the woman said.

We talked for a few more minutes and then our guide arrived. The woman and I wished each other good luck in finding the Northern Lights and safe travels. As we drove out of the city, I smiled and started quietly humming the opening lines of Rabbi Larry Milder’s famous Jewish tune:

Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.

Milder was right; even in Iceland, which has a permanent Jewish population of about 100 people, it wasn’t hard to stumble across a fellow tribe member. After Iceland, we traveled to London, with a Jewish population of 172,000. I can’t say if we met any Jewish Londoners, but we did see a few Hasidic Jews snapping photos of Buckingham Palace as we walked back to our flat one evening, and we took in some Jewish history.

We walked through biblical times at the British Museum, which has a large collection of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel), Anatolia (Turkey), Arabia and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh. Items from Ur, Abraham’s home which he left for Canaan, and Nineveh, mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 as the home of Nimrod and again in the Book of Jonah, brought the stories of the Torah to life.

The Assyrian Flood Tablet, which tells the story of a plan by the gods to destroy the world using a great flood, was startlingly similar to the story of Noah. Utu-napishtim, a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was warned in secret by the god Ea that humankind would be destroyed and told to build a huge boat to ensure the survival of humans and animals. Birds were released from the ark before it landed safely.

This item was of particular interest to us because Noah is my son’s Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. It was cool to look at his parsha written not in Hebrew, but in cuneiform! And versions of this familiar story existed at least 1,000 years before the Assyrian tablet. This object sparked a conversation about how Judaism developed and evolved from and in response to other ancient societies, and how the writers of the Torah made important stories from other cultures part of Jewish literature.

From the Bible, we jumped in Jewish time to the 17th century and the Spanish Inquisition by way of lunch at Kerbisher & Malt, a fish-and-chips restaurant. We learned that fish and chips have Jewish roots—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition introduced the crispy, light fish to the British. Typically, street vendors sold the fish from large trays hung from their necks. In the 1800s, fish shops, or “fish warehouses,” were serving fish with bread or baked potatoes.

Encounters with other Jews and discoveries of Jewish connections are intriguing because they remind us that we are part of something bigger, that our family extends beyond our family tree to include a community we feel connected to but do not know personally. This bond created between Jews by shared history and experience is called peoplehood. And it’s best learned through engagement in Jewish life.

The Gift Of An Inclusive and Welcoming Community

  

Heart-shape for the sun.

I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.

Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.

Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.

One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.

One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.

The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.

As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.

One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.

In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.

My Husband: The Not Jewish, Jewish Parent

  
Jane's son Sammy and husband Cameron.

Jane’s son Sammy and husband Cameron.

The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.

Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.

Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.

I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.

Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.

As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”

When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”

“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.

I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.

Why Send Your Kid To Jewish Summer Camp? Because It Gets Him To Hebrew School

  
My son (right) with his best friend from camp in the dining hall of URJ Greene Family Camp this summer.

My son (right) with his best camp friend in the dining hall this summer at URJ Greene Family Camp.

I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.

“I had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”

Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.

Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,

“Simply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp are…55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.”

What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.

When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.

There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.

Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. That’s a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.

The Battle of the Bar Mitzvah Guest List

  

Restaurant's banquet room decorated for Bar MitzvahBefore I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.

I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.

My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.

By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, “By the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,” he was OK with what I put together.

Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.

What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.

“They’re not going to come,” he said.

“So what? We can invite them so that they feel included,” I responded.

“They won’t know what a bar mitzvah is.”

“Sammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they haven’t, they know Jewish people to ask.”

“They will think that we are asking for gifts.”

“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”

“I don’t want to invite them.”

Exasperated by my husband’s response, I said, “I’m calling your parents!” I assumed they’d be more reasonable.

They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.

I contrasted my husband and his parents’ response to my mother’s. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.

“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”

My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.

I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.

Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.

I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.

With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.