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The dual holiday extravaganza this season is more work than I thought it would be. But, it’s important for me to keep the traditions from both my own family and Adrian’s family in order for our daughter Helen to grow up understanding and respecting her two faiths: Jewish on my side and Mexican Catholic on Adrian’s side. Also, Helen is 14 months old now and this Hanukkah/Christmas is really starting to come alive. This year both holidays fall on the same day! It feels like Moses and Jesus are somewhere eating latkes and drinking eggnog together.
From the beginning of my organization of the holidays, decorations were the first thing on my list. As far as decorations go, the question on my family’s minds was, “To tree or not to tree?” I’ve wanted a Christmas tree since I was a little girl in Hebrew school. When I was 12 I bought a plastic one from Rite Aid and hid it in the garage. I decorated it with colored balls and candy canes and I would go out into the garage to stare at it. But this year because of our interfaith family, and our new traditions that include our old traditions combined into one big tradition, I was curious to know if Adrian wanted a tree.
At first he did. We set a date to go look for one. But, after a few days he decided against it. We are being quite thrifty right now and he decided we didn’t need to spend money on a tree. “Next year,” he said. But, what he doesn’t know is that on Saturday when he goes to work at the restaurant at night, Helen and I will sneak out to buy a tree. It will be cheaper then because Saturday is Christmas eve so the tree people are looking to sell the rest of what they have for a lower price. I can’t wait to see Adrian’s face when he walks in and sees the tree. This might be a new tradition I’ve invented. Maybe every year Helen and I will sneak out to surprise her Papi! And of course, my 12-year-old self really wants that tree too.
I raided the aisles at Amazing Savings last week. I bought something called “Hanukah Tinsel.” Who knew something like this even existed! It’s tinsel but it’s blue and white with dreidels hanging off of it. Then I bought stockings with our family’s initials and filled them with Hanukkah gelt. Usually Hanukkah gelt is money, but I filled them with big plastic dreidels that have jelly beans inside. That’s my idea of Hanukkah gelt. Our apartment looks like the beginning of a crazy bat mitzvah/quinciñera/Christmas/Hanukkah party. Obviously, I’m more excited about this than anyone else in my family.
Our gift bags are also outrageous. We have gifts from Santa, Mami, Papi and Grandma. Then we have Hanukkah gifts. There’s one bag with Santa on it and he’s looking at another gift bag with a menorah on it, almost as if he’s remarking to himself “Now that’s a great idea to light my sleigh.” In my mind I see Santa climbing down chimneys holding a menorah and having a plate of latkes by the tree. In our Brooklyn apartment Santa has to come through the fire escape. But, he’ll get here somehow. I just hope no one calls the cops on him.
Today when Adrian goes to work Helen and I have to start shopping for the food on our Hanukkah/Christmas menu. In Mexico, a tradition on Christmas is a drink called “Ponche.” This is like a warm fruit punch that can be made with or without alcohol. Adrian likes it without alcohol. It has Mexican fruits, apples, raisins and sugar cane in it. Helen and I will go to the Mexican markets in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn and look around for these fruits and ingredients. We also need a bag of jalapeño and serrano chili peppers. Then we might make tamales or another traditional dish called “Pipian Verde” which is a pumpkin seed sauce.
For Hanukkah I always make plain potato latkes and zucchini latkes. And of course I have to make applesauce to go with it! In my family when I was growing up, Hanukkah was never one of the biggest holidays that we celebrated. But now that Adrian and I have Helen, I think it will become a bigger holiday than it was for me. I’m grateful that our two holidays coincided this year. To me it is a symbol that the world is changing and we are united even in our differences. I know that the holidays coinciding have to do with the 13 months of the Jewish calendar, but nevertheless I take it as my own personal and familial symbol.
Our apartment looks bright and festive. Also, this year I learned to knit and everyone is getting a Hanukkah/Christmas scarf! And there’s just one more thing I forgot to mention. In light of us trying to save money this holiday, I made homemade ornaments both as gifts and for our tree that we have yet to buy. They aren’t finished yet but they are in the shapes of elephants, reindeer, dreidels, menorahs, candy canes and of course, hearts. One special ornament is a circle with Helen’s hand print in it. That one symbolizes our two faiths as a circle, a meeting point, a never-ending sphere of understanding, communication and love. Two faiths, two holidays, one meeting point, one love.
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.
By Melissa Henriquez
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the ’80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our state—where schools are closed for the High Holidays—I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were considered excused absences (but still counted as absences), which meant I’d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was “different” from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been to—it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, what’s not to love? There’s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didn’t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nation’s capital—affectionately dubbed “Gay Jew” (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!). At American, I found myself part of the crowd—religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being Jewish bonded me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged at AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didn’t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I felt accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldn’t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was just understood.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned I’d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didn’t seem fair to me when I’d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eve—which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minority—even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to “explain” myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, “GREAT. I’ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!” And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emily—and said, half-kidding, “She’s Jewish and has curly hair, too; you’ll be best friends!”
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though I’m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel “alone,” or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs I’ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and I’m excited to begin her formal Jewish education—but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. It’s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how she’ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While I’ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing up… and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldn’t project our emotions onto our kids, it’s hard not to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like ours—so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But it’s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
It’s my hope that I can instill in her that being “different” is what makes her special—what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but that’s OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Melissa Henriquez is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now live in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2). By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs at Let There Be Light (est. 2008). Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
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 son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, 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 son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t 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 wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t 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 didn’t go he’d 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” 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 “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
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, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s 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. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog 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.
By Deb Morandi
There has been a lot of discussion in my Interfaith home this holiday season, but not about what you would think. My husband is Jewish, I am not, and we decided more than nine years ago when our twin sons were born that we were going to raise them Jewish.
We had many reasons: My husband knew more about his religion than I did mine, relatives we lived near are Jewish, the list goes on and on. This has not come into question, nor has the age-old “Do we have a Christmas tree” dilemma. We have a tree and celebrate Christmas out of respect to my heritage and family in a secular way. This had all been ironed out years ago and I think we navigate it pretty well. What is being discussed now is how we are on the verge of quitting Hebrew school. We have been struggling for months with what the right decision is and no matter how we spin it, it comes down to: Hebrew school just isn’t working for our family.
But after reading Hila Ratzabi’s article this week in the Forward about providing individualized at-home Hebrew school education, I realize there might be hope for a solution. The mere words “Hebrew school” bring tears from my boys because they are so miserable. This leads to my husband and me having the same conversation about how he needs to be more involved and do more to work with them. But the truth is, I can’t give them their Hebrew education and my husband works long hours and just isn’t home during the week at homework time.
So what does this mean? I think I am better able to express what it doesn’t mean. Going to Hebrew School doesn’t mean you should be this upset at the mere thought of it. Hebrew school shouldn’t be so dreaded that my sons question why their father has to be Jewish in the first place.
I have talked to the Hebrew school teacher and the religious director numerous times and it isn’t their fault. The whole format just isn’t working for us. Hebrew being taught without context at the end of a long day is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why I sadly feel convinced we made the wrong decision two years ago when we started sending the boys to Hebrew school. We keep trying to make it work, but I think all our efforts have actually made it worse. We have let the boys suffer too long, and forcing them to endure another four years isn’t going to make them want to identify Jewishly afterwards.
So what happens now? Being the parent who is not Jewish, I have trouble visualizing the alternatives. We already chose Judaism rather than my religion, so I don’t want to change course now, and raising them with no religion doesn’t feel right. My husband also has a hard time visualizing the alternatives because he grew up going to a Conservative synagogue and thinks of Hebrew school as “just something that is boring and miserable for all Jewish kids.” This doesn’t seem right either.
Then I read Ms. Ratzabi’s article, and I started to think that maybe my feelings about Hebrew school had some merit. Could there be another way to navigate raising my sons with Judaism in their lives that they might actually enjoy? Could there be a way to hang on to a tangible sense of Judaism without going to a traditional Hebrew school?
The Jewish community is concerned with people making Jewish choices, but what happens when they do? It’s not always a happily ever after, this was a perfect fit, storybook ending. What resources do we turn to, to help navigate a less traditional path so that we don’t abandon practicing Judaism altogether? There has to be a way to create an educational experience that, although non-traditional, is still equally meaningful and respected in the Jewish community’s eyes.
I am not sure what the next steps will be for my family, but I hope there is a path out that there works for us. One that can illustrate to my boys that being Jewish can be meaningful and even enjoyable. If you have any tips or thoughts on this subject, please share!
My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.
Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.
I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”
So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.
We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.
In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans. Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional. However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs. If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays. If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place. In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago. Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish. That’s a pretty big and important task.
This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys? We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins. We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week. We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends. But do we make it joyful? How do we really do that?
I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level? Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now? How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things?
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.