This Is What I’ll Miss Doing with My Daughter When I Go Back to Work

  

By Samantha Taylor

Little girl holding candleFor the past two years, my daughter and I have been taking Mommy and Me classes at the local JCC. We took art, music and gardening. We loved all of it. We had fun and we made friends. It was fantastic.

Every week, I heard other moms talking about taking their kids to Shabbat service on Friday mornings. Not growing up with any religious practice, just the word Shabbat has always felt a little uncomfortable to me, so for the longest time I didn’t go. We made other plans on Friday mornings. But one day, at the beginning of the school year, a friend asked me to meet her there. I reluctantly agreed to go, assuming I’d feel uncomfortable and fake.

We spent 30 minutes singing “Bim Bam” and other adorable preschool Shabbat songs with the school. My daughter Billie LOVED it. I didn’t feel intimidated. This was a program for toddlers, after all. Sure, there was some Hebrew, but it was lovely. After the service, we went with a few other parents and kiddos to the family programming. It included story time, snack (challah, of course), play time and music time. None of this material was religious in nature. At the end of the 90 minutes of fun, we said the prayer, lit pretend candles, blessed the challah, and went home for a nap. It was fantastic! I promised Billie we’d go back the next week.

I wasn’t raised with any religion in my house. My parents are both Jewish, but we didn’t go to synagogue. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I’ve been happy my entire life being (what we referred to in my family growing up as) a culinary Jew. We grew up eating latkes and matzah ball soup. We ordered Chinese food on Christmas. Once in a while on Hanukkah, we lit a menorah. My dad exposed us to the great Jewish comedians—we traveled to whatever distant movie theater in central Florida was showing the latest Woody Allen movie. That was a cultural experience for us.

When I went to college, I was selected to attend the Birthright trip. It was really a fantastic experience. I knew almost nothing about Israel at the time. For the first time I felt a real connection with my people. As we were exposed to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and learned about Israel’s history, I slowly felt prouder of my heritage. On Friday nights, we did a small Shabbat service. The Hebrew parts of the service were a little intimidating, since I really hadn’t experienced anything like it before. The Shabbat elevators made no sense to me. I anxiously waited for Saturday night, so we could resume our regularly scheduled programming.

After graduation, I worked for Hillel at the University of Central Florida. I was the Program Director and it was my job to help students plan events for the year. I loved it. It was a great job. We planned holiday parties and social events. Part of that was planning Shabbat services. This was the one area where I felt uncomfortable. I felt like a fraud. I didn’t know the first thing about what was required or how to help the students. I leaned heavily on the student who volunteered for the job of coordinating services every Friday night. I followed her lead.

After my job with Hillel ended, I started a family. Since I married some who isn’t Jewish, we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. We have added latkes to the menu for Christmas dinner. Both families are happy with us. I think we are doing a pretty good job of blending our non-religious, cultural holidays together.

Mom holding little girlIt’s been about eight months of regular Friday morning Shabbats, and now I’m getting ready to go back to work. As the weeks counted down, I got choked up every Friday morning. I loved hearing the kids sing and whisper. I loved the feeling of togetherness and love. I loved the sense of ending the week and starting new and fresh again.

I will miss lots of things about my time at home with my sweet girl. But the thing I will miss the most, without a doubt, is taking her to Shabbat every Friday morning. She’ll still be at the JCC and she’ll get to go. Once she’s used to school, and can tolerate me coming and going, there’s no doubt I’m coming to join her for the service. I’m thrilled that she won’t be as uncomfortable with Hebrew and Shabbat as I was growing up.

I might not unplug or go to synagogue every Saturday, and that’s OK. I don’t light candles or say a prayer. It doesn’t matter. I finally understand the meaning of Shabbat for me. It’s about taking the time to pause and reflect. It’s about joy and peace. It’s about connecting in some small way. It’s about love.

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.

Samantha TaylorSamantha Taylor is a wife and mother of three from the Orlando area. Before the birth of her third child, she was the associate editor for three lifestyle publications in central Florida. Samantha was recently named Volunteer of the Year for the JCC of Greater Orlando and is a graduate of the Bornstein Leadership Program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. In her spare time she enjoys visiting with family and friends, rooting for the Gators, and watching her longtime pal Mayim Bialik on The Big Bang Theory.

Ugandans Nurture Jewish Identity at my Son’s Camp

  
Sammy with Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Sammy with his Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.

This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.

About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.

Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.

Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.

When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.

Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”

I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.

The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.

Please, Just Call My Son Jewish

  

u2574684_p14588271Earlier this month my family hosted some of the Israeli staff from my son’s summer camp before they went to the camp for training. We have done this for the past three summers, and it has been a wonderful experience.

This year, the staff that we hosted had spent time with Birthright tours in Israel, and one had an American girlfriend who he met while serving as an IDF liaison to a trip. As he told us about her, he mentioned that she was Jewish. Really Jewish. Since 30 percent of Birthright participants have only one Jewish parent, I assumed that he meant that this young woman came from an inmarried family or was of matrilineal descent. A moment later, my young Israeli friend elaborated on the comment, “Her mother and father are both Jewish.”

The language used was an immediate red flag because my son’s camp was affiliated with the Reform movement and accepted as Jewish any child with one Jewish parent regardless of whether that parent was the mother or father. There would be many not-really-Jewish kids at camp. I wanted the counselor to understand that his language was not acceptable and could be hurtful to the very children whose Jewish identities camp was supposed to nurture. I need to say something.

I explained that since the camp was Reform, there would be many children from interfaith homes being raised within Judaism and that all were accepted and welcomed as Jews. I shared that there were no really-Jewish and not-really-Jewish campers. They were all Jewish. Drawing any distinction between kids from inmarried and intermarried homes was not in the spirit of camp, especially one that greets everyone with the phrase, “Welcome to Camp!” My guest said he understood.

The conversation made me think about the larger discussion about intermarriage not just in the US, but also in Israel. With the intermarriage rate in the US at 70% for non-Orthodox Jews, the success of American efforts to connect interfaith families to Judaism is hugely important to Jewish continuity and the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Many researchers and Jewish communal professionals in America see programs such as Birthright as significant opportunities to build the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of children of intermarriage. Program data proves that the trips are doing just that which is great news.

But working to create Jewish communities that are welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families needs also to happen in Israel. The old rhetoric about intermarriage that is still common among Israelis has to change if children of intermarriage are to develop a strong connection to the Promised Land. Let’s face it; future generations of American Jews will mostly come from interfaith homes. If they feel disconnected and alienated from Israel, the historic ties between the American Jewish community and Israel will diminish.

But even with the trends we see in Judaism, change will be difficult because Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls religious law and services. Hopefully, over time and with political and religious reform, money, and more Israeli exposure to the diversity of Jews in America, we can at least get everyone to refer to children like my son as simply “Jewish.”

Sticking with Israel During Violent Times

  

The following is a guest post by Marsha S.

*Names have been changed

My husband Charlie is a non-practicing Catholic and I am Jewish. From the get-go, we agreed to raise our children Jewish, which left the onus on me to further their religious identity and education. At my urging, Charlie agreed to travel to Israel this summer for our eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. While Charlie was in full support of the education, ceremony and trip, he was essentially “going along for the ride.” Prior to leaving, I was concerned that our impending travels might be boring or “too Jewish” for him.

Boring turned out not to be an issue. Shortly before our departure, tensions were rising between Israel and Hamas. There were localized riots and violence, but at the time, we had no idea how quickly it would all escalate to a full-scale war.

After much planning, we arrived in Israel, and spent the first couple of days unwinding in Tel Aviv. We then spent another day or two getting to see more of the country, while gaining a better understanding of the mindset of the Israeli people. Up until this point, the increasing violence hadn’t touched us directly.

Then we arrived in Jerusalem. That evening, while leisurely strolling through Mamilla Mall, an air raid siren went off. We had no idea what that meant, or what to do. We saw civilians and soldiers all running in one direction. We were herded into a bomb shelter, still having no idea what was going on. It was terrifying, to say the least. Eventually, the “all clear” was given, and life resumed. It wasn’t until afterward, when we were able to connect with friends and get online that we learned Hamas’ rockets had reached Jerusalem, but were intercepted by Israel’s blessed Iron Dome.

Western WallTwo days later, we were at the Western Wall when another air raid siren went off. Once the alert is sounded, you have between 15 and 90 seconds to seek shelter. More people running; this time in all different directions. A large group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere, and were running as well. This time, we huddled under a doorway as we heard explosions all around us. As it turned out, some of the explosions we heard were rockets being intercepted above us, but some were firecrackers being shot up simultaneously. My guess is that someone was just trying to scare everyone even more.

Two days later, rockets were again fired in our direction, and everyone gathered in the stairwell of our hotel until the all-clear was given. At that point, I was very concerned about our safety, and mentioned to my husband that I thought we should discuss the possibility of heading back to the States early.

I was surprised and moved by his response. He said, “We CAN’T leave now. We need to see this through. If Jews ran away every time someone tried to hurt them or persecute them, there wouldn’t be any of you left. I wouldn’t have a family! It’s important that we stand in solidarity with the Israelis right now.” I was inspired. We had only experienced a few days of this kind of fear, but there are too many Israelis who live this nightmare continuously.

During the following week in Jerusalem, we met several locals who expressed their gratitude for our presence as tourists during this tumultuous time, and collected a few friends along the way. A highlight was spontaneously singing and dancing with soldiers at The Wall on Shabbat. That spoke volumes to me about the people of Israel’s passion and determination to keep “living” despite their pain.

The final day of our trip arrived: the day of our son’s Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful and intimate ceremony atop Masada; just magical. For the grand finale, Charlie gathered our small group together with our arms around each other, and told us all how moved he was by our adventures during the past two weeks. He said that he never understood how special Israel was until he came to know the country and her people firsthand. He said how proud he was, not only of our son the Bar Mitzvah, for all of his hard work and preparation, but of all of us for seeing the journey through, and celebrating life despite so much ugliness around us.

I am ever grateful to Charlie for recognizing how powerful a trip like ours would be to his Jewish wife and children, and as an added bonus, he ended up being just as moved as we were by the whole experience! On the flip side, I found that traveling with my Catholic husband made me appreciate the Christian holy sites in a whole new way.

I highly recommend an interfaith all-family trip to Israel. Regardless of one’s religion, any traveler can sense how sacred the space truly is. I feel even closer to Charlie after experiencing such high highs and scary lows together in our mutual Holy Land. Oh, and if you go, don’t miss out on hummus and shwarma from a street vendor. THAT experience is close to holy in its own right!

I Stand with Israel

  

As I left the gym early this morning, I walked past a TV showing an MSNBC interview with the Israeli Counsel General in New York. I paused to read the closed captions at the bottom of the screen and then made my way to my car.

While Israel has been on my mind for weeks, I have kept my thoughts about what is going on at a distance, and focused more on the pictures of my son enjoying his last weeks of overnight camp. But by late afternoon yesterday, I could no longer push away Israel. Two things drew me in:

A friend, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah, posted about her experience in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on Facebook. She wrote, “A peaceful stroll…turned scary as sirens blared and people started running towards the basement for safety.” She said a salesperson calmly told her group that they must go to the basement immediately. She commented that after no more than 10 minutes in the shelter, the mall returned to normal: “people eating, shopping, smiling, playing music…it was surreal.” She said she felt strangely unafraid, and that the experience gave her and her family a genuine appreciation for this sadly regular part of Israeli life.

Reading this post made me think about one of our 16-year-old babysitters who is in Israel on an NFTY trip. I immediately sent a text to his mom, who happens also to be a friend. I needed to know, what she had heard. She said the kids were safe and enjoying the trip. Today’s plan was for a hike up Masada and a float in the Dead Sea. She said she was staying abreast of the situation, but she was calm, hoping her son would be able to complete his journey in peace and safety. She said that other parents were concerned and wanted to bring their children home before the trip’s scheduled end.

These two situations got me more engaged because they touched people I know. But they also moved me to verbalize my support. I stand with Israel.

I stand with Israel, not out of blind obedience to my people, or because I believe all Israel’s actions to be just. I stand with Israel, as I stand with the United States–sometimes with a critical eye, always with a loving heart.

How I feel about Israel mirrors how I feel about this country. I am proud of her accomplishments yet disappointed by some of her policies; frustrated by her politics but unwilling to disengage from the discussion of the issues; angry at the rhetoric of some government officials or the behavior of some of her citizens, but reluctant to give up my allegiance.

Israel is not perfect, nor is any country. Like all human societies, she fights to balance moral excellence and self-defense. As Paul Johnson writes in the epilogue to his 1987 bestselling book A History of the Jews (read it, if you haven’t already), Israel was “founded to realize a humanitarian ideal,” and discovered “in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.”

Combining moral authority with, as Johnson says, “the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself,” is not an easy task, especially when the eyes of the world are watching–closely, very closely. Israel is threatened by rockets, and as Ed Case, states on the IFF Network blog, “by negative opinion and vilification around the world.” It is important to support her and efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully.

So here is why I stand with Israel:

I stand with Israel because of the good she does and the hope she embodies. I stand with Israel because of the ideals she represents and the safe haven she provides. I stand with Israel because I dare to hope for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.

Make Jewish Behavior Contagious, Hire Jewish Babysitters

  

 

One of Sammy's favorite babysitters recently returned from a semester in Israel. When he's old enough, Sammy wants to do a similar program.

One of the things I’ve learned about being a parent is that while my husband and I are our son’s primary role models and key influencers of the choices he makes, raising a child is a communal effort. Teachers, coaches, siblings, camp counselors, clergy, extended family, babysitters, and peers play a part in shaping who and what our child will become.

Cameron and I often talk about how fortunate we are to have found many excellent teachers and coaches for our son Sammy. Over the years, they have helped to nurture his love of learning, bolstered his confidence and self-image, and reinforced the values and behaviors that we work to instill at home. 

But some of the most influential people in Sammy’s life are not the adults or family members he interacts with, or even his peers, but rather his teenage and young adult babysitters. For Sammy, our first and only child, these young people are like older siblings and the influence they exert on him is significant.

This isn’t surprising. Recent research has shown that older siblings are often more influential than parents. While many studies focus on how bad behavior by older siblings foreshadows similarly bad behavior by younger ones, findings also suggest that older siblings’ good behavior can be just as contagious.

We’re lucky, the kids – well kids to me – who sit for Sammy are mensches. A mensch has rectitude, dignity, and a sense of what is right. It is a person to admire and emulate. What makes this Yiddish word a fitting description of our sitters is that they also all happen to be Jewish.

The hiring of Jewish babysitters was coincidental. We were connected to them through friends, teachers, rabbis, and acquaintances at our synagogue. This access to teens and twenty-somethings with strong characters and a desire to earn a few dollars watching children has been a fringe benefit of temple membership.

Over the years our sitters have shown Sammy how to interact with adults and children in positive ways, be responsible, respectful, and goal- and achievement-oriented. They have nurtured his love of reading, architecture, and sports; and encouraged creativity and physical activity.

This accidental Jewish babysitter pool also has, through their actions and choices, fostered Sammy’s connection to Judaism. These Jewish teens and young adults show Sammy that there is more to living Jewishly than services, religious school, and holidays; and demonstrate that there is Jewish life post-bar mitzvah.

For example, our teen sitters have all continued or are in the process of continuing their Jewish education through confirmation. They attend or attended Jewish summer camp. They play baseball in the JCC Maccabi Games, a yearly Olympic-style sports competition for Jewish teenagers in North America. They travel to Israel.

One is active in his campus Hillel and is a founding member of a Jewish fraternity at his university. Another teaches in our synagogue’s religious school, sits on its board of directors, and is involved with the temple’s young adult group.

Hearing about all of these Jewish experiences is making an impression on Sammy. He tells us that he wants to engage in Judaism in similar ways.

When one of Sammy’s favorite sitters told us he would spend the spring semester of his junior year on the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program, Sammy announced that he would do the same. After this teen returned home and shared his experience, it intensified Sammy’s desire to go.

Listening to another talk about participating in the staff-training program at the Jewish summer camp that both he and Sammy attend caused Sammy to state that he too will be working as an Avodah when he is old enough. Knowing that another teen that helps us will be traveling to Israel with his family next summer on our synagogue’s trip is one reason why Sammy is eager to go.

I love that Sammy has Jewish young people to look up to because, as a kid, I didn’t. I lived in a town with only a handful of Jews, didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, and didn’t have any Jewish babysitters.

The closest person in my life to a Jewish older sibling was my youth group advisor, who was married with young children. While he encouraged me to participate in youth activities, taught me the importance of social justice, and nurtured my connection to Israel, he was not participating in Jewish activities that could be part of my Jewish experience in the near term.

I also didn’t meet him until I was in high school. Sammy has had young Jewish role models in his life since age four, exposing him to Jewish activities that he will have the opportunity to do in the coming years–youth group, Israel, confirmation, working at Jewish summer camp, and participating in high school and college programs. He plans to be very busy.

With all of the talk in the Jewish community about encouraging Jewish engagement, maybe what we need is a corps of Jewish babysitters who play the role of older siblings for our children. I know that I worry less about Sammy making Jewish choices when he gets older because of the teens that help us.

If you want to make Jewish life contagious, ask your Jewish friends, acquaintances, and fellow temple members if they know any Jewish teens or young adults interested in babysitting. It will not only give you the opportunity to spend an evening with your spouse or partner, but it will also be an investment in you children’s Jewish future.

Why Go to Israel

  

Sunset in Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How a Tin Can and Piece of Paper Taught me to Speak for the Trees

  

A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.

This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.

The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”

As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.

Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”

But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.

When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.

But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?

I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.

The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.

The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.

You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.

The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.

Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.

We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.

Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.

The Extended Influence of Camp

  

Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.

Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.

The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.

Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.

The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.

Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”

We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.

During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.

With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.

It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.

No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.

On our way

  

Four years ago I travelled to Israel with 15 other women for the Jewish women’s renaissance project mission. I was scared of what would be waiting for me in Israel. I found a deep connection, a Hebrew middle name and amazing memories.

Today, I am travelling to Israel, this time with my husband and son. I will hugging my parents for the first time in 15 years. They will be hugging their grandson and their non Jewish son in law.

I am still scared. But a new scared. Last time seemed more about what I was leaving behind. This time I look forward.