Answering the Why? One Parent’s Perspective

I just read Teaching the Why? by Rabbi Ari Moffic, which appears on the Networking Blog here at InterfaithFamily.com, an intriguing piece posing some very interesting questions. Is it possible to teach culture and meaning? As we teach the “what”—make challah, make latkes, create the most beautiful tzedekah boxes—when does the “why,” the deep-rooted meaning come in? Do we take for granted that it is there? Do we take for granted that personal connections are being made?

I want my children to make those personal connections and integrate what they do Jewishly with who they are as people. As their mother, I take responsibility for making the connections possible and supporting their success. I do not believe this can be outsourced by sending William and Sarah to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp and other Jewish activities. I do send them to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp as wonderful supplements for Jewish infusion, but I don’t rely solely on them to make them feel Jewish. My children feel Jewish because of the home we have created. Mezuzahs don our doors. The Sabbath bride is a welcome guest in our home each week. We sing songs and pray together at religious services in our synagogue each week. In other words, we live Jewish lives.

When I made the commitment to raise our children in the Jewish tradition, I realized that I would be making a commitment to live a Jewish life. Not knowing exactly how that would play out at the time, it was a pretty big leap of faith. One that meant I would look pretty Jewish for a long time. I do this to support Jewish fluency in my children, as Rabbi Moffic talks about in her piece.

I think about the mitzvah in Judaism that commands you to teach your child to swim. On a practical level, it is a good skill to have. But I think its deeper meaning calls parents to do everything they can to make sure their children can swim on their own and lead responsible, productive lives. Ensuring our children are well-equipped to go out on their own takes a great deal of personal commitment over many years. We don’t just throw them in the deep end and hope for the best. Learning anything—riding a bike, playing the piano—requires dedication and practice, lots of practice. Supporting my children’s spiritual development goes hand in hand with teaching them how to take care of themselves and others.

My job is to provide the context for the content. Sometimes I am a student. I read a lot. I have taken classes in Judaism and attend seminars and workshops. Sometimes I am an educator. I have taught two challah-making events at our synagogue. (The irony of a Catholic teaching Jewish people how to bake their special bread is lost on no one.) Something that I always do at my challah-making events while the dough is resting is to give a talk about the wonderful gift of Shabbat and how leading a Jewish life translates into leading a balanced life. I always tell the story of the book. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as the People of the Book. How many sides does a book have? You may say six—a front, back, top, bottom, and two sides. But there is one more side, the inside, where the important information for the book lives. We spend all week being busy, living our lives on the outside of the book. On Shabbat, we are called to go inside.

When I started my Jewish journey, I felt it was important. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Jewish people have a special covenant with God that will never be broken. I was impressed that my husband is part of this historic tradition. Abraham was the first Jewish person, and here is my husband 5,000+ years later keeping that tradition alive. Wow. It is amazing to think about. But it doesn’t mean I think less of the tradition I was raised in. So why did I make that leap of faith? Because I was raised by a mother who dedicated her life to make sure her children had a developed spiritual maturity as adults. She knew we would be swimming on our own one day and making our own choices. She gave me the skills to learn another language.

Have a Little Faith

Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.

The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.

I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s brit milah (circumcision).

My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.

On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.

William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.

Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
The following day was Friday. At our Shabbat dinner, we all made toasts to how wonderful it is to be Jewish and what a remarkable week it had been. Our Shabbat Shaloms , l’chaims and special Shabbat blessings felt extra special and authentic. It was then when I realized that I really am the only non-Jew in our house. I also realized my work to raise Jewish children was not over. It had just begun.