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Making friends as a grown-up isn’t always easy. When I look at my “mom” friends, we’re mostly bonded through our kids. We spend countless hours at cheerleading, football or any of the myriad extra-curricular activities our kids are involved in, and our friendship is based on the relationships of our children with one another. But sometimes, I feel the need to step out of the comfort zone, try to meet people based on interests *I* have, because even though I’m momming 24/7, there needs to be a chance for ME to connect with, well, me, even when doing the mom thing.
So I decided to bring my 1-year-old to a Sukkot event, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to participate in making a sukkah out of pretzels, but with the hope that maybe, after five years of living in Maine and still feeling slightly isolated and disconnected Jewishly, that I’d meet some other moms and families. I felt awkward walking into a situation where I knew no one except the group leader (who greeted me warmly), but I was determined to enjoy this new experience and bond over the commonality we all shared. After all, I was walking into a Jewish event, the kids were Jewish, I was Jewish, we were there to celebrate a Jewish holiday‚ÄĒAND we were all clearly parents of small children. I was encouraged; I had hope; let the bonding and mom-friending begin!
Except I left friendless. And feeling even more disconnected than before. It wasn’t a failure of lack of effort. I think I introduced myself to almost every grown-up there, and there had to be at least 30 people between adults and kids. I tried to strike up conversations as I followed my blond-haired blue-eyed toddler around with his monster-like walking (a new trick for his first birthday!). The conversations usually went like this: “Hi, I’m Amy! This is Finn!” (as he would carefully saunter up to a new grown-up to check them out). Said grown-up would respond with their name and ask me if he went to the daycare at the JCC. In my head I responded, “Is that a requirement to talk to me?” but I was there to make friends, right? So instead I gave my canned response, “He’s on the waiting list,” which is a truth, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was because when I was looking for daycare I couldn’t find a place that DIDN’T have a waiting list and it’s possible he’s on a few at this point. The conversation would end each time, almost as if it was a prerequisite for him to be there in order to communicate with me.¬† Talk about frustrating.
I wanted to scream at all of them, “If you only knew! If you only knew anything about me! If you only knew my own Jewish connections, my own history, that on Yom Kippur the other day I stood in front of my congregation and chanted Torah, would I be acceptable to talk to then?” I looked around at the group, self-conscious of my blonde toddler in the mix of all the brown-haired kids, with biblical and Hebrew names. Is this what it’s going to be like for him as he grows up? My Jewish, Irish child who has interfaith parents? My Finnian, fitting in with standard white-bread Maine, but not so much in the Jewish community? I found myself surrounded by talk of day school that apparently most children in attendance go to, this rabbi, that rabbi, kids calling their parents eema and abba (Hebrew for mom and dad). And Finn? Oblivious to it all, walking around the sukkah like he owned it, waving and laughing at the kids who mostly ignored him, and picking up brightly colored leaves that had fallen to the ground.
Making mom friends is hard, but I didn’t think being Jewish was also hard. I walked away from the experience wondering if it’s always been like this, that certain status was placed upon you by how you connect Jewishly. And the reality is that in some communities, it truly is. I realized that I used to be one of the “elite” as someone who not only was actively involved in the Jewish community but also WORKED in the Jewish community. I took it for granted that it WAS easy because I was in the mix. But I’m no longer in the mix. And I’m no longer in a Jewish-Jewish family. I’ve now experienced the harshness of being judged based on perceived participation in the organized Jewish community with my blonde-haired kid, and it makes me sad.
As I tucked him into bed when we got home and pulled the green glowstick from the event out of his clenched hand, I wiped schmutz off his face, kissed him and said laila tov (goodnight). If that’s not connecting Jewishly, I don’t know what is. We have a long road ahead of us and I’m just starting to discover how¬†this whole being Jewish thing won’t always be easy, but I’m confident that Finn will grow up knowing who‚ÄĒand what‚ÄĒhe is.
We live in a world filled with hate. It seems as each new day dawns, we are reminded of this very concept. Charlottesville, Paris, London, France, Spain, the list continues to grow. Even my beloved alma mater, The Ohio State University, a college with a diverse student population of nearly 60,000 is not immune. Can it really be that we have ushered in a new era where it has not only become popular but acceptable to preach hate and bigotry while encouraging violence at targeted groups? This seemingly¬†commonplace behavior has captivated headlines on a daily basis and often includes attacks on various groups including women, LGBT, minorities and Jews.
America is the land of opportunity. A great country founded on the basic principal of speaking out and rebelling against tyrants forcing their ideologies. Each of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People love to hide behind the First Amendment as a reason to spout vulgar insults and racial epithets. It has been uplifting to see many Americans coming together to rally against hate. But it‚Äôs important to remember that freedom OF speech is not freedom FROM speech. Do I support or encourage the Ku Klux Klan¬†and its supporters gathering in arms, bearing torches and shouting references to Hitler along with chants echoing through the night, “Jews will not replace us!”? Of course not, but while we, as equal rights supporters stand unified against hate, we don‚Äôt encourage violence to solve violence. The hateful actions of these people are deplorable and do not embody the principles this nation was founded on.
As relatively new parents, this is continuously a topic of discussion in our house. Today, we live in a community only a few miles from where I experienced first-hand that hate is not limited to racially divided cities or foreign countries calling for war against the West. I was maybe only¬†10 years old when our baseball team traveled out to a wealthy suburb on the east side of Cleveland. (For those who don’t know me, I grew up in a predominately Jewish community that was well known for its religious concentration.) I was raised in a Reform Jewish household and became a bar mitzvah. I have been blessed to be married to the most wonderful, kind and loving Catholic woman in the world (although not very religious herself). My life experiences both as a Jew and being in an interfaith marriage¬†have allowed me to view this anecdote differently as I got older.
We arrived for the game on a sunny afternoon and began to warm up. It didn‚Äôt take long before we could hear the undertones and whispers coming from the home team dugout. ‚ÄúF-ing (expletive) Jews. Why don‚Äôt you go home back where you came from?‚ÄĚ These were phrases that, while familiar with, I had not experienced them directly, especially as a young boy. I was raised in an environment to be conscious of the fact that the world did not always like Jews and anti-Semitism was a very real thing. Now to experience it first hand was a little jarring. As the game went on there were similar remarks being made under their breathe. Later in the game, on a close play, I slid into second base and was involved in a little scuffle while colliding with the other player trying to tag me out. The play ended and through the cloud of settling dirt, I heard, ‚ÄúGo home you stupid k___ (derogatory word for Jews that sounds like ‚Äúkite‚ÄĚ).‚ÄĚ
These awful words still ring in my ears more than 25 years later. My perspective on the world has evolved over the years‚ÄĒfrom a young Jewish man to a husband and father, raising my own family, in an interfaith marriage. The world is a cruel place; people are cruel; children are cruel. The events of the recent past can be avoided, but it has to start now. Hate is a learned behavior‚ÄĒit is taught to our youth at a very tender and impressionable age. We breed hate as we pass on our distaste for one culture, religion or ethnic group. Information is so readily available today and can be accessed, at our fingertips, within a moment‚Äôs notice. Hate groups are using this to unify and unite their cause with propaganda and recruit new soldiers to fight in the battle.
Today does not feel like the world I grew up in. It is fueled by violence and hate, almost as if we have taken a step back in our progression as a society. This is not the world I want my daughter to grow up in. Not a place where she has to be afraid or embarrassed that her last name is known as a common Jewish name. Not a place where she is afraid to walk into a synagogue. Not a place where she cannot be proud of who she is and the heritage she carries with her. We have to do our part, speak out when you see an injustice being committed. I believe that good can and will prevail over evil. However, it starts with us as individuals. The words we use in our homes, the way we speak to colleagues, the way we greet strangers. We CAN make a difference and chart a new course.
Ah, yes, it‚Äôs summer at last. Time, maybe, to wind down a little bit and contemplate some bigger-picture lessons that get lost in the shuffle during the school year. We talked to¬†Rabbi Jillian Cameron¬†of¬†Newton‚Äôs¬†InterfaithFamily, which supports interfaith families in embracing¬†Jewish life, about three important Jewish values that kids should absorb as early as possible. Nothing big or daunting, just simple lessons to instill in everyday moments.
Compassion and respect
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre all created in the image of God,‚ÄĚ says Cameron. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre each special and unique, but we‚Äôre also connected through a larger image of something greater, whether people look or act like us, or are different. We‚Äôre all worthy of respect.‚ÄĚ
This can be tough for little kids to grasp: Why does one kid have two moms, and another has a mom and a dad? Why do some kids get to go to summer camp, and others can‚Äôt afford to go? Kids tend to define themselves by their visible¬†differences, not by their unseen similarities, so they need some prompting.
Since this concept is abstract, Cameron recommends tying similarities¬†to a real-life example through a story, like playing with a friend from a different country.¬†‚ÄúYou have white skin and your friend has dark skin, but you both love ‚ÄėDespicable Me,‚Äô right?‚ÄĚ The more you can make those connections for your kids now, the less scary differences will be as they get older.
Ah, peace. This can be elusive when your kids are bickering over who ate the last cookie,¬†or who gets to sit by the window on the car ride to the beach, or who‚Äôs taller or‚Ä¶you name it.
In this case, Cameron recommends ‚Äúgoing big.‚ÄĚ Instead of begging¬†your kids not to fight (ha!), try to help them think about peace on a larger scale.
‚ÄúGet them talking: What does peace look like for you? When do you feel peaceful? Is it when you‚Äôre falling asleep? What makes you feel at peace? Is it living in a comfortable home or having toys to play with? How can you help create that for yourself, for your friends and for the whole world?‚ÄĚ
Make them part of the big-picture solution, instead of admonishing them. If they realize how important peace is on a bigger scale, they might be more likely to think about how it applies to their own lives, too.
It‚Äôs never too early to teach your kids the importance of charitable giving. While Jewish tradition holds that we should give 10 percent of our income to charity, kids don‚Äôt need to worry about that. At this stage, it‚Äôs more about seeing charity with their own eyes, like visiting a shelter to drop off toys or a soup kitchen and helping out.
Kids benefit from participating in these¬†hands-on, real-world experiences far more than hearing about them. Offer your child experiences where he or she can see their impact firsthand.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not just about giving money. It‚Äôs about thinking of how to create a more just world,‚ÄĚ Cameron says. ‚ÄúInstead of thinking about helping others in terms of financial giving, think about it as giving back a part of your life. There‚Äôs action involved in justice; we can‚Äôt rest on our laurels.‚ÄĚ
The earlier your kids see that their actions can make a difference, the easier it will be to make giving back a habit.
Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com
I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.
It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?
With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.
My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, ‚ÄúRaising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,‚ÄĚ to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.
The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether they‚Äôd had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a ‚ÄúYes, we‚Äôve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.‚ÄĚ
We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noah‚Äôs ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.
I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own family‚Äôs celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular school‚Äôs curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.
In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:
What special days do you celebrate in your family?
This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.
Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and are¬†not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinn‚Äôs godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone when¬†we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberly‚Äôs nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she is¬†going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable day¬†by reading this special poem:
‚ÄúWe didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†
The love we feel is deep and real, ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
As if it had been so. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
For us to have each other, ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
Is like a dream come true! ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life, ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†
Life gave us the gift of you.‚ÄĚ
You just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?
Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter‚Äôs big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a ‚Äúwink‚ÄĚ to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, ‚ÄúMazel Tov!‚ÄĚ
So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having¬†different faiths represented.
One of the first religious rituals we¬†experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn‚Äôs Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The ‚ÄúP‚ÄĚ is for my grandmother, Paula, and the ‚ÄúD‚ÄĚ is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica‚ÄĒa blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.
Since we were coming¬†from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.
Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to¬†choose otherwise.
My wife Kimberly didn‚Äôt stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic¬†celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn‚Äôt change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents‚Äô individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.
These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind.¬†Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well‚ÄĒnot just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.
We are sitting in the aftermath of a riveting, polarizing election. It has been all too easy to lose sight of the common humanity of those with whom we disagree. Recently, Anne posted a link to one of her Wedding Blog posts that has become relevant once again. However, I‚Äôd like to focus on a different aspect of this, because it is no longer just about Anne and me- now it is about Jack.
The children of interfaith relationships have an enormous advantage in today‚Äôs world. They are exposed to two people who hold differing religious views while still loving each other. That exposure will hopefully result in our children recognizing that the people with whom we agree may not have all the answers, and that those with whom we disagree have valid and valuable viewpoints.
How do we pass the values of respect and acceptance on to our children? Half of that challenge requires regular demonstrations of love ‚Äď hugs, verbal declarations, and the like, between the parents themselves, and between the parents and the children. The other half, no less important, requires respectful discussion of points of disagreement. We shouldn‚Äôt disregard the differences in our faiths; rather, we should openly communicate as to why we disagree, and what we see differently, and most importantly that we still love each other in-spite of these differences. By combining these messages, we communicate that conflict can be healthy only through respecting people who hold different worldviews from you.
The past few years have seen a dangerous rise of hatred, pointing fingers, name calling, and evil. Many people are constructing ever-thicker social bubbles and shutting out those with whom they disagree. We, as interfaith parents, are in a prime position to raise our children that will reverse these trends. This gives me enormous hope for our future generation.
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families ‚Äď and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first¬†Friday¬†“family service,‚ÄĚ but at most Shabbat services at Sam‚Äôs synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” program¬†on Sunday¬†mornings.¬†In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents‚Äô synagogue earlier this month.¬†Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack¬†was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.¬†We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.¬†I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is¬†much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.¬†Even during¬†Friday¬†night¬†services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like families¬†with young children are always present at Catholic churches.¬†During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.¬†During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.¬†Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass are¬†anything but distracting,¬†saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue¬†match what you‚Äôve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith‚Äôs continuity for the next generation?
Like many parents, for me this time of¬†year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework or¬†projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.
In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.
Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends post¬†pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.
To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.
The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.
I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at Camp¬†inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.
The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will change¬†over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.
Amy: So we‚Äôre just going to be surprised when I give birth, right? Like when the doctor says,¬†‚ÄúCongratulations! It‚Äôs a ___!!‚ÄĚ
Matt: Have you lost your mind? No, we‚Äôre not going to be surprised. Isn‚Äôt being pregnant at 40 surprise enough for you?
Amy: (laughing) Well, I didn‚Äôt know what Roxy and Everett were until they were born. You knew with YOUR son?!
Matt: (laughing) Uhhhhh, yeah I did! I NEED to know. NEED. How else are you supposed to prepare???
And then I sat there overthinking, a skill I‚Äôve mastered, while remembering my previous pregnancies. I remember the panic I felt as a first-time mom-to-be, not totally secure in my decision to ‚Äúnot find out‚ÄĚ and continually telling people my standard line of, ‚ÄúWell how many things can you truly be surprised about these days?‚ÄĚ But I went with it, even as I started a baby registry with the urging of friends and family who were eager to celebrate with me. I picked out generic yellow and green everything, with frogs and duckies all while telling myself that I didn‚Äôt believe in perpetuating traditional gender roles but deep inside longing for pink, or blue, or ruffles or dinosaurs.
My freak out continued as my belly grew, wondering how I was possibly going to get all the things I was going to need as a first-time parent without having a baby¬†shower‚ÄĒour traditional¬†Jewish families didn‚Äôt believe in having one, as Jewish culture can dictate superstition for some people. No bringing baby stuff into the house! It‚Äôs bad luck!¬† We settled on the garage as a safe zone as my due date loomed closer. My mom kept assuring me, don‚Äôt worry Amy, stuff will just arrive. I didn‚Äôt believe her for a minute.
In the meantime, my worry grew, as my Jewish ex-husband and I put a mohel on hold (my gut told me it was a girl but, let‚Äôs be real, it was a 50/50 shot in the dark) and discussed plans for a potential baby naming ceremony should we not be planning a bris, and I did my best to go with the flow and embrace tradition. All the while I truly wanted¬†to ignore everything I was taught to believe and just do what I wanted to in order to ease my mind.
But true to my mom‚Äôs word, Roxy was born and I became best friends with the UPS guy and I‚Äôm pretty sure the recycling truck was tired of picking up boxes. Baby items kept showing up after she was born, and plenty of pink was there among the green and yellow.¬† Roxy‚Äôs naming ceremony happened as close to eight days after her birth as possible, because I was a true believer that¬†if a bris needed to happen in eight days for a boy, I wasn‚Äôt going to differentiate. I felt solace in my Judaism and was comforted by my decisions as the weeks went on, certain that at least I fulfilled connections of generations that came before me.
Two years later, I did it again with¬†Everett‚ÄĒthis¬†time feeling a little better knowing I had the essentials already in place (and justifying because Roxy still used a lot of it) but still feeling an empty longing while painting his future room my favorite color orange and some jealousy over attending other baby showers knowing I wouldn‚Äôt be having one. I kept trying to make peace with tradition and telling myself it‚Äôs¬†OK‚ÄĒif it‚Äôs a boy, the blue dinosaur onesies will be on my doorstep after this baby is born. I listened to our families and let tradition guide me, and lo and behold, Everett was born, there was plenty of blue, the mohel on hold showed up on day eight and all was right with my world.
Fast forward almost seven years later.
I‚Äôm laying on the ultrasound table with nervous anticipation. It‚Äôs my third child but it‚Äôs been awhile since my days of diapers and bottles. I‚Äôm on the edge of a total meltdown and I can hardly look at Matt, afraid if we make eye contact I‚Äôm totally going to lose it and start crying because it feels so new.
‚ÄúSo are we finding out?‚ÄĚ the ultrasound tech asks us, as she guides the wand across my belly and pictures of the baby appear on the screen. Matt and I lock eyes and I look away quickly and answer before I can change my mind.
‚ÄúYes. Yes. Yes. He (pointing at Matt) needs to know.¬† And I can‚Äôt have him know and me not, so let‚Äôs do this. Tell us. Tell us.‚ÄĚ
The room is silent. In my brain I‚Äôm thinking please say it‚Äôs a girl. Please. It will be so much easier if it‚Äôs a girl. Matt already agreed with me that our child will be raised Jewish, but parameters haven‚Äôt been worked out and reconciling my desire to connect to tradition while honoring his beliefs has never been more overwhelming. Come on. Say it. Girl. It needs to be a girl. I‚Äôm not sure I‚Äôm ready to deal with the reality of boy. Putting the mohel on hold. I don‚Äôt know if I can do this. Girl. Girl. Girl.
I‚Äôm doing this chant on repeat in my head. Yet in my heart I know what she‚Äôs going to say before the words come out. I woke up at 3 a.m. knowing. The definite knowledge of what this baby is. And my gut is rarely wrong.
She zooms in and points to the screen.
There it is she says. Congratulations, you‚Äôre having a baby boy.
Matt¬†laughs and says, “I knew it.”
So did I my love. So did I.
My heart is overflowing with joy, our perfectly imperfect family is growing, and ladies and gentlemen, we‚Äôre having a boy. Everett is beyond thrilled. Roxy whined that she already hassssss a little brother, but it‚Äôs OK mommy, I‚Äôll love him anyway. Matt jokes to me about having a¬†‚Äúbrisk‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒdoing¬†it on purpose to make me laugh and lighten my worry as I roll my eyes and say ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a BRIS!!!!‚ÄĚ as he questions me about the food that I tell him people are going to show up with on day eight.
I have no idea how any of this is going to actually happen, or who the mohelim in Maine are or the myriad of questions that we still have unanswered or have yet to discuss. Bring on the blue dinosaurs and bottles. A baby boy. I stare at the printed ultrasound picture, hugging it close to my chest. The unknown has time to wait. Matt grasps my hand and kisses my forehead. I can‚Äôt wait to meet you my baby boy.
For more information, check out IFF’s¬†Guide to Birth Ceremonies for Interfaith Families.