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By Melissa Henriquez
Every Sunday morning as I practically drag my 6-year old out of bed to go to Hebrew School, Iâ€™m reminded of the final scene in â€śMy Big Fat Greek Weddingâ€ť when Toulaâ€™s own daughter has turned six and is begrudgingly headed off to â€¦ where else?!Â Greek school.
Like Toulaâ€™s daughter and Toula before her, and Toulaâ€™s mother before her (and so on and so forth) my daughter knows she must to go to her own version of Greek School â€” she just doesnâ€™t â€śwantâ€ť to.
Personally, I began Hebrew School in third grade. Because I wish Iâ€™d started earlier, we enrolled my daughter when she started kindergarten last fall.Â I wanted her to have a better sense of Jewish community than I did growing upÂ and an earlier start to Jewish learning. Since Hebrew School goes from 9:15 a.m.â€“12:15 p.m.Â every Sunday for all ages, itâ€™s admittedly a hefty time commitment for the short-attention-spanned kindergartnersâ€“but it is what it is. Fortunately for us, Hebrew School overlaps when my (Catholic) husband normally goes to mass, anyway, so itâ€™s not that my daughter is missing much family timeâ€“and itâ€™s given me precious, special one-on-one time with my 3-year-old son.
Itâ€™s not that she doesnâ€™t like Hebrew School once sheâ€™s thereâ€“she has adorable little friends, they sing, they have music class, they bake and participate in a mini-service. They do art projects and learn their Hebrew letters, colors and numbers. She learns about Jewish customs, history and holidaysâ€“and I love that now she peppers me now with questions about Judaism. Because sheâ€™d learned about Passover and the Jewsâ€™ exodus from Egypt, she asked me if I was a slave because I was Jewish (hoo boy!). I love seeing her little mind work and how she asks me who else in her world is Jewish, as well as who is not (her grandpa, her daddy, 99% of her friends).
But letâ€™s be honest: while being Jewish is something I take deep pride in, it isnâ€™t easy by any means. And itâ€™s definitely not easy for a 6-year-old kid who just wants to stay home in her PJs, read, color and ride her bike on Sunday mornings, especially when all of her friends from school are Christian, and only a handful are regular Sunday church-goers.
I know first-hand how hard it can be to be â€śdifferentâ€ťâ€“to be one of just a few Jewish kids in my school and the only Jew among my close friends. I remember the pangs of sadness I felt having to miss a huge cheerleading competition in eighth grade that fell on my bat mitzvah day. I desperately wanted to be in two places at once, but could not.
Looking ahead, I know my daughter will face similar situations; itâ€™s inevitable that Jewish life and sports/activities will at some point collide, and Judaism will often need to be the priority, as it was for me. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the significance of those sacrifices, and I hope she will, too. But whatever she thinks or decides about Judaism as an adult, I want her to at leastÂ understandÂ it, and thatâ€™s why weâ€™re doing this.
This first year of formal religious school has been a real adjustment for our little family, and Iâ€™d be lying if I said we werenâ€™t all looking forward to summer break when we will have free Sunday mornings again. But all in all, I wouldnâ€™t change a thing. Itâ€™s been a great learning experience and Iâ€™ve been thrilled at the beginnings of her Jewish education. And come September, I think our soon-to-be-first-grader will be excited to go back to a familiar school where she has a newfound sense of belonging.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (6) and Ben (3).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the tableâ€“not until I brought the question up on my own, three years after we got married.
Shortly after my husband and I first started dating, Ben brought me to Friday night Shabbat services at a large Reform synagogue in Boston. A cantor with a guitar led the congregation in a wordless melody at the beginning of the service, and as the service progressed into as-yet-unfamiliar Hebrew phrases, I appreciated his help guiding me through the prayer book, not all of which offered transliterations of the Hebrew. Afterwards, we drank small cups of Manischewitz and ate tiny chunks of challah at the oneg. He led me excitedly past cases of shimmering, evocative Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups, haggadot with messages such as the feminist haggadot or Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian Passover classic). Afterwards, we went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant, holding hands across a table and talking about religion.
Conversion wasnâ€™t on the table that night, and it wasnâ€™t even on the table when we became engaged, and then married. The only thing truly on the table that night, and in the nights since, was our desire to choose each other, and by doing so, to choose love.
Five years after that first date, three years into our marriage, though, I almost converted to Judaism. Iâ€™d attended a friendâ€™s conversion ceremony, and during the joyous celebration of her joining the People of Israel, I found myself unexpectedly and profoundly moved by the experience. She converted in a Reconstructionist synagogue, and in keeping with the vision of Reconstructionismâ€™s founder, Mordecai Kaplan, of Judaism as a religious civilization, the congregation emphasized a joyful spiritual approach that offered no insult to the modern intellect.
When my friend stood on the bimah and received her Jewish name and held the Torah in her arms, my mind flashed forward to times when Iâ€™d seen babies dedicated in the synagogue, being welcomed into the Jewish people. I realized, in a flash, what it might mean to hold my own child, and welcome her into the Jewish people, when I myself was not Jewish. There, in that room, with the resonant Hebrew prayers resounding throughout, it seemed that perhaps the covenant could extend to me as well.
I returned home and bought books about conversion, about Jewish ritual, about interfaith families. I listened to all of the major prayers on YouTube, and wondered how long it would take to do formal morning and evening prayers. I whispered the Shema to myself, imagining that my Jewish husband would look at me as if I were â€śgoing frum,â€ť a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.
A few days before Valentineâ€™s Day, I couldnâ€™t keep my curiosity in any longer. I wrote Ben a letter, explaining, in convoluted, circular words, how drawn I felt to Judaism at that moment and how much I appreciated many aspects of his religion. I gave the letter to him at breakfast on a Saturday, and the question of conversion now glimmered there between our held hands, right there on the table. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.
That afternoon, we went on a hike in the mountains near our home, holding hands, marveling in the wonder of the world we live in, and wondering what it might be like to have a religiously united family.
A few weeks later, I found myself in New York on a Friday night, and decided to attend services at a historic synagogue on Fifth Avenue. I had never been in a synagogue that so closely resembled a cathedral before: soaring ceilings, gilded walls covered in elaborate mosaics, and at the back, a Star-of-David â€śroseâ€ť window and a very impressive organ. A professional choir, accompanied by the organ, sang the prayers, while the well-dressed and equally well-heeled congregation listened in aesthetic appreciation of the musicâ€™s beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.
In the end, this â€ścrisis of faith,â€ť so to speak, lasted for a few months. I talked with my friend who had converted, with other friends, with my parents. All were supportive, but cautious, not wanting me to confuse one moment of inspiration with making the right choice for both myself and my husband.
I found myself coming back to several facts from which I couldnâ€™t escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I donâ€™t (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husbandâ€™s family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if Iâ€™m honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.
It wasnâ€™t an easy choice, mind you. I struggled with how to choose loving my spouse (and eventually, God willing, our children), with choosing a religion, and with being true to myself.Â I’d made religious choices for a significant otherÂ once beforeâ€“choices I came to regretâ€“and in the end, wasn’t willing to do that again, no matter how well-intentioned a similar choice might have been, this time around.
Throughout it all, my Jewish spouseÂ stood steadfastly with me, choosing to love me every day, even if that meant we would remain an interfaith family. We knew, in the end, as the words on our ketubah had suggested, that we could choose love by letting each other be ourselves.
I have not posted here in a little while. In part, because the business of life has caught up with me, and, in part, because in the midst of huge changes in this country, inspiration is not coming as quickly. But I canâ€™t miss a chance to embrace this Valentineâ€™s Day. Â
You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentineâ€™s Day is a day you can chose to dread or relish, or anything in-between. This year, as February 14 approaches I am hoping we can use it as a reminder that we all can actively #ChooseLove, and see if we can find some joy and maybe even understanding.
Remember when you were in elementary school, and had to spend all afternoon the day before Valentineâ€™s Day making sure you had a card for every other kid in your class? Or remember last year, when you stayed up late finishing your childâ€™s class cards? The Valentineâ€™s Day of early childhood isnâ€™t just about your romantic partner, itâ€™s about your friends (and maybe some kids who arenâ€™t really friends at all). It might be about buying things–cards, stickers, candy–but it is also about performing a gesture of caring for the people around you.
We are living in a time of tremendous divides in our country and our communities. Be it politics, faith, country of origin or some other line that separates one from another, this is a great time to #ChooseLove. You can choose whatever you want for your February 14: a hot date with your partner, a boycott of the Hallmark store, a giant candy heart to share or not to share, but Iâ€™d encourage you to think of it as a chance to try to see your friends, neighbors, colleagues or the strangers in your life with love. Â
Just like writing Valentineâ€™s cards for your classmates, it is easier to do this for some people than others. But I believe that the act of trying to extend love can bring us closer together, or, at the very least, warm our hearts just a bit more than the day before Valentineâ€™s or the day after. So will you try it with me? Â
Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movementâ€™s Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didnâ€™t flinch knowing Iâ€™d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their momâ€™s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, â€śhealing the worldâ€ť â€“ and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what weâ€™d ALL learn by doing.
I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.
Iâ€™m so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that weâ€™re doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.
Itâ€™s a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected â€“ that thereâ€™s a place for everyone at the table because weâ€™re all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, itâ€™s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.
After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him whatâ€™s become a pretty central concept in our family. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that Iâ€™m involved in planning this stuff. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know any of these things about me or the kids. But Iâ€™ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and Iâ€™m not quite sure why.
The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their â€śJewishâ€ť life and what is their â€śsecularâ€ť life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think itâ€™s clear cut. Sometimes I still think Iâ€™m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didnâ€™t have to explain things â€“ to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isnâ€™t always just healing the giant world, itâ€™s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.
If youâ€™re a parent, thereâ€™s always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like â€śwhere do babies come from?â€ť â€śWhatâ€™s sex?â€ť and â€śHave you ever tried drugs?â€ť I think over the years Iâ€™ve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donâ€™t know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: â€śHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â€ť
Me: â€śUm, no, not really.â€ť
Kids: â€śBut isnâ€™t he supposed to go to church? Isnâ€™t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenâ€™t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â€ť (Yeah, my kids still donâ€™t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenâ€™t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâ€™s be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: â€śWell yeah. I guess heâ€™s *supposed* to go to church. If youâ€™re part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnâ€™t belong to a church and he doesnâ€™t go. We donâ€™t go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâ€™s OK, right?â€ť
Kids: â€śYeah itâ€™s OK, but did he EVER go to church?â€ť
Clearly they werenâ€™t letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâ€™s connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: â€śDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â€ť
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâ€™s a subject that Iâ€™m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: â€śUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâ€™s really hard to explain guys.â€ť
Kids: â€śWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â€ť
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâ€™s converting, but the longer weâ€™re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â€“ yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâ€™s experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâ€™m proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâ€™s family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacherâ€™s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls â€śjokes,â€ť except theyâ€™re actually wordsÂ â€śout of the mouths of babesâ€ť which sound funny to adult ears, but often meanÂ more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: â€śI speak English, Chinese and Spanish.â€ť
Laurel:Â â€śI speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.â€ť
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meantÂ â€śHebrew,â€ť of course, and â€śChristianâ€ť isnâ€™t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her bookÂ The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding oneâ€™s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed â€śspeak Jewish.â€ť I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parentsâ€™ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
Sheâ€™s learning, too â€“ I think â€“ that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Judaism, and the other to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus â€“Â or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughtersâ€™ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť theyâ€™re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, sheâ€™ll grow in her understanding of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Hollyâ€™s room as I was putting her to bed. â€śI want to sing the Shema to my sister,â€ť Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurelâ€™s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt sheâ€™ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
Â What â€ślanguagesâ€ť do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, itâ€™s never been a holiday that Iâ€™ve experienced. I am, admittedly, embarrassed to say this. However, in the spirit of blogging about my interfaith family, I announced to the family that this year, we should do something differently! I promptly looked at Ben for suggestions. He said, â€śWell, letâ€™s see,â€ť and walked over to the bookshelves, coming back with a big stack of Jewish cookbooks. Laurel grinned in excitement and fascination, and I could see her thinking, â€śYay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!â€ť
For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. Iâ€™ve lost track of the number of times heâ€™s explained that, for him at least, â€śJewish holidays are all about food!â€ť This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with â€śwhat do we do at the holiday?â€ť but with â€śwhat do we eat?â€ť
To my delight, though, one of our favorite cookbooks (Olive Trees and Honey, a vegetarian cookbook with recipes from around the Jewish world) described not just the foods of Shavuot, but the other practices and traditions as well. As we prepare to celebrate our first Shavuot, I expect weâ€™ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I donâ€™t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know weâ€™ll be focusing on these three things.
First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husbandâ€™s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit Iâ€™ve never eaten a blintz. My friend Scott in college loved them, and piled them onto his plate whenever the dining hall served them. To me, those dining hall blintzes looked like they were swimming in water, or grease, or something else even less desirable, and they therefore lost much of their appetizing appeal. Ben, however, swears that all I need to do is make a crepe and put a sweet cheese filling in it, and weâ€™ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac â€™nâ€™ cheese sauce, I can probably make a cheese filling. Shavuot part 1, check!
For Shavuot part 2, staying up all night reading Torah and studying, I doubt weâ€™ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think weâ€™ll take the opportunity to tell our childrenâ€”likely while eating our blintzes!â€”the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. Weâ€™ll show them our various paperback and hardback translations of the Torah. I wonder what questions Laurel will ask, in her entertaining 5-year-old way. Will she ask what a sacred text is? (Will that even be the language we use?) How will we answer? Will we talk about sacred texts beyond the Torah or the Hebrew Bible? About writing and literature as hallowed activities for the transmission of human knowledge, emotion and experience? Or will those questions come later? Iâ€™m looking forward to finding out.
Finally, thereâ€™s the book of Ruth. If ever there were a story to celebrate in an interfaith family, this would be it. The story has a personal connection for me because my grandmotherâ€™s name is Ruth, and itâ€™s my middle name as well. I love that the Hebrew Bible includes a story of a woman choosing to live a Jewish life with a Jewish family. I love that even in a religious tradition thatâ€™s passed down from generation to generation, the tradition itself preserves a tale of an outsider choosing to become an insider. Ben and I already mentioned the story to Laurel when we first described Shavuot with the stack of cookbooks. Weâ€™ll tell it to her again on Shavuot (probably over blintzes). As the years go by, I expect that both of our children will find many layers of meaning in this story of extended families, the relationships we choose for reasons of love, and the traditions around which we consciously choose to shape our lives.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. Â I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. Iâ€™ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But thatâ€™s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but Iâ€™d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” Itâ€™s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in todayâ€™s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and Dâ€™var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you werenâ€™t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our sonâ€™s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didnâ€™t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasnâ€™t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our sonâ€™s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didnâ€™t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldnâ€™t consider it.
I didnâ€™t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didnâ€™t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didnâ€™t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didnâ€™t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didnâ€™t go heâ€™d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasnâ€™t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didnâ€™t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. Itâ€™s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, â€śevery additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came beforeâ€ť on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up â€świth more densely Jewish social networks areâ€¦more likely to engage in ritual practiceâ€¦and to raise their children as Jews.â€ť
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, itâ€™s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, itâ€™s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. Iâ€™m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandiâ€™s recent blogÂ post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
ByÂ Jodi S. Rosenfeld
The rules are right there in the Shema.
You know, in the Veâ€™ahavta part, where it says: These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking by the way, and when you’re lying down, and when you’re rising up. On and on it goes. These are the Torahâ€™s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.
But that line about teaching Godâ€™s commandments diligently to our children? Thatâ€™s a specific directive to us parents. Whether we are raising kids in an interfaith home or in one with two Jewish adults, the expectation is clear–teach the kids about Judaism and teach them with diligence! This makes me anxious.
Think about the endless list of lessons â€śgood parentsâ€ť are supposed to be sure to impart to their children: good manners, respect for others, healthy eating habits, general knowledge of the world. I remember, when my now-10-year-old was in about his sixth month, people started asking me if I was teaching him baby sign language. My heart would pound. I would think, in list fashion: Iâ€™ve started solid foods; Iâ€™ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read â€śGoodnight Moonâ€ť every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for musicâ€¦must I teach him sign language too? It seemed like one more task in an overwhelming, unending series of parental responsibilities.
As I thought about how I wanted to teach my children about being Jewish, I decided to start with Shabbat. We began lighting candles every Friday night in the manner our Rabbi had taught us–all of us â€śgathering the lightâ€ť by sweeping our hands above the flames three times and then covering our eyes while we said the blessing. As my children became old enough to join us in these rituals, I found that my personal behaviors had changed. I would gather the light, then, rather than cover my eyes, I would peek. Just as a toddler playing hide-and-seek might open her fingers to peer out between them while counting, I was peeking at my kids! Rather than enjoying the serenity of that darkened moment of prayer, I was staring at them–were they covering their eyes? Were they saying the blessing? (I know they know this blessing!) It had become my weekly parenting test: Were my kids doing Judaism right? Had I diligently taught them how to observe Shabbat?
This was not working for me. I had come to dread that sundown moment of disappointment if say, they were poking one another instead of focusing on the holiness of the moment. I started to call them out on it. â€śYou were not covering your eyes!â€ť to which they would reply, â€śMom, how could you know we werenâ€™t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?â€ť
TouchĂ©. Smart kids.
And so this is what my kids taught me about their Jewishness: they would learn by watching me. If Shabbat blessings were important to me, eventually they would see that they were important. If I became engaged in the community of our synagogue, they would find value in that community. If I continued to peek, the jig would be up.
Now, this is how I do Judaism with due diligence–at home, I focus on what is meaningful to me: lighting candles, eating Challah on Friday nights, hosting family meals for the holidays. My kids watch. And participate. And learn.