Why Choosing Love Didn’t Mean Conversion for Me

  

Holding hands

Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the table–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 wasn’t on the table that night, and it wasn’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. I’d attended a friend’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 Reconstructionism’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 I’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 “going frum,” a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.

A few days before Valentine’s Day, I couldn’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 “rose” 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 music’s beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.

In the end, this “crisis of faith,” 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 couldn’t escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I don’t (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husband’s family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if I’m honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.

It wasn’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. I’d made religious choices for a significant other once before–choices I came to regret–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 spouse 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.

Make the Most of this Valentine’s Day

  

Valentine's giftsI 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 can’t miss a chance to embrace this Valentine’s Day.  

You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentine’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 Valentine’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 child’s class cards? The Valentine’s Day of early childhood isn’t just about your romantic partner, it’s about your friends (and maybe some kids who aren’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 I’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.  

Just like writing Valentine’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 Valentine’s or the day after. So will you try it with me?  

Healing the World is Our Every Day

  

Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movement’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 didn’t flinch knowing I’d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their mom’s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, “healing the world” – 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 we’d ALL learn by doing.

Roxy doing tikkun olam

Roxy learning about the environment during tikkun olam program

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.

I’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 we’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.

It’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 – that there’s a place for everyone at the table because we’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, it’s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.

Everett gardening

Everett learning about environment during tikkun olam program

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 what’s become a pretty central concept in our family. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I’m involved in planning this stuff. It’s not like he doesn’t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. It’s not like he doesn’t know any of these things about me or the kids. But I’ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and I’m not quite sure why.

The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their “Jewish” life and what is their “secular” 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 it’s clear cut. Sometimes I still think I’m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didn’t have to explain things – 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 isn’t always just healing the giant world, it’s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.

But WHY Mommy? Why?

  
Amy, Roxy & Everett

Everett, Amy & Roxy

If you’re a parent, there’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 “where do babies come from?” “What’s sex?” and “Have you ever tried drugs?” I think over the years I’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 don’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: “Hey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?”

Me: “Um, no, not really.”

Kids: “But isn’t he supposed to go to church? Isn’t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who aren’t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?” (Yeah, my kids still don’t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they haven’t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Let’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: “Well yeah. I guess he’s *supposed* to go to church. If you’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 doesn’t belong to a church and he doesn’t go. We don’t go to Shabbat services every week either, so that’s OK, right?”

Kids: “Yeah it’s OK, but did he EVER go to church?”

Matt and Amy

Introducing Matt and Amy

Clearly they weren’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. Matt’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: “Does Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?”

Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? It’s a subject that I’m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.

Me: “Uhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. It’s really hard to explain guys.”

Kids: “Well 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?”

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 he’s converting, but the longer we’re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections – yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.

I think with life’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 I’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 Matt’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.

Traditions are Languages, Too

  

Kids learning at schoolTraditions are languages, too.

Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.

This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:

Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”

Laurel:  “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”

I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’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 book 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 one’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 “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ 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.

She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” 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 – 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 daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’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, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.

Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.

 What “languages” 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?

Planning for a First Shavuot

  

Cheese blintzes

Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, it’s never been a holiday that I’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, “Well, let’s see,” 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, “Yay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!”

For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s explained that, for him at least, “Jewish holidays are all about food!” This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with “what do we do at the holiday?” but with “what do we eat?

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 we’ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I don’t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know we’ll be focusing on these three things.

First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husband’s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit I’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 we’ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac ’n’ 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 we’ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think we’ll take the opportunity to tell our children—likely while eating our blintzes!—the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. We’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? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Finally, there’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 grandmother’s name is Ruth, and it’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 that’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. We’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.

Happy Bat Mitzvah Anniversary!

  
March 25, 1989

March 25, 1989

This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary.  I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. I’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 that’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 I’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.” It’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 today’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 D’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:

  1. The dress. Stepping aside from my interest in creating a post-feminist framework for my girls where a woman’s appearance isn’t such a big deal (referenced in my last blog post), I will say that a lot of my memories are about the dress. But it’s not about buying a dress because I needed to look pretty. It was the dress as a symbol of passage. My mother and I spent hours and hours shopping, and my father got involved, too. The conversations were not about whether or not I was pretty enough, they were about looking “grown-up,” finding a costume that was respectful of traditions and appropriately mature, but also comfortable. And it meant lots of one-on-one time with Mom, which made me feel pretty special, since I was the oldest of three. Whether or not the dress achieved the goal was yet another story, but the learning was in the process.
  2. The party. My party was a luncheon at the temple. It was a big and wonderful production. While I have mixed feelings about how big is too big for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, I will say that if you take away the high-priced disc jockey and the gorgeous catering, my real memories are of the warmth of having everyone I knew and loved under one roof. This only happens a very few times in any person’s life, and I feel lucky that I had the unique experience of a Bat Mitzvah to make this happen an extra time for me. And perhaps it is not about being an adult, but I would argue there are very few things that make you feel as solidly grounded in the universe as being in a room full of family, familiarity and love.
  3. The expression of individualism. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an important moment during which a child makes an individual journey within their community. The one-on-one tutoring with my cantor, studying and planning, and reading my D’var Torah in front of a room full of people, all demanded an inner focus and ability to differentiate myself from others in the crowd. If you can remember back to your pre-teen years, this is not something many of us were trying to do at that particular moment in time. Being forced to say “Here I am,” at 13 wasn’t just about preparing religious life, but for everything from planning my wedding to prepping for a professional presentation. It was a big deal for me.

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 weren’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.

Jewish Education Can’t be Optional

  

alef-betFor four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.

But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.

In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.

Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.

I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.

I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.

I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.

But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.

People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.

Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”

Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.

Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.

My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.

I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.

Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Confessions of a Peeking Parent

  

By Jodi S. Rosenfeld

The rules are right there in the Shema.

You know, in the Ve’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 Torah’s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.

Kids learningBut that line about teaching God’s commandments diligently to our children? That’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 “good parents” 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: I’ve started solid foods; I’ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read “Goodnight Moon” every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for music…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 “gathering the light” 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. “You were not covering your eyes!” to which they would reply, “Mom, how could you know we weren’t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?”

Touché. 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.

Better than Date Night

  

Hands raisedAs I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month.  But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right?  With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.

I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation).  At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?”  We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”

Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment.  But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying.  First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.

When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me).  Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish.  Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents.  It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be.  We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.

That in and of itself was pretty great.  But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters.  And it turns out we really like learning together.  To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing.  And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.

So here’s my multi-pronged pitch.  First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year.  If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse.  It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well.  [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.]  So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids.  And I hope you get back-to-school, too.