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Once upon a time, Amy, a divorced Jewish girl from Jersey, met Matt, a divorced Irish Catholic boy from Philly, in the unlikely state of Maine. They went on some dates. Amy tried to convince herself Matt was too â€śnice and normalâ€ť and Matt ignored her and made her dinner and bought her flowers.They both realized pretty quickly that they were living a real-life Disney movie and suddenly the two found themselves blissfully in love, minus the talking animals of course.
Matt and Amy knew that they had a partner in each other, to support one another, laugh with, cry with and everything in between.Â They introduced their children to each other, they met one anotherâ€™s families.They created a new life for themselves, together, figuring out how to start over in a serious relationship after divorce while already having kids and embracing the chaos, the unknowns, the differences and the sameness. Matt moved into Amyâ€™s house, and to this day, continues to help her create what has become an actual home, reflecting the uniqueness of the kids and adults who live there.
This month, I celebrated my 40th birthday with Matt and my kids by my side. The significance of turning 40 has been huge for me, making me feel like Iâ€™m crossing some kind of real grown-up threshold and am caught between not quite feeling old enough to truly be the adult I imagined, while balancing paying a mortgage, organizing the household and parenting. Having Matt in my life to share it with makes the transition smoother, and as I have been reminded numerous times, 40 is the new 20 (without the ability to understand snapchat). So this week, with me settling into this new decade, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to really make things interesting for our family and friends, because thatâ€™s how we roll around here.
Using the power of social media, we enjoyed shocking everyone by announcing that weâ€™re expecting this fall, which was as terribly fun to share as it was unexpected news (yes, our immediate families all knew prior to our announcement). And let me tell youâ€”doing this at 40 with a 9-year-old and a 6 1/2-year-old at home is sooooo much harder than it was when I first started the journey of being a mom. Iâ€™m exhausted all the time and I somehow blocked out the joys of morning sickness, body aches and maternity jeans (actually, that last one Iâ€™m kind of in love with). But Iâ€™m feeling pretty good overall, and as my belly grows so does my excitement and nervousness about our expanding family.
Before Matt and I found out we were new parents-to-be, he joked to me one day thatÂ if we ever had a kid together I could pick the religion if he could pick the sports teams. A die-hard Philly fan vs. a New York sports fan was going to be hard enough with us living in New England, but thereâ€™s truth in laughter and my answer with a smile and a giggle was sure, darling, fair dealâ€”never imagining that at 40 it could ever be reality. Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a child on the way, facing these very real questions about how weâ€™re going to parent and what kind of impact our interfaith relationship will have on our baby on the way.
Our families have their own opinions and questions, many of which havenâ€™t been vocalized, yet their subtle, careful questions paint a clear picture of uncertainty. Friends have been surprisingly more to the point, with direct questions expecting exact answers. My two kids, with their strong Jewish identities had their own Jewish birth stories, with a community naming ceremony for Roxy and a bris for Everett, both on the eighthÂ day of their lives. Mattâ€™s 10-year-old was baptized in the tradition of his own religious lineage, and itâ€™s all Matt knows when it comes to connecting birth and religion.
Weâ€™ve discussed our own connections to these traditions and our journey of figuring out our â€śwhat nextâ€ť has truly begun. What felt abstract about our interfaith relationship before is now â€śin your face,â€ť and while I feel confident that our communication is strong and that we have the ability to be open and understanding with each other, thereâ€™s so much on the table that truly overwhelms me.
Raising a child is hard enough, even when the parents come from similar backgrounds.Â Add in divorce, co-parenting and a couple committed to each other who come from different worlds and arenâ€™t engaged (can we please just deal with one major life change at a time?). Welcoming a child into this conglomeration? Well, this 40-year-old pregnant woman and her amazing boyfriend are doing a killer job of navigating, if I do say so myself.
Matt keeps me grounded through it all, with his calm demeanor and his â€śStop worrying about everything, of course weâ€™ll figure it out and I just want you to be happyâ€ť attitude. And heâ€™s right, I know heâ€™s right. Iâ€™m going to trust in him, and in this.
We might not have it all figured out, but this baby is already a blessing. The ride might be bumpy, but the destination will surely be joyous.
As I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought Iâ€™d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.
As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, Iâ€™d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friendâ€™s and another at our house.
The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.
During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our sonâ€™s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. Iâ€™ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.
From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. Weâ€™ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And thatâ€™s why we were flyingÂ to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friendâ€™s seder table.
Our son has been playing water polo for a year on his schoolâ€™s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, heâ€™s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament theyâ€™ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said Iâ€™d find a way to adapt our observance.
When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.
I canâ€™t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, weâ€™ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.
I have no idea if the choices weâ€™re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isnâ€™t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesnâ€™t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.
As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I donâ€™t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.
Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather â€“ after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxyâ€™s birthday and my birthday. This year sheâ€™s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as itâ€™s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.
I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. Iâ€™m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, itâ€™s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9. Â I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebratingÂ four decades.
I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesnâ€™t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and sheâ€™s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday â€“ and oh yeah, Mommy â€“ you have to come, too.
The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course â€“ the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing â€śHappy Birthdayâ€ť in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til itâ€™s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.
I guess it shouldnâ€™t surprise me that sheâ€™s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that sheâ€™s so in tune with her Jewish identity that itâ€™s a given to her that of course weâ€™re going to get birthday blessings. But thereâ€™s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasnâ€™t so important to Roxy? Iâ€™m not convinced I even would have thought of it.
The kids split their time between my house and their dadâ€™s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend â€“ and next weekend â€“ the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldnâ€™t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).
I will meet them there, because if I donâ€™t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, sheâ€™d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because itâ€™s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants â€śKeyn yâ€™he ratzonâ€ť (be this Godâ€™s will) in response to the rabbiâ€™s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with Godâ€™s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.
At the end of the service, weâ€™ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings arenâ€™t a given, and we donâ€™t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and Iâ€™m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.
When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an â€śall inâ€ť model for a Jewish household. For our future childrenâ€™s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. Â It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Ericâ€™s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The â€śall inâ€ť model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our familiesâ€™ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Ericâ€™s parentsâ€™ and sisterâ€™s homes. Â
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So hereâ€™s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We donâ€™t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Ericâ€™s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together. Â
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I canâ€™t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something â€śall inâ€ť and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there canâ€™t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didnâ€™t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didnâ€™t rule out the possibility that one day maybe Iâ€™d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasnâ€™t focused on finding a lifelong mate â€“ and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends werenâ€™t Jewish, and besides, I didnâ€™t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
Itâ€™s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they werenâ€™t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everettâ€™s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didnâ€™t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didnâ€™t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was â€śthe oneâ€ť and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
Thereâ€™s that whole clichĂ© of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. Thereâ€™s no explanation, thereâ€™s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish thereâ€™s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But weâ€™ve both been there, done that, so thereâ€™s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids â€“ both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids donâ€™t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
Itâ€™s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasnâ€™t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldnâ€™t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me heâ€™s bringing his TV because itâ€™s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, Iâ€™ve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things Iâ€™ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. Iâ€™m ready for this next phase but also know thereâ€™s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. Thereâ€™s a mezuzah on the front door. Thereâ€™s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still havenâ€™t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. Thereâ€™s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I canâ€™t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that Iâ€™d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I donâ€™t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, andÂ that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but Iâ€™m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that itâ€™s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
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.
Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football Leagueâ€™s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.
As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didnâ€™t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving backâ€“regardless of whether their families had much to give.
The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didnâ€™t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.
Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.
Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.
When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs arenâ€™t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you donâ€™t see something that youâ€™re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.
Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you donâ€™t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu bâ€™mitzâ€™votav, vâ€™tzivanu lirâ€™dof tzedek.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.
At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Donâ€™t worry about what you see as the causeâ€™s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.
Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.
Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.
Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someoneâ€™s day.
Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.
Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.
By Courtney Naliboff
Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that Iâ€™m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and havenâ€™t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, weâ€™d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husbandâ€™s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His motherâ€™s side is from Guatemala and his fatherâ€™s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penroseâ€™s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
â€śThis?â€ť she asked.
â€śItâ€™s my hamsa,â€ť I answered.
â€śHam,â€ť she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
â€śAbue ham?â€ť she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
â€śAbuela doesnâ€™t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,â€ť I said. â€śI wear a hamsa because Iâ€™m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because sheâ€™s Catholic.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s right, Mommyâ€™s Jewish.â€ť
â€śMe joosh?â€ť she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
â€śYes, youâ€™re Jewish too.â€ť
â€śNo, Daddyâ€™s not Jewish.â€ť
Although this was Penroseâ€™s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadnâ€™t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her fatherâ€™s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I havenâ€™t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesnâ€™t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but weâ€™re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the islandâ€™s first Jewish child, and my excitementâ€”and anxietyâ€”about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be â€śjooshâ€ť other than wearing jewelry. But I wasnâ€™t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
â€śTo me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,â€ť I said. â€śWe help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.â€ť
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, weâ€™ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when itâ€™s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when sheâ€™s singing â€śBow wow wow, whose dog are thou?â€ť she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with â€śMe, joosh.â€ť Itâ€™s not a question for her anymoreâ€”itâ€™s become a part of her story.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.
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.
By Elizabeth Raphael
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
2015 was a year of change for me, facilitated largely by the birth of my lovely dumpling of a daughter in February. Among the normal challenges of being a first-time parent (learning to cobble together a working brain when it has been addled by lack of sleep, perfecting the art of acting casually when your child decides to poop on you in a public place, and so on), I had the additional challenge of being a woman from another faith background raising a Jewish daughter.
A bit of background on me: My religious upbringing can best be described as â€śvaguely Christian.â€ť I went to a Catholic church a handful of times as a child, but I was never baptized, nor did I undergo confirmation (in fact, I had to do a quick Internet search while writing this article to make sure that â€śconfirmationâ€ť was even the right term for the process I was thinking of).
My family celebrated Easter and Christmas, but there was never an emphasis on the religious aspects of the holidays. Though my parents made sure my siblings and I knew the meaning behind the holidays, the days themselves were more about getting together with and showing appreciation for family than going to church or performing any truly religious rituals. As I grew older, my naturally skeptic mind led me on a journey of religious exploration that eventually brought me to a place of agnosticism in my early 20s. It was right around this time that I met my husband, whoâ€”you guessed itâ€”happens to be Jewish.
He and I met through a mutual friend in 2007. OK, technically we met on a mutual friendâ€™s MySpace page, but we tend to leave that part out of our official couple story. We quickly bonded over our love of art, our mutual fondness for grunge music, and our uncanny ability to quote â€śSeinfeldâ€ť episodes from start to finish. Eventually we agreed to meet, and sweet amorebloomed.
Through my relationship with him, I got my first real experience with Jewish culture (well, outside of a childhood fondness for the â€śRugratsâ€ť cartoon from the 90s). His religious education was more thorough than mine; he attended Sunday School regularly as a child and had his bar mitzvah. Despite this, he too had settled into agnosticism as an adult.
However, where things between us differed was in the strong connection he still felt toward his culture. He kept (and still keeps) loosely kosher, not maintaining a separate kitchen but avoiding shellfish and pork and never mixing meat and dairy. Every Hanukkah, he would pull out his menorah and sing the blessings over the phone with his family across the country each night.
What I came to realize is that where my relationship with the Christian holidays was one of somewhat superficial amusement (though fun and lovely in its own way), his relationship with the Jewish holidays and with Judaism in general was something more substantial. His was a relationship of preservation. By maintaining those rituals, he was helping to keep alive an ancient, beautiful, and strong culture that had undergone more than its share of challenges over the years. It was this realization that made the decision to raise our daughter as Jewish a natural choice for both of us.
Since our daughter is still only a wee lassâ€”just 11 months old!â€”her current relationship with Judaism is at a fairly basic level. Last Purim, we dressed her up and took her to temple, delighted to have an opportunity to put her in the bear costume we bought pretty much when we first found out that I was pregnant. For her Hebrew naming ceremony, we waited until Sukkot and had it under the sukkah with the Sunday School classes in attendance. (I managed to only cry a little bit while reading the blessings.) She delighted in all of the aspects of Hanukkahâ€”especially opening gifts, eating latkes with lots of applesauce on top, and watching the menorah being lit. She may not have fully realized the significance behind such events yet, but by undergoing these experiences, she has already become a part of the culture.
In many ways, I am learning about Judaism alongside my daughter. I know that at some point, her education and her experiences will take her to a different place than me, and there will be complicated questions to answer when we come to them. I am not intimidated by this. We will be different, yes, but not separate. I will find ways to help her grow as a young Jewish woman. Already I have adopted the role of helping her appreciate her culture through cooking. (Iâ€™m proud to say I have challah, hamantaschen, babka, and matzah ball soup under my culinary belt.) The older she gets, I will find other ways as well.
I await these challenges, and the Gregorian New Year, with open arms and an open heart.