A Reminder to Diligently Teach Our Children

Sammy's first letter from camp simply fulfilled his promise to my husband.

Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.

“Daddy says I have to write to you once a week. I’m going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”

“We would love to hear from you while you’re away,” I said, “but we also know that if we don’t get a letter it’s because you’re having a great time.”

“That’s what I told Daddy!”

“Sammy, it’s up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. We’d love to get an update on what you’re doing, but it’s your choice. It’s not a big deal if you don’t write.”

I don’t like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of camp–no news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.

But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.

As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.

She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriend’s mother, or if she should “put her foot down” before it’s too late.

I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, “The Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesn’t require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parents’ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.

As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameron’s request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy “putting his foot down.” I thought, “How can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriend’s mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?”

I couldn’t. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. “You know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?”

“Yeah,” said Sammy.

‘Well, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.

We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, “Maybe I’ll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kid’s to brush his teeth!”

“You can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,” I said.

I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was – an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.

While his second letter home was a little silly, Sammy did thank us for sending him to camp.

In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach God’s words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicit–“This is what the Torah says.” We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.

The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I don’t expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully I’ll be mindful enough to grab them more often.

And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.

Finding a Way to Embrace the Fifth Child

The five children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, one silent and one with interfaith parents.

The other day, I received an email from an organization that supports unaffiliated and intermarried Jews encouraging me to recognize the “fifth child” at my seder. Curious about who the “fifth child” was I opened the note.

The message highlighted how Passover has long been a holiday that pushes Jews to acknowledge critical Jewish and non-Jewish issues of the day. Using the haggadah story about the four children – the wise, wicked, simple, and silent, as a foundation, the email suggested that seder facilitators explore the questions and challenges faced by a fifth child – a child of intermarriage.

A discussion guide was included, but before I opened it, I felt myself grimace – something about the child from an interfaith home being labeled the “fifth child” made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew that the material was developed with the intention of making Judaism more welcoming and I assumed that the language was scrutinized to ensure that it wasn’t offensive or exclusionary. So, why was I bothered by it? What rubbed me the wrong way?

As I considered the language of the email, I realized that a part of my discomfort stemmed from the use of the term “fifth child.” It called to mind, the negative connotations sometimes associated with “step-child.” It felt that children like my son, who come from interfaith homes, were being labeled as “other,” outsiders, not part of the larger Jewish family.

But, I didn’t want to dismiss the material based on my initial reaction, so I put aside my feelings and continued reading. After an overview of the number of Jewish children being raised in interfaith homes, the guide suggested that leaders ask seder participants, “What does the child of intermarriage ask?” The child of intermarriage asks, “What is my place in all this?”

I thought, Sammy and the other children of intermarriage in my circle would never ask this question.

I knew that they wouldn’t ask it because they already believed that the Passover story was their story. They didn’t question their place among the Jewish people. They were all raised, from birth, in single-faith Jewish homes, in a supportive temple community. They all attended Jewish preschool, and now participate in religious education and youth activities. They were sure of their Jewish identity in part because of the commitment to creating a Jewish family made by their not Jewish mom or dad.

Suggesting to these children, who come from Jewishly engaged interfaith families, that they might not have been a part of one of the defining moments in Jewish history, would be inappropriate and confusing. It would cause them to question what they see as their place among the Jewish people.

As I read further, I saw that one of the goals of the piece was to reassure children of intermarriage who were uncertain of or insecure about their Jewishness, that they, like all Jews regardless of age, background, upbringing, or parentage, had a place in the Exodus. When I realized this, I understood that this discussion was not intended for children like my son, who feel wholly Jewish and have strong Jewish identities.

Still, what I didn’t like about the content was that it reminded me that many Jews still considered a child like mine to be outside of the Jewish community. The supplement touched a sore spot that I assumed, because of our high level of Jewish engagement, no longer hurt. I thought that after a dozen years of living an interfaith and Jewish life, that I had developed a callus. Apparently, my religious skin is not as thick as I thought.

But, after considering the information some more, I found the supplement’s value. I saw how it could encourage thoughtful and constructive dialogue about interfaith relationships, and how it could start a conversation about the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in communal forums such as committee meetings and outreach workshops, and at holiday tables with participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds, affiliations, and observance levels. I saw how, if used in the right setting, it could produce robust discourse.

One of the things that helped to change my feelings was an article I found on Chabad.org explaining the four children. Included in the essay, was the concept of a fifth child. It quoted the denomination’s former leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who said 37 years ago, that there was “another kind of a Jewish child,” one who was absent from the seder, not interested or not aware of the Exodus or Torah. Schneerson went on to state that this child presented the biggest challenge to the Jewish community but that regardless of how difficult it was, every effort should be made to bring the absentee child to the seder table because “no Jewish child should be forgotten” or “given up” on.

The Rebbe, as he was known to his followers, makes a valid point, one that may be even more valid today given the number of unaffiliated, “Just Jewish,” or non-traditional – interfaith, LGBTQ, multicultural – Jews. Yet, sadly, there are some who want to forget or give-up on Jewishly different children, especially those from interfaith homes.

What the fifth child is really about is welcoming the stranger (see Jessie Boatright’s recent blog), and making a place for part-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, or Jewishly unengaged interfaith children at seder tables in order to encourage them and their families to explore Judaism or live a more Jewish life. That is a message I can embrace. The haggadah supplement isn’t the right fit for my Passover guests, but I’m no longer bothered by it.

Does God Really Care About What We Eat?

I won't be asking for forgiveness for enjoying lobster rolls this summer.

As the High Holidays approach, I’ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when I’ve been my best self and those when I haven’t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As I’ve gone through this psychological housecleaning I’ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.

I’ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are well…minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?

As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holiday’s food restrictions. Sammy said, “We’ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Some years I’m good at making sure we keep it, and others years I’m not. It’s always easier when we’re home. Since we’re away I’ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.”

“I don’t think God cares,” replied Sammy. “I don’t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I don’t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.”

At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point – eating matzah instead of bread on Passover won’t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.

Then I found an article, “A Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,” that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless “universal spirit.” Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, “I’ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God… I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.”

After re-reading Pitts’ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy – care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if we’re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.

So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year I’ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I don’t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.

Thursday Shabbat

I once heard that time does not exist. It is only a concept that we, the people of the world, agree to for organization. I was thinking about this as I moved Shabbat up a night this week. My mother, who lives out of town, came in on Monday to spend the week with us. When my daughter, Sarah (age 6), heard Gramoo was leaving on Friday afternoon, she told Gramoo she couldn’t leave before Shabbat. Shabbat is the most special time of the week and she can’t miss it.

When I heard that, it took about two seconds for me to move Shabbat to Thursday evening. Our Friday observance is to have family night at home. We go to services at our synagogue on Saturdays. On Thursday, I set the table with our Shabbat dressings, the silver flatware, crystal glasses, the good china. We opened a bottle of wine (and grape juice for the younger set). I made matzo ball soup and challah. My husband roasted chicken. I made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. We enjoyed them warm from the oven. We picked up my husband’s mother and brought her over for dinner, too, so we had both grandmothers with us, a special night indeed!

We blessed the candles, the food, and the kids, and spent the evening together. It was a wonderful evening and one we will remember forever, I hope. My mother (Catholic) asked why we light two candles. Great question! They represent two forms of the fourth commandment Zachor (Remember) the Sabbath and keep it holy and Shamor (Observe) the Sabbath and keep it holy. And that is just what we did. We remembered and observed the Sabbath. So what that it was Thursday. Time is a concept open for interpretation after all. This week we welcomed the Sabbath bride twice. On Friday it was sans grandmothers, though the memory of the night before was still with us burning as bright as a third candle.

Shabbat Shalom, friends!

Is Raising a Mensch Possible?

I was set to write a post about how Baby Boy is turning 2 in just a couple months, and how that meant Hubby and I needed to revisit the discussion of a possible conversion for him. But something happened at work this week that has taken over my thoughts. I won’t go into details out of professional courtesy, but suffice it to say that at the root of the situation is intolerance. Intolerance, possibly bigotry thinly veiled as religious sensibilities. And of course, there’s the sting of this all happening with people I’ve known and worked with for nearly 11 years. Now, to be clear, this situation wasn’t aimed at me or my interfaith family. This situation actually doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism. So why blog about it here?

Because I’m so disheartened. Selfishly, I wonder how the people in question would react if they realized that I am raising a Jewish son. On a larger scale, I wonder how I’m supposed to raise caring, tolerant, inclusive boys when it feels like intolerance surrounds us.

I want my boys to have their own convictions and identities – religious and non-religious – but I don’t want them to feel the need to force those convictions onto anyone they deem as less than them. Scratch that – I don’t want them to see anyone as “less than” them. I want them to have a voice, and to use it when they need to, but I don’t want them to use it to silence other voices.

But how do you teach those values when it feels like home is one of the few places that behavior is modeled? How do you teach those values when we’re daily bombarded with stories of the loud, radical or extremely intolerant voices drowning out the reasonable, more tolerant voices? How do you teach the right balance of taking the high road whenever possible, but not just always “taking it”? Is it possible?

I want to raise Mensches. I do. And right now I think we’re on the right track with that. But the influences on the boys are increasingly wider than just what Dad and I (and other family) show them at home. And right now, I feel so beaten down by those influences that I’m not sure it’s possible to overcome them. Please, if you’ve struggled with this, I’d love suggestions on ways to do it right. It’s about so much more than just me or my family; doesn’t this really affect us all, as humans?

Milestones

Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”

As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.

But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.

“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?

What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?

As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life -  after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be. 

Not Yet

A few weeks ago I was scheduled to meet two boys who, if all went well, would become my sons. The boys are currently in foster care but are available for adoption.

I thought I was one short step away from creating my family.

My adoption agency which works with Child Protective Services started talking to me about the boys about 2 months ago. The Adoption Coordinator and the social worker in charge of their case told me only that they are brothers, 1 ½ and 2 ½ years old, full African American and healthy. That’s what they said. In four separate conversations, that’s what they said. Every time I asked a question, that’s all they said.

Two Fridays ago, I called the Foster Mother before Shabbat so I could arrange to meet them. She started the conversation by saying that in 10 years of fostering, these children are the most challenging kids she has ever cared for. Both have severe special needs: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Attachment Disorder. The boys have already been through two disrupted adoptions. In both cases, the perspective adoptive parents were not informed of children’s medical conditions until they were actually living in their homes and, in both cases, the parents relinquished the boys back into foster care.

The Foster Mother did not want to see this happen again so was brutally honest with me. By the time I hung up the phone I was stunned and angry and so sad – for the boys and for myself. I decided that their needs were completely beyond what I could provide. The following Monday, I turned down the referral and severed my relationship with the agency.

I do not know where I am going from here.

There are three options open to me:
1. Continue to pursue adoption. After two failed adoptions, one international and one domestic, I’m not sure I have the emotional wherewithal to attempt a third.
2. Artificial insemination, In-Vitro Fertilization, Donor Embryo. These are my biological options. I’ve reviewed the responsa (rabbinic decisions) for each option and believe they are all permissible, the logic being that these procedures can result in a new Jewish life and are therefore consistent with Jewish values.
3. Accept that I will be childless. Or child-free, as some would say. After almost two years of trying to make a family, I wonder when, for the sake of my emotional wellbeing, I just need to walk away. I’m not sure what such a life would even look like.  Who am I if I’m never a mother?

For now I will only say that I am not ready to give up. At least not yet.

Sad Event at Baby’s School.

One of the teachers at Baby’s school (aka daycare) was killed in a car accident last weekend. She was much loved at the school and has a daughter who would have moved up to Baby’s class in the next week or so. (That child is safe with her grandma, out of school right now.)

While I’m thankful that Baby is too young to comprehend this loss; my own confusion on how to react has me thinking about his confusion when situations like this–death–arise in the future. Death, unexpected or not, is confusing enough for adults and adults of one faith. How much more so will it be for Baby as he grows, when he’ll be dealing with two faiths? While he’s being raised with a Jewish identity, half of his family is not Jewish. Plus, we live in the Bible Belt, where most people assume you’re like they are and that words like “He/she is safe and at peace with Jesus now” will give you as much comfort as it gives them. How will we help him navigate the well-meant condolences of others, and offer his own? How will we help him understand (far, far in the future, G-d willing) that we’ll sit Shiva for Bubbe and Zayde and Grandma and Grandpa D, but not for Granny and Popi or Grandma and Grandpa G? (Or, wait, will we sit Shiva for Granny and Popi because they’re Daddy’s Mommy and Stepdaddy, even though Granny and Popi aren’t Jewish? See? Confusing!)

Probably people are going to tell me not to worry about these things yet; that there’s lots of time to figure it out, and they’re probably right. I HOPE AND PRAY they’re right. But as time and this blog goes on, you might discover I’m a bit of a planner. And while this is hopefully very long-term planning, it’s still something I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on. How would you/have you handled it in your own families?

(Author’s note: I promise to not post such “downer” topics all the time. This is just something that, sadly, has been on my heart since I found out Monday.)