Starting Religious School and Keeping Promises

  

In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didn’t know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)

Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.

Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where you’re going—what choices you’ll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live in—you need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.

We’ve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and that’s OK.)

We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. It’s tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.

Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.

The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of “Ma Tovu” down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the children’s service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesn’t mind one’s child singing (to the tune of “Rose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?”), “My toe’s blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoe”  as a way of working toward “Ma Tovu.”

Every week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a few sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).

A young girl, maybe a young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I can’t quite name.

As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. It’s clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here it’s the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.

After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. “Sisters!” calls out my older daughter; “Owls,” her sister says. No mater the complexities, I’m glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.

30 Miles North of Lakewood

  
jack is concerned about being the only Jewish kid on the block

Jack is concerned about being the only Jewish kid on the block

“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.

Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.

Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and me—the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.

Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhood kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?

Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. It’s not the first time, but it is for us.