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A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.
This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.
The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”
As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.
Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”
But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.
When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.
But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?
I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.
The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.
The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.
You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.
The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.
Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.
We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.
Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.
Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.
I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.
Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.
It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.
But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.
When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.
As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.
I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.
Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.
For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.
Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.
This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.
But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.
In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans. Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional. However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs. If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays. If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place. In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago. Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish. That’s a pretty big and important task.
This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys? We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagoguePurim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins. We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week. We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends. But do we make it joyful? How do we really do that?
I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level? Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now? How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things?
I just read Teaching the Why? by Rabbi Ari Moffic, which appears on the Networking Blog here at InterfaithFamily.com, an intriguing piece posing some very interesting questions. Is it possible to teach culture and meaning? As we teach the “what”—make challah, make latkes, create the most beautiful tzedekah boxes—when does the “why,” the deep-rooted meaning come in? Do we take for granted that it is there? Do we take for granted that personal connections are being made?
I want my children to make those personal connections and integrate what they do Jewishly with who they are as people. As their mother, I take responsibility for making the connections possible and supporting their success. I do not believe this can be outsourced by sending William and Sarah to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp and other Jewish activities. I do send them to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp as wonderful supplements for Jewish infusion, but I don’t rely solely on them to make them feel Jewish. My children feel Jewish because of the home we have created. Mezuzahs don our doors. The Sabbath bride is a welcome guest in our home each week. We sing songs and pray together at religious services in our synagogue each week. In other words, we live Jewish lives.
When I made the commitment to raise our children in the Jewish tradition, I realized that I would be making a commitment to live a Jewish life. Not knowing exactly how that would play out at the time, it was a pretty big leap of faith. One that meant I would look pretty Jewish for a long time. I do this to support Jewish fluency in my children, as Rabbi Moffic talks about in her piece.
I think about the mitzvah in Judaism that commands you to teach your child to swim. On a practical level, it is a good skill to have. But I think its deeper meaning calls parents to do everything they can to make sure their children can swim on their own and lead responsible, productive lives. Ensuring our children are well-equipped to go out on their own takes a great deal of personal commitment over many years. We don’t just throw them in the deep end and hope for the best. Learning anything—riding a bike, playing the piano—requires dedication and practice, lots of practice. Supporting my children’s spiritual development goes hand in hand with teaching them how to take care of themselves and others.
My job is to provide the context for the content. Sometimes I am a student. I read a lot. I have taken classes in Judaism and attend seminars and workshops. Sometimes I am an educator. I have taught two challah-making events at our synagogue. (The irony of a Catholic teaching Jewish people how to bake their special bread is lost on no one.) Something that I always do at my challah-making events while the dough is resting is to give a talk about the wonderful gift of Shabbat and how leading a Jewish life translates into leading a balanced life. I always tell the story of the book. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as the People of the Book. How many sides does a book have? You may say six—a front, back, top, bottom, and two sides. But there is one more side, the inside, where the important information for the book lives. We spend all week being busy, living our lives on the outside of the book. On Shabbat, we are called to go inside.
When I started my Jewish journey, I felt it was important. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Jewish people have a special covenant with God that will never be broken. I was impressed that my husband is part of this historic tradition. Abraham was the first Jewish person, and here is my husband 5,000+ years later keeping that tradition alive. Wow. It is amazing to think about. But it doesn’t mean I think less of the tradition I was raised in. So why did I make that leap of faith? Because I was raised by a mother who dedicated her life to make sure her children had a developed spiritual maturity as adults. She knew we would be swimming on our own one day and making our own choices. She gave me the skills to learn another language.
It’s been a crazy few weeks since my last post where I described my 7 year old’s 10 day sickness. About a week after he finally recovered, I got the flu and a horrible cough – not normal since I usually get sick once every 5 years. Then the weekend of Halloween, the Northeast, and Connecticut in particular, got hit with a crazy and very unexpected Fall snowstorm that left a foot of snow on the ground and us and most of our friends without power for 10 – 12 days. School was cancelled for 7 full days – not normal. The JCC, where I work, was closed for 10 days so I had no work and my 2 year old son had no day care – not normal. Halloween was cancelled in our town and many others close-by due to downed trees, branches and power lines – not normal. And we moved in with my in-laws for 8 days – definitely not normal! Don’t get me wrong – I love my in-laws – but to be in someone else’s home, with no schedule, strange sleeping arrangements and no routine was tough on all of us. Many of my friends and co-workers left town to stay with friends or relatives in other states and those who did stay or had generators had multiple families over to shower, eat hot meals, charge their phones and computers and simply warm up on a daily basis. Things that we all had planned to enjoy in these 10 days were cancelled – my son’s Consecration ceremony where he and all of his first grade classmates receive their own Torahs, soccer games, family get-togethers and birthday parties. Finally when power was restored to our home, places of work and to our schools – things were FINALLY back to normal. I had never wanted to go to work that badly in my entire life!
I also had a chance to reflect on the word “normal” at a training I attended in Boston last week for Jewish educators who work with intermarried couples and families. The training started off with a panel of four intermarried couples who were all raising their children as Jews and had all found synagogues that they consider “home”. They seemed to all feel normal as intermarried families in these synagogues because these synagogues and clergy were warm, welcoming, caring and respectful of them as an intermarried family – like any other family who is a member at that synagogue.
This got me thinking about how I feel like a perfectly normal family in my synagogue and in the Jewish community at large. Our synagogue has many intermarried families as does the JCC pre-school where my younger son attends. I get asked all the time by JCC members that I have just met “Are you Jewish?” because of my last name – MacGilpin. When my husband and I got married I knew that I wanted to take his name because I felt like one day if we had kids, I wanted us all to have the same last name. At that time, about 10 years ago, Soledad O’Brien was the news anchor on the TODAY Show and I thought, if she could have a Spanish and Irish name then I could have a Hebrew and Scottish name. Completely normal, right?
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – no – not Christmas and not back to school – but back to Hebrew School. Remember that amazing Staples commercial from a few years back with the dad dancing through the store while tossing school supplies into the cart with the song playing in the background? Well that’s how I feel now that it’s back to Hebrew School for my almost 7-year-old first grader. My family joined a wonderful Reform synagogue in our area last year, just before my son started Kindergarten. He had been at the JCC for daycare and preschool since he was 10 months old, so on a weekly and daily basis he got all of the loveliness of being at a Jewish school – Shabbat, challah, Jewish holidays, songs, crafts, PJ library books, Shabbat box, etc. I also work at that JCC so we got plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish activities. So when he wasn’t going to be getting that from school we felt we needed to step up to the plate and choose a synagogue and choose to send him to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.
I don’t have particularly strong or happy feelings about my own Hebrew school days and my husband is Episcopalian so his Sunday school was completely different – although probably similar in many ways – holidays, bible stories, music, prayers. We both wanted our son to enjoy his time at Hebrew School but wasn’t sure that was going to happen based on our own experiences. Many people I know have said, “Well, I went to Hebrew School, so now my son/daughter is going to go – whether they like it or not”. In our case, I think the “liking it” factor has definitely gone beyond my son – I actually like it.
I like it because he gets to spend time with other Jewish kids on a weekly basis – solely for the purpose that they are all Jewish and that their families think it’s important to have a Jewish education. I like it because he gets to learn more about the holidays, prayers and Hebrew than I am able teach him. I like it because it gives my husband and me another Jewish community to belong to. I like it because the families there are all Jewish, yet all different in their own way – whether the parents are both Jewish, intermarried, gay, single parents or adoptive parents. I also like it because our temple invites the parents to join the service every Sunday at 11 am. I am able to see my son listening to the rabbi, going up on the bimah to lead songs and see his Jewish education in action.
The best part for me is that I really enjoy the service myself – and I am not one to go to temple on a weekly basis on my own – no regular temple go-er here. I love the songs and the sign language that the rabbi and cantor teach the kids. I love connecting to Judaism through music and the absolute best part is the last song of the service. It’s Tefilat Haderech by Debbie Friedman z”l and the rabbi asks everyone to “hold someone close to you” – and simultaneously all the kids put their arms around their friend’s shoulders and join in singing. It brings me to tears – almost every time – to see this and to see my son grab his friends swaying in song. It brings me back to my days at Jewish sleep away camp – which hold a special place in my heart. It also brings to mind my dad, who passed away 2 years ago, and how proud he would be of me and my husband for choosing this kind of education and Jewish path for our family.
I also have to be honest and say that I also like having two hours to clean the house, go to Trader Joe’s and Target, go to the gym or spend quality time with our 2-year-old son. I’m not going to lie – its pretty great. But I mostly look forward to the 11:00 hour when I can be in the sanctuary and be an active participant in the Hebrew school service.
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