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By Rebecca Rolland
My daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (she’s begged). Still, we’re late starting to look at options. I can’t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the research—my vise-grip on “how things should be”— has gotten in the way.
Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be too critical. Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.
My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my mother’s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledge—hardly the only story I want to pass down.
“Let’s check it out,” I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. We’d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least that’s what the website says.
In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a “high-quality” program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.
And yet, I know that a child’s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his “ecological systems theory” developed in 1979, describes how everything in a child’s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a child’s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.
No pressure, I tell myself.
When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didn’t have to be the one I passed down. My past—and the culture surrounding it—could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.
Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. It’s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. It’s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.
We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldn’t have predicted. In attending a Jewish preschool, Sophie—blonde and blue-eyed like her father—will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for Havdalah and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, I’m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.
The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschool—and without finding this one—we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, I’m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.
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.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”
Laurel: “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her book The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding one’s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus – or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
What “languages” do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
My memories of religious school are pretty varied. I remember visiting the sanctuary in first or second grade, a room whose enormity overwhelmed me, watching a few old men daven in the corner while our teacher pointed out the ark and the eternal light. I remember great conversations in our Jewish Studies sessions in later elementary school, reading coming-of-age stories about Jewish children and discussing them together. I remember lots of bagel cafe sessions, too many, if I recall, designed to drill down on how to order cream cheese in Hebrew.
I also remember a few teachers who seemed old-fashioned and way too strict. I remember some social dynamics between middle school students that hardly seemed to reflect the Jewish values we were learning in class. I remember some unfortunately contentious conversations during Confirmation class with a rabbi who didn’t seem to understand us teenagers. Like my secular school experience, there were things I liked, and things I didn’t. When all was said and done, I think I would say religious school was important, and I learned things that have stuck with me. There were people and things I loved about it, but I am not so sure I would ever say I loved it.
We are only two months in, but Ruthie loves Sunday School. I didn’t expect that. I hoped she’d like it. I hoped she’d learn some things that would stick with her. The big surprise of this school year is less about her Monday-Friday school experience, and more about how much she loves Sunday School.
There are a few reasons why Sunday School had a step-up in the likeability scale before she even started. She has a Sunday School best friend, who she met last spring, who not only clicks with her beautifully but even shares her name (another Ruthie!). Unlike many of her peers, Ruthie started in public school in pre-kindergarten, so her Monday-Friday school is old hat, but this is her first year in Sunday School, so there is a shiny newness to it. And Sunday School is something that only Ruthie does – Chaya isn’t old enough for it, so her Sunday morning obligation also solidifies her position as a more mature sister.
But that alone isn’t enough to create love. I give the majority of the credit to the reality that her Sunday School is loveable. The temple where we are sending Ruthie is one of many where I have seen a commitment to make religious school awesome, recognizing that a lot of the parents dropping off kids on Sunday morning did not love Sunday School. The curriculum is varied and current. Once the kindergarten crafts are done, Ruthie’s class engages in Hebrew Yoga to connect themselves to Jewish concepts and spirituality. Learning about Torah is so fun that we have overheard Ruthie bragging to her non-religious friends about how cool it is that she is learning about it.
A friend with older kids assured me that Ruthie’s love is likely to wane, that I can expect an adolescent girl at some point that I’ll have to drag to temple on Sunday morning. I don’t doubt that that may lay ahead. But for now, Ruthie loves Sunday School, and it is a pretty great gift.
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.
My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.
Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.
I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”
So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.
We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.
Shalom. I struggled with that salutation — I’m a Jew by choice and converted 4 and a half years ago, and the language can still feel clunky at times. I should be able to write that salutation without it raising the hair on my neck, but it does make me feel like an impostor sometimes.
My son, Oliver, is also 4 and a half, and my daughter, Esther, is 2 and a half. They attend a preschool/daycare program at a Jewish Community Center, and last week one of the teachers asked if we were Jewish or not. To be fair, not that many of the kids who attend our JCC seem to be Jewish. So it was kind of the teacher to ask rather than assume. However, I suspected the teacher had made an assumption that we weren’t Jewish because… well, I could come up with a list of reasons why my family of four is not passing as Jews. But most of those reasons have less to do with other people’s perceptions than with my own struggle to assert my place in this faith.
The reason I’ve decided to become a blogger on the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog is because I felt confidant in my Jewish faith, in my Jewish marriage, in my Jewish parenting, and in my Jewish practice until my kids started becoming talkative Jewish know-a-lots. Then I realized that there is a major difference between converting to a faith as an adult and being raised in it. That shouldn’t be some huge revelation, I realize, and if my beit dein (rabbinic court) had asked me, “What’s the difference between converting to a faith and being raised in it?” before my mikveh, I probably could have responded confidently. But as with most things, children make you question a lot of your assumptions, and they keep you honest. This morning my kids were chasing each other around the breakfast table singing the motzi (blessing over bread) at the top of their lungs. In that moment I realized (1) their Jewish experience is going to be different from mine, and (2) we are not imposters. I’m excited by all the things I’m learning from these little Jewish know-a-lots, and I’m glad you’ll come along with me on this journey. Shalom.
It is that time of year again. The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees. Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved. Thanksgiving seems like a million years away. But the conversation about Christmas has already started. Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.
In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity. They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian. That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit. I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it. (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)
Usually, I get no response. This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers. She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year. The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric. I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade. What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.
I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular. I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal. But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah. What about the Muslim kids? Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma. But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me. Why do we have to do this? I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree. Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.
So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers. I used to get fired up about it. Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools. But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that. I guess I am tired of trying. Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.
There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year. (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)
As a parent, you never know the unintended benefits of signing your kids up for extra-curricular activities like sports, dance, gymnastics, etc. In our case, we sign our boys up for things we think they will like, things that fit into our budget and our schedule. My 7-year-old who is a sports fanatic – thanks in part to me and my husband – usually likes to do things that are sports related. This fall we signed him up for a floor hockey class at the JCC. He loves ice hockey and follows the Bruins obsessively – we DVR the games for him at night and then he watches them when he wakes up in the morning – he is a very early riser. The floor hockey class fit our budget and it was at the JCC on one of the days he goes there for the after-school program. The unintended benefit of this hockey class is that he met three adorable Jewish boys who all go to Jewish day school. Three more Jewish friends to have playdates with and to identify Jewishly with.
On Martin Luther King Day, he was invited by these three boys to “bring a friend to school day” at their Jewish day school. It is a great marketing tool for the school because all the public schools are closed and families who might be thinking about sending their kids to the school get a day to see what it’s all about. It was also great for me because I didn’t have to arrange for childcare or take the day off from work!
All kidding aside, I went to Jewish day school from 4 – 6th grade. Jewish day schools typically do half the day in Hebrew (prayer, Hebrew, Torah study, holidays, etc.) and half the day in English (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.). To this day, any prayer that I sing in services or any blessing that I know by heart and certainly any Hebrew that I can read, are all due to my days at Jewish day school. I don’t think my husband and I ever considered it for our kids for a few reasons: cost is one and another is that the public schools in our area happen to be pretty good. Additionally, since my husband isn’t Jewish I didn’t think he would be comfortable with that kind of school – although I know that many intermarried couples choose Jewish day school in part to educate their kids as well as themselves.
There were many positive takeaways of “bring a friend to school day.” Our son tried something totally new, with new friends, in a new environment, with not a lot of advanced knowledge about what to expect that day. My husband and I were so proud of him for trying all of these new things and he was also very proud of himself – the best unintended benefit by far.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to narrow down the eleventy-seven questions that run through my head this time of year. (Couple that with my work barely coming out of busy season in time for the added holiday stress, and I’m often a real joy to be around this time of year.) I know my household isn’t alone in facing the December Dilemma, and I know we all have unique circumstances in our dilemmas. So, to keep the confusion in my head from just spilling out all over the page here, I’ll try to limit today’s post to just a couple issues.
We live in the Bible belt where, to put it nicely, people just assume you’re Christian. There are no Jewish day schools or daycares near where I live, so Baby goes to “school” at a wonderful daycare near our home. This school uses the A Beka curriculum, which is a Christian-based curriculum. We knew this when we chose the daycare, and we decided it was still the best place for Baby to go while we both work during the day. He’s happy there. His best friend (not coincidentally, the child of one of my best friends) is in his class. The teachers love him, the directors love him, and we’re quite pleased with the care he gets.
The school is warm and caring, and they decorate for all the seasons and holidays. Christmas is no exception. Yes, you read that right. Christmas is no exception. There are no menorahs or other Hanukkah decorations. There are no Kwanzaa decorations. It’s all snowflakes and Santa and stockings and trees. (At least it’s all “secular” Christmas decorations, even though many of you – my husband included – will tell me there’s no such thing as “secular” Christmas decorations. I hope we can agree to disagree on that for just this minute.) It’s festive and fun, and Baby LOVES the snowflakes and blue ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling all down the hall. As the Christian parent in the family, this actually doesn’t bother me…except…Baby is Jewish. Should it bother me? Should I request that the adorable Santa face outside the classroom that has Baby’s name on it be replaced with a Star of David or a menorah? We’ve not been overt about Baby’s religion, nor do we feel we need to be…should we be? Would it make things awkward at school? Should it matter to me if it does?
Bottom line, I know that the quality of care Baby gets at his school is the most important thing, and that he’s happy there. And I know that one day – or even one “season” (in the sense of the Christmas season) – won’t make him any less Jewish, if his Daddy and I do our jobs right as interfaith-parents-raising-a-Jewish-child. But still, these types of questions nag at the back of my mind. I’d love to hear thoughts from others in similar situations out there.