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In the local stores in my neighborhood it seems that everyone is pushing everyone else aside. People donât say âexcuse meâ anymore. In the kosher bakery I get hit in the eye with a challah bread when one woman reaches past me, past Adrian and over Helenâs stroller. She really socks me one with the golden dough. Then she doesnât say, âIâm sorryâ or even acknowledge my familyâs existence. At least the challah was fresh and warm so it was a soft blow to my right eye, and anyway it smelled good.
We try the Mexican bakery next for Adrian. He loves a traditional âconcha.â A concha is a type of bread shaped like a roll covered in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry sugar and traditionally it is eaten in the morning. It looks a little bit like a shell from the beach and thatâs what concha means in Spanish: âShell.â We have this routine. On Friday mornings before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts we hit the bakeries. Everyone else in our neighborhood has the same idea. Friday mornings can be overwhelming.
At the Mexican bakery we grab a tray and tongs and pick the bread we like. On the way over to the counter a woman cuts in front of me slamming her tray down on the counter and demanding a bigger plastic bag for her bread. I take a step back. Iâve been hit with enough dough for one day.
On our walk home a cyclist (riding on the sidewalk) nearly runs us all down and yells âWatch it!â No one holds the door for the stroller in our building and when I say, âHi Frank!â to my super, her grunts, curses, spits and stomps up the stairs murmuring, âEverybody wants somethinâ from me all the timeâŚâ
I feel defeated. Why is everyone so rude? I have this thought while stress eating in my kitchen standing up. Helen goes to her crib to take a nap and I decide to look for some spiritual inspiration. I put away my bag of popcorn and salted caramel ice cream.
I Google the word âmitzvah.â In the Yeshiva I attended as a girl the teachers taught us that the word âmitzvahâ means âa good deed.â The plural in Hebrew is âmitzvot,â for many good deeds. But, as I search deeper into the meaning I come to find out that âmitzvahâ actually translates as âcommandment.â So in the Jewish religion it is commanded by God that we complete the task of doing good deeds every day.
This is interesting. What have I been teaching Helen about good deeds?
What have I been teaching her about commandments? Itâs easy to point a finger. Friday at the two bakeries it was so simple for me to become the victim. But, what did I do to help the people around me? Did I do any mitzvot on Friday? What about the rest of the week? What did I do to help anyone besides myself?
I know thatâs a pretty harsh self-judgement. But I wasnât blaming myself. I was merely trying to dig deeper into the similarities of my two-faith household. I understand that a mitzvah is a commandment. In Catholicism there is the belief in âgood works.â This is the same concept. It sounds simple because these teachings from both religions donât involve complicated holidays, recipes or traditions. These ideas and beliefs arise during the everyday. Maybe that is what makes them go unannounced and unnoticed. Maybe thatâs also why they are harder to commit to.
This is a situation in which Adrian and I believe the same thing. Nothing is complicated about doing good deeds out in the world. But how do we teach each other and how do we teach our daughter about the power of mitzvot?
I think that everything begins at home and so I start to think about our apartment building. We live on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment built in 1927. The stairs arenât just tough to climb, theyâre made of marble. But in my own building my neighbors have done the deed of a mitzvah many times for me. There have been so many nights that Adrian has been at work and Helen and I have to go to the store to bring bags of groceries back. The boy who lives on the first floor always carries the stroller up the stairs for me if heâs around. The superâs son has carried Helen for me. There is a woman named Veronica who lives on the second floor and she’s carried four bags from Whole Foods filled with canned goods up to my apartment. Once, a young girl from the other side of the building (our building has two sides) saw me and helped me. She was 11 years old!
The mitzvah starts at home. The commandment begins in the hallway of our building and spreads far out into the community. A good deed speaks many languages, follows many cultures and faiths. This Friday at the bakery Iâm going to hold the door for someone because maybe I wasnât looking behind me the last time. Maybe I slammed the door in someoneâs face instead of holding it. Maybe the woman who smacked me with a challah bread had plenty of reason to do so. It was like God was saying âWake up! Youâve got a lot of mitzvot to do!â
In a class I teach to engaged and recently married young couples, I talk about the importance of finding time to recharge, refresh and reconnect with one another. We discuss this not in the context of âdate night,â but rather in the context of Shabbat.
I like to point out that Shabbat is a state of mind, as much as it is a ritual. While the rituals of going to services or having Shabbat dinner at home can help us achieve Shabbat’s goals of rest, relaxation, and mindful connection, our lives don’t always lend themselves to Shabbat’s prescribed timetable or observances. Especially for families and parents, finding Shabbat during Shabbat can be hard.
Two weeks ago, I planned to take a little time for myself on a Shabbat afternoon. I was looking forward to practicing yoga and then treating myself to a facial at a local spa. My family’s spring schedule had been crazy, and I thought I had picked a time when things were beginning to wind down as the school year neared its end. I dropped my son at water polo practice and drove to my yoga class. My son was going with a friend to watch the varsity team from his school play in the state water polo tournament after practice, so I had several hours free to indulge in some relaxation.
As I laid down on my yoga mat and closed my eyes, my Apple watch started to vibrate on my wrist. I opened my eyes to see who was calling me. I hoped I could dismiss the call. It was the mom who was taking my son to the water polo tournament. I got up, walked out of the studio, and took the call. The parent said everything was OK; she was just picking up lunch for the boys and wanted to find out if my son liked his bread toasted and the sandwich heated. I said he would eat it either way and she should get what was easiest.
I hung up and went back to my mat. About 25 minutes later as I was finally mentally focused on my practice, my watch vibrated again. A text from my son appeared, “We’re up 3-1.” For the remainder of the class, game updates repeatedly distracted me.
I left class hopeful that my spa time would help me find that Shabbat feeling. As I was changing into my robe before my treatment, I received a text from my friend with an update on when she and the boys would return from the game. “I think we should be back at my house by 2 p.m. depending on the end of the last afternoon game. I will text when we are on the way.” Yikes! My appointment would not end until 2 p.m.
Knowing that I might be late to pick up my son occupied my thoughts during the facial. Rather than relaxing during my treatment, I kept thinking, âHurry up!â and âAre we almost done?â When the facial ended and I returned to the locker room to change, I had 32 new texts. Texts from my friend and other parents about pickup logistics. Texts from my son with game updates. A text from another parent from my son’s team asking if I, as the team parent for the sixth-grade team, could send out an email sharing the news that the varsity team made the finals and would be playing at 6 p.m. for the championship and encouraging the younger boys to attend. I took a deep breath andâŚlaughed. My plan to find Shabbat was foiled. On this Saturday, Shabbat was nowhere to be found.
For parents, the logistical responsibilities of parenthood can make finding Shabbat impossible sometimes. Itâs because Shabbat can be so elusive, especially once you become a parent, that I teach my young couples that sometimes you must expand your idea of what Shabbat is and when it happens. If they get in the practice of identifying Shabbat moments pre-children, hopefully, they will have an easier time savoring them once they enter the craziness of parenthood.
A Shabbat moment can be a peaceful walk with your dog in the morning before work. It can be an enjoyable family dinner on a Sunday night that has no distractions. It can be a Thursday morning yoga class. It can be a morning cup of coffee sipped slowly while reading the paper.
Thatâs how I found Shabbat on Friday morning. School ended on Thursday so I didnât need to rush out of the house to get my son to school and I could go into work a little later. I stood at the island in my kitchen sipping a cup of coffee as I finished reading several sections of the previous Sundayâs New York Times. As I drank my Joe, I savored the flavor and the time, 7:30 a.m. Usually, I was gulping my coffee as I wove through traffic to get my son to school by 7:45. But this morning, I could drink my coffee and read in a quiet house. I took a deep breath and smiled. A little Shabbat to start my day.
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 didnât 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 youâre goingâwhat choices youâll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live inâyou 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.
Weâve 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 thatâs OK.)
We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. Itâs 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. Itâs 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 âMa Tovuâ down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the childrenâs service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesnât mind oneâs child singing (to the tune of âRose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?â), âMy toeâs blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoeâ Â as a way of working toward âMa Tovu.â
EveryÂ 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 fewÂ 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 aÂ 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 canât 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. Itâs 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 itâs 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. âSisters!â calls out my older daughter; âOwls,â her sister says. No mater the complexities, Iâm glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.
Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?
The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castroâs name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castroâs name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.
The reporter posed this question to me: âShould we pray for bad people or bad leaders?â My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.
In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.
I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.
I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.
They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to âsave a personâs soul.â
The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.
Iâm curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
My mother-in-lawâs email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: âHave composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).
As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: âJewish prayer book like in the temple.â I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my sonâs bar mitzvah in October.
I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregationâs gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.
On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!â I couldnât contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.
“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.
I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, âNo,” or “I wonât” or even “Iâm not comfortableâ to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.
I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know Iâm lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.
About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line âYour Gift.â
Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and Iâm trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!
The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.
This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearbyÂ suburb, one thatâs full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didnât attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.
Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtuallyÂ forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time sheâs alsoÂ moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, âMommy, why?â
Given these two facts, I shouldnât have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as âfamily friendly.â We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat onÂ benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang âBim Bamâ over the harmonious strains of a guitar.
Thatâs when the questions began.
âMommy, why are we on benches?â
âThere arenât enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.â
âWhy arenât there enough chairs?â
I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. âItâs a busy night, sweetie.â The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.
âMommy, who are the people up front?â
âWhy are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?â
âWhat is everyone saying? I donât know the words to this song.â (We were singing âLâcha Dodi.â)
âMommy, they said âstars!â I know that word!â This caused particular excitement.
When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.
âMommy, I know this song,â she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. âMommy, are there candles up there?â She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.
At various points, she asked me, âMommy, whyÂ are we sittingÂ outside? When are we going inside?â
On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: âMommy, when is it time for dessert?â She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.
âI donât know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,â I replied cautiously.
âBut I really want dessert,â she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.
âI know,â I replied. âWeâll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.â
My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.
Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, âMommy, how do these people know this song too?â
âItâs a very important Jewish prayer,â I whispered between syllables.
The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, âWhy is everyone being so quiet?â I leaned down and whispered, âShhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.â
âI am being quiet,â she stage-whispered. One moment later: âCan we talk louder now?â Me, still whispering: âNot yet, OK?â
And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when âdessertâ would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.
Iâm an interfaith parent. As an outsider, itâs tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with aÂ remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughterâs constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that âthis night is different from (most) other nights,â at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.
By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had alwaysÂ worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sisterâs incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us?Â I feltÂ torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriateÂ (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my childrenâs participatoryÂ joy.
I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions werenât so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families â and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the firstÂ FridayÂ “family service,â but at most Shabbat services at Samâs synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” programÂ on SundayÂ mornings.Â In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parentsâ synagogue earlier this month.Â Upon arriving, I noticed that JackÂ was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.Â We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.Â I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which isÂ much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.Â Even duringÂ FridayÂ nightÂ services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like familiesÂ with young children are always present at Catholic churches.Â During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.Â During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.Â Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass areÂ anything but distracting,Â saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogueÂ match what youâve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faithâs continuity for the next generation?
I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
âI had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
âSimply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp areâŚ55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.â
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. Thatâs a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
This past year was our first year with both girls in Sunday school. We had a steady rhythm of Sunday mornings at Temple and monthly Shabbats with other families with young children. It was a nice addition toÂ our school year schedule. Without planning it, though, along with taking the summer off from school, we accidentally took the summer off from Temple.
I say accidentally because it wasnât planned, and I didnât even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into âTemple friends,â I felt a pang of longing for a community that is becoming a big part of our lives. This community is special because we all chose the congregationÂ as a pathÂ to explore common values, and, for the families in our religious school cohort, we all chose it to help us raise our kids with those values.
Like any group of Jewish people Iâve ever been a part of, we donât all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we werenât all raised Jewishly. Also, the way we practice is not always parallel with the way we were raised, Jewish or otherwise. But we have all agreed to try to figure things out together, and to shepherd a Jewish identity for our children.
Another piece of this longing I felt is because while we didnât take the summer off from being Jewish, as we welcomed the relaxing pace of summer, we also let loose on Shabbat. Late nights out or traveling replaced the ritual more than we might have preferred, but for better or worse for a few weeks we traded it for other adventures.
I love the loosening of schedules and predictability in the summer. I savor the long days and the opportunity to lengthen our mornings and evenings. I also appreciate the time to be together as a family away from our local communities. But I also miss some of the touchstones that ground our family – things like knowing we will be home for Shabbat, and even more so now, knowing weâll see some friendly faces on Sunday morning.
So while we stumble our way to get back to school, I am also looking forward to getting back to synagogue. I look forward to seeing old friends, to meeting new ones, and to the rhythm that practiceÂ helps put in our lives.
Like many parents, for me this time ofÂ year signifies both an overwhelming sense of relief (Yesss! No more homework orÂ projects!) and stress (What am I going to do with Roxy and Everett all summer?!?). This year has presented unique challenges for my family because I now work from home and can’t possibly spend my days on the beach with the kids while juggling conference calls and Google Adwords, no matter how much I want to, nor can I physically run around with them at more than six months pregnant. Roxy wants to do “tween” things with her girlfriends and at 9 years old her focus is on nails, music and learning the latest dance craze. Everett at 6-and-a-half prefers to spend his days dreaming up new ways to make his sister crazy by setting up Lego booby traps around the house and playing pranks on her while idolizing every move she makes. The realization of needing summer activities came way too late, and suddenly school was ending and panic set in.
In my perfect world, this would have been the ideal summer for them to both start camp. Overnight camp. JEWISH overnight camp. And I felt like it would have been an uphill battle that only I understood. Their dad thought they were too young for overnight camp. The kids were apprehensive about going away where they didn’t know anyone. My bank account laughed at me after talking to the Reform Jewish camp director and learning how much it would really cost me to send them. We talked about scholarships. I researched it online. I considered asking family for help. But in the end, it was not to be, because the kids had scheduling conflicts with local and family activities that made the discussion a moot point. Yet I ached inside, saddened to know yet another summer would go by without a Jewish camping experience.
Their dad and I finally worked out a plan for the summer and two weeks ago they started camp at our local town recreation center. They are loving their first camp experience, are there with both established and new friends and come home at the end of the day happy and exhausted. They love going on field trips and having action-packed days, but I know in my heart something is missing. My Jewish kids in Maine are completely disconnected to Jewish life now that school is over. Hebrew school doesn’t start up until the fall. There are no holidays to celebrate. With the chaos of living in two houses, I’ll admit that Shabbat just doesn’t happen in our house every week. And when I go on Facebook I feel a twinge of jealousy when friends postÂ pictures of their own happy campers being dropped off at a URJ overnight camp, and status updates of “I got my first letter in the mail from my camper!” because I’m wishing so deeply that Roxy and Everett were part of this tradition.
To add insult to injury, the kids have been obsessed with a book Everett received recently from PJ Library called No Baths at Camp!, which basically follows a child through each day of a Jewish camp experience through the beauty of Shabbat. They are enthralled by this book and the activities presented and take turns reading it to each other, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew words and reveling in the excitement of the Shabbat description presented. I take comfort as they absorb the experience through the words on the pages, yet desperately wish they could be there in person. We talk about it each time using words like “Next summer you’ll get to do this” and “One day you’ll help camp get ready for Shabbat” and “Do you think you’d be good at Israeli dancing?” I long for them to be part of Jewish overnight camp because I know how much of an impact it can have on identity and connection, especially after years of working professionally in the Jewish community. But who knows if I’m going to be able to financially pull it off next summer either. It’s already looking doubtful.
The funny thing is, I never went to camp. I revolted against the idea as a kid, preferring to spend my days on the Jersey shore not recognizing what a precious gift camp could be for me until I was in high school and involved in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and by then it was too late. I was old enough to be a counselor but too old to have created lasting friendships established over years of camp attendance. The majority of my Jewish friends understood this and as we entered adulthood and I recognized what a significant impact Jewish camping had on their lives, I promised myself that when I had children they wouldn’t miss out like I did. Except here I am, a mom of two camp-aged kids with a third on the way and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen for them. I find this reality painful, especially living in Maine, where they are “the” Jewish kids at camp.
I cried one night when they were at their dad’s house, feeling like I’m failing them. My boyfriend, who isn’t Jewish, comforted me and agreed that if I couldn’t make it happen this summer that next summer was a must, and how good it would be for both of them. To have him truly get why it was so important to me for them to be there means so much, because I know that when it comes time for this baby to be of camp age, there won’t be a question, just love and support. He groans along with me when No Baths at CampÂ inevitably makes it’s way into the living room, and I catch him laughing listening to them try to pronounce the counselor’s name with an Israeli accent. Matt still doesn’t have a clue about this whole Jewish thing, but he knows that having a connection to Jewish life is pretty important to me and the kids and has made it clear he’ll help me navigate these types of hurdles when and as best he can.
The book is tucked away on the shelf for the time being and this summer I will embrace their first camp joys as well as I can, even if it’s not what I want most for them. Summer is already going by faster than I’d like it to, and before I know it we’ll be preparing backpacks for the first day of fourth and second grade while welcoming this baby into our family. Today I will look at this as a Shecheyanu moment, a thankfulness for new things, growth for all of us and an ever-evolving connection to our faith. It might not be a Jewish overnight camp, but Roxy and Everett have started along their own camp journey, one that will changeÂ over time, and maybe just maybe include some Israeli dancing.