New flicks with celebs in interfaith relationships and from interfaith backgrounds, plus their baby news!Go To Pop Culture
The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing “Ma Tovu” to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
“No, Mommy,” she said, frustrated, “You sing it like this!”
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthie’s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthie’s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our family’s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class “trip” to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks she’s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Mommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, I’ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.”
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
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.