Does Religion Dictate Where We Send our Daughter to Preschool?

  

dropping daughter off at daycare

I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.

It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?

With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.

My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, “Raising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,” to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.

The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether they’d had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a “Yes, we’ve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.”

We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noah’s ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.

I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own family’s celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular school’s curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.

In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:

What special days do you celebrate in your family?
How would you like our program to be involved in your celebration?
What are some of the myths/stereotypes about your culture that you would like us to understand so as not to perpetuate them?
How do you feel about celebrations at the center that are not part of your family’s tradition?
What kinds of things can we do to celebrate our center as an inclusive human community?

This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.

Now What?

  

Quinn at PassoverYou just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?

Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughter’s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a “wink” to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, “Mazel Tov!”

So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and having different faiths represented.

One of the first religious rituals we experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinn’s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The “P” is for my grandmother, Paula, and the “D” is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominica—a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.

Since we were coming from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.

Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity to choose otherwise.

My wife Kimberly didn’t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around Catholic celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldn’t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parents’ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.

These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind. Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you well—not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.

Avoiding “That Look” on Purim

  

Kids dressed up for Purim

It’s Purim again and I’m afraid to leave the house. During Purim, my neighborhood is like being inside a disco ball at Studio 54 in 1976—only there are a lot more Jews and no sign of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse. When I was growing up, Purim was not one of the major holidays celebrated by my family. In the Yeshiva I attended we got to dress up, but there were only four biblical characters we could choose from: Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or Haman. In first grade, I got so bored with dressing up as Esther that my mother hung two pieces of oak tag off my shoulders and I went as a castle. Nowadays, it’s different. Kids go as all sorts of things.

When Adrian and I decided to finally leave the house with our now 16-month-old daughter Helen, it was because we had a craving for quesadillas and grapefruit soda—not because we were delivering Shalach Manot (the bags of wine and food that are customary to gift to friends and neighbors on Purim).

Our car was inconveniently parked three blocks away in my mother’s driveway. I say inconveniently because anything goes on Purim in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Again, it reminds me of Laura Luft’s famous quote, “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting.” The same can be said about Midwood on Purim.

Adrian thinks it’s hilarious. He grew up in Mexico in a small Catholic village and as we’re walking to the car, he says to me, “You know, in my town there’s a guy whose name is Purim.” I absolutely don’t believe him and tell him to stop mocking my people. He says, “I’m so serious!” Then he laughs and yells, “Feliz Purim!” to a boy running past us while wearing a donkey mask and roller skates.

Where were these costumes when I was a kid and what will our daughter want to dress up as when she gets older?

This year, when Purim wasn’t so visible because everyone was in synagogue for the Sabbath, my brother and his wife invited us to join their synagogue’s Purim celebration. I paused at my brother’s invitation because Adrian had to work, it was 20 degrees outside and when I took Helen last year, it was the weirdest Purim party I had ever been to. Also, as much as I think Purim is strange in my own neighborhood, it was ten times more zany in their neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

I remember that there was a big screen TV with videos of the Purim story for kids at last year’s Bay Ridge Purim celebration. The kids ran around singing songs and getting their faces painted. I also remember wrapping the fruit roll ups that they had around my fingers and pretended to have long nails like I did when I was 10 years old. No one found that as hilarious as I did and then I had a huge stomachache when I got home. Come to think of it, maybe I just made Purim weird in Bay Ridge.

This year, I opted out of Purim even though I’m trying hard to have my interfaith family celebrate every holiday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the fruit roll ups, but also, the only costume I had for Helen was a sad and tired monkey costume that she already wore for Halloween. Yes, I’m that parent that never wants my child to wear the same costume twice.

Before we reach the car, a group of teenage boys dressed as giant cows and rabbits cross the street toward us. One of them looks defiant and drunk. It reminds me of another thing about Purim—everyone gets completely blitzed and runs around the neighborhood like it’s a ’70s disco party. This boy looks at me, then he looks at Adrian and finally looks at my Helen in the stroller. I can see judgement on his face and I feel that he’s thinking: Who are we? Why are we in Midwood? What are we doing on this block on this day? Don’t we know it’s Purim? He, more likely, could have been thinking, “Man I shouldn’t have done that last shot of tequila.” But the look, whatever it said, meant something. I felt uncomfortable as this giant boy child dressed as a floppy bunny looked at me and then at my family. I felt as if I had to explain that I grew up in this neighborhood, went to a Yeshiva, but found a different path and that I love my family, our differences, our two cultures and our two religions. I felt I wanted to say all of this to a 15-year-old boy in a rabbit costume. Why? Because of that look.

I have been getting that look long before I had an interfaith family. I got that look when I wore jeans on Sabbath and smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ house on the High Holy Days. I know that look well. The look has nothing to do with the person giving it and everything to do with the person getting it. I feared that look for a long time. I fear it now for my Helen Rose. She will get that look. She may get it in more ways that I received it. Maybe this is what I realize as the teenagers prance past us. With all our colorful cultural and religious differences as a family, how will I protect Helen from the look? My eyes meet the look and lock on it as if on a dare. I’m 14 years old again. The one boy who catches my eye turns away from me and I hear myself say as if for the first time, “Chag Sameach” (Joyous Festival) and then, “Feliz Purim.”

Why Choosing Love Didn’t Mean Conversion for Me

  

Holding hands

Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the table–not until I brought the question up on my own, three years after we got married.

Shortly after my husband and I first started dating, Ben brought me to Friday night Shabbat services at a large Reform synagogue in Boston. A cantor with a guitar led the congregation in a wordless melody at the beginning of the service, and as the service progressed into as-yet-unfamiliar Hebrew phrases, I appreciated his help guiding me through the prayer book, not all of which offered transliterations of the Hebrew. Afterwards, we drank small cups of Manischewitz and ate tiny chunks of challah at the oneg. He led me excitedly past cases of shimmering, evocative Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups, haggadot with messages such as the feminist haggadot or Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian Passover classic). Afterwards, we went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant, holding hands across a table and talking about religion.

Conversion wasn’t on the table that night, and it wasn’t even on the table when we became engaged, and then married. The only thing truly on the table that night, and in the nights since, was our desire to choose each other, and by doing so, to choose love.

Five years after that first date, three years into our marriage, though, I almost converted to Judaism. I’d attended a friend’s conversion ceremony, and during the joyous celebration of her joining the People of Israel, I found myself unexpectedly and profoundly moved by the experience. She converted in a Reconstructionist synagogue, and in keeping with the vision of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan, of Judaism as a religious civilization, the congregation emphasized a joyful spiritual approach that offered no insult to the modern intellect.

When my friend stood on the bimah and received her Jewish name and held the Torah in her arms, my mind flashed forward to times when I’d seen babies dedicated in the synagogue, being welcomed into the Jewish people. I realized, in a flash, what it might mean to hold my own child, and welcome her into the Jewish people, when I myself was not Jewish. There, in that room, with the resonant Hebrew prayers resounding throughout, it seemed that perhaps the covenant could extend to me as well.

I returned home and bought books about conversion, about Jewish ritual, about interfaith families. I listened to all of the major prayers on YouTube, and wondered how long it would take to do formal morning and evening prayers. I whispered the Shema to myself, imagining that my Jewish husband would look at me as if I were “going frum,” a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.

A few days before Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t keep my curiosity in any longer. I wrote Ben a letter, explaining, in convoluted, circular words, how drawn I felt to Judaism at that moment and how much I appreciated many aspects of his religion. I gave the letter to him at breakfast on a Saturday, and the question of conversion now glimmered there between our held hands, right there on the table. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

That afternoon, we went on a hike in the mountains near our home, holding hands, marveling in the wonder of the world we live in, and wondering what it might be like to have a religiously united family.

A few weeks later, I found myself in New York on a Friday night, and decided to attend services at a historic synagogue on Fifth Avenue. I had never been in a synagogue that so closely resembled a cathedral before: soaring ceilings, gilded walls covered in elaborate mosaics, and at the back, a Star-of-David “rose” window and a very impressive organ. A professional choir, accompanied by the organ, sang the prayers, while the well-dressed and equally well-heeled congregation listened in aesthetic appreciation of the music’s beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.

In the end, this “crisis of faith,” so to speak, lasted for a few months. I talked with my friend who had converted, with other friends, with my parents. All were supportive, but cautious, not wanting me to confuse one moment of inspiration with making the right choice for both myself and my husband.

I found myself coming back to several facts from which I couldn’t escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I don’t (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husband’s family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if I’m honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.

It wasn’t an easy choice, mind you. I struggled with how to choose loving my spouse (and eventually, God willing, our children), with choosing a religion, and with being true to myself. I’d made religious choices for a significant other once before–choices I came to regret–and in the end, wasn’t willing to do that again, no matter how well-intentioned a similar choice might have been, this time around.

Throughout it all, my Jewish spouse stood steadfastly with me, choosing to love me every day, even if that meant we would remain an interfaith family. We knew, in the end, as the words on our ketubah had suggested, that we could choose love by letting each other be ourselves.

Should We Pray for Bad People?

  

temples

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 Castro’s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castro’s 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: “Should we pray for bad people or bad leaders?” 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 “save a person’s soul.”

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.

I’m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

The Gift Of An Inclusive and Welcoming Community

  

Heart-shape for the sun.

I met my friend Tracie at an interfaith moms event at my synagogue. She was friendly, and we bonded over her husband and in-laws being from the same part of New Jersey as me. Tracie immediately got involved and eventually joined the interfaith moms’ leadership team.

Tracie was raised Christian but was raising Jewish children with her husband. Actually, in many ways, Tracie was raising Jewish children on her own in a house that she shared with her Jewish husband. Her husband Bob’s connection to Judaism ebbed and flowed. There were times where he taught Sunday school and then there were times when he completely disengaged and even argued that it would be easier to let the kids be Christian.

Tracie let Bob wrestle with his Judaism even when his wrestling was hurtful to her. During these times, she never reneged on her commitment to create a Jewish home. In fact, she doubled down on Jewish engagement for herself and her children – adult Jewish learning and lay leadership for her; Jewish preschool, religious school and summer camp for the boys.

One of the things that always struck me about Tracie was her embrace of Judaism, its traditions, and teachings, and her resolve to make them a part of her and her family’s life. Tracie, a voracious reader and an eager participant in various Jewish learning courses, was so knowledgeable about Judaism that people were surprised to learn that she wasn’t Jewish.

One day, I asked her if she had ever considered converting. She said, “Why do I need to convert to become something that I already feel I am?” She wasn’t offended by my question, and as many conversations go with Tracie, we had a great discussion about identity, boundaries, norms and more. I assumed she would continue living as a ger toshav, a person from a different religious background who accepts and observes the Noahide Laws (the seven commandments which are said to apply to people who are not Jewish), and certain other Jewish religious and cultural traditions.

The other day, I ran into Tracie in the halls of our temple after not seeing her for a while. She was leaving a pre-bar mitzvah meeting with one of our rabbis and her son who is preparing for his bar mitzvah in December. We hugged. It was so good to see her. She looked happy and sounded excited about her son’s upcoming milestone.

As we talked, she said, “I need to schedule some time to speak to you. I’m ready. I’m ready to make it official.” I knew what she was talking about. “It” was Judaism. I was surprised but not shocked, and really, just excited.

One of the beautiful parts of my job as the director of community engagement at my synagogue is that I oversee conversion and get to share in the journey of those interested in choosing Judaism. The experience is even more meaningful when I get to walk the path to an “official” Jewish identity with a friend or someone I’ve known for years because of their involvement in our community.

In these situations, I’m reminded of the gift an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community is because it allows those from other backgrounds to explore Judaism in their own way and at their own pace with no pressure to convert. The willingness to patiently nurture Jewishness in everyone, not just Jews, enables many ger toshavs to take their place among the Jewish people when it is right for them, rather than for a communal leader, spouse or future in-law. I’m so glad to be part of this kind of community and to be able in my professional life to be part of these journeys to Judaism.

Things Toddlers Say At Services

  

Happy singing girlWith the drama of the High Holidays receding into the past, I find myself thinking about the charms and challenges of bringing a toddler to synagogue services.

This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearby suburb, one that’s full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didn’t 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 virtually forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time she’s also moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, “Mommy, why?”

Given these two facts, I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as “family friendly.” We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat on benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang “Bim Bam” over the harmonious strains of a guitar.

That’s when the questions began.

“Mommy, why are we on benches?”

“There aren’t enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.”

“Why aren’t there enough chairs?”

I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. “It’s a busy night, sweetie.” The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.

“Mommy, who are the people up front?”

“Why are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?”

“What is everyone saying? I don’t know the words to this song.” (We were singing “L’cha Dodi.”)

“Mommy, they said ‘stars!’ I know that word!” This caused particular excitement.

When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.

“Mommy, I know this song,” she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. “Mommy, are there candles up there?” She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.

At various points, she asked me, “Mommy, why are we sitting outside? When are we going inside?”

On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: “Mommy, when is it time for dessert?” She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.

“I don’t know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,” I replied cautiously.

“But I really want dessert,” she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.

“I know,” I replied. “We’ll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.”

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, “Mommy, how do these people know this song too?”

“It’s a very important Jewish prayer,” 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, “Why is everyone being so quiet?” I leaned down and whispered, “Shhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.”

“I am being quiet,” she stage-whispered. One moment later: “Can we talk louder now?” Me, still whispering: “Not yet, OK?”

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 “dessert” would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.

I’m an interfaith parent. As an outsider, it’s tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with a remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughter’s constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that “this night is different from (most) other nights,” 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 always worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sister’s incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us? I felt torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriate (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my children’s participatory 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 weren’t 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.

Engaging Children in Ritual Life

  

Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families – and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first Friday “family service,” but at most Shabbat services at Sam’s 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” program on Sunday mornings. In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?

Jack's first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

Jack’s first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents’ synagogue earlier this month. Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services. 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. I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only. Even during Friday night 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 families with young children are always present at Catholic churches. 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. During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families. 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 are anything but distracting, saying “let the children come to me.”

Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue match what you’ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith’s continuity for the next generation?

Two Faiths and Powerful Women

  

My daughter, Helen Rose Castaneda, wakes up one day at 10-and-a-half months old, pulls herself up in her crib and says “hola!” at the top of her lungs. “Hola, hola, hola!” This makes sense because Adrian and I speak to Helen mainly in Spanish at home.

She says “hola” for an entire day and then stops saying it. Was this her first word? Does it count if she says it but then stops saying it? I ask myself these questions and think it incredible that I grew up speaking one language at home (English), yet my daughter understands two. My brother and I later learned Hebrew in school and I learned to speak, read and understand Spanish at 18. But Helen Rose understands two tongues, and I find this fitting for a household where two seems to be a theme.

There are two religions in our home: Jewish and Mexican Catholic. I say Mexican Catholic as opposed to just Catholic because Mexican culture is deeply tied to its Catholicism, and the culture itself is rich with colorful history. But one of the things I love most about Mexican Catholicism is the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is like the Virgin Mary and is thought of as the mother of Mexico.

When Adrian and I decided to build an interfaith family and raise Helen believing in both Judaism and Catholicism, it was Guadalupe who swayed me. I like that Helen can look up in her room and see a statue of not only a religious icon but also a female religious icon instilling in her at a young age that women are powerful.

This brings me to my current dilemma. My family belongs to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. This means that women and men are separated when they pray. What is the reason for this? At 5 years old, I turned to my mother one Rosh Hashanah in synagogue and asked, “Ma, why are the men in jail?” My mother said she knew I would be fine in life after that question because I was seeing that the men were separated, not the women. Then I had friends who weren’t Jewish when I was growing up say they thought it was sexist and horrible that women and men were separated. It wasn’t until recently as an adult that I asked what the deeper meaning for this separation was.

As it turns out, the reason is not so obvious. Many Jews will tell you the separation between men and women at synagogue is because the focus in synagogue should be on God and not on the opposite sex. Though that is a valid reason, it’s not the whole truth.

According to some scholars, the reason women and men are separated is that the soul of a woman and the soul of a man, though equal, are different. It is because of this basic difference that women and men need their own space to pray and to become in tune with their natural and true selves. It is more of a spiritual reason than a sexist reason.

I’m not sure if I agree with the rules, but I respect them in my own synagogue. It feels important to me that I have the right answers to the questions my daughter might ask me one day. I think about the Virgin of Guadalupe and how men fall to their knees before her. In some Mexican towns, men tattoo Guadalupe on their backs as a form of protection so no one will ever stab them from behind. I think of how Guadalupe is the mother figure and then I think about Judaism again.

“Who are the strongest women in Judaism?” Helen might ask me. I think about my answer to the question that doesn’t exist yet because my daughter is too young to form a sentence, let alone ask a question. But within my interfaith partnership, I find myself increasingly aware of the differences between the way Adrian and I grew up, and I find myself asking my own questions in order to answer my daughter’s future questions.

So, who are the strongest women in Judaism? The answer I came up with is similar to Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. The strongest women are our mothers. They are not glorified saints, but they are saints. Our grandmothers—they too hold the wisdom of decades. Guadalupe appears to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Our mother figures are there for us when we need them most.

I will tell Helen my thoughts on the separation of the sexes in synagogue. I will say that even though a curtain separates us, or a wall or a door, the belief is that our prayers are just as important. We will sit in synagogue on the women’s side this year with Rachel, Sarah, Rebekah and with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

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Back to Synagogue

  
Ruthie and one of our Temple buddies during a special visit this summer in Maine

Ruthie and one of our Temple buddies during a special visit this summer in Maine

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 to 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 wasn’t planned, and I didn’t even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into “Temple friends,” 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 congregation as a path 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 I’ve ever been a part of, we don’t all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we weren’t 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 didn’t 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 we’ll 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 practice helps put in our lives.