Teaching An Attitude of Gratitude

We started our Shabbat ritual, in part, to teach Sammy to count his blessings, big and small.

On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about raising children to appreciate things big and small, and the tangible benefits of giving thanks including a more positive outlook on life, less depression and higher GPAs. I could not help but think how the story’s placement was perfectly timed.

Sammy had just spent the fourth quarter of 2013 collecting presents. In October, he turned nine. While he did not have a birthday party (he celebrated with one friend at a hockey game), he did acquire enough gift cards to buy himself an iPad mini and a Rainbow Loom.

Hanukkah arrived in November, and the eight nights of lights also included eight nights of books and tennis equipment. Gifts that nourished Sammy’s mind and supported a healthy activity seemed like less materialistic choices.

In December, Santa’s sleigh arrived at my in-laws filled with colored rubber bands for the Rainbow Loom, Legos, books and merchandise from the fan shop of his favorite NFL team. There were plenty of trinkets in Sammy’s stocking too.

There were moments during these months when, Cameron and I surveyed Sammy’s celebratory loot and felt as if we were losing the battle against consumerism. We questioned whether our efforts to raise a child who appreciated all that he had – material and otherwise – were futile.

But then we would hear Sammy say with a mix of genuine appreciation and excitement, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome!” These exclamations of thankfulness were typically accompanied by a hug or a post-celebration phone call or email to the gift-giver.

Cameron and I smiled. Maybe, Sammy was absorbing the concept of appreciation. Maybe the things we have done to cultivate an attitude of gratitude did have a positive affect.

Cameron and I understood early on that appreciation and thankfulness were not innate qualities, but rather learned virtues. We recognized that, as parents, it was our responsibility to be teach and model these behaviors.

We began a regular Friday night Shabbat ritual, in part, to help us fulfill our responsibility for nurturing Sammy’s (and our family’s) gratitude muscle. Given our hectic weekday schedules, it was hard to commit to meaningful family dinners Monday through Thursday, and while we tried to model the qualities that we wanted Sammy to develop on a daily basis, we felt it was important to reinforce our family values in a significant way.

Shabbat gave us the opportunity to elevate the act of expressing gratitude from a simple thank you said in response to another’s action to a ceremony that reminded us to be appreciative of all that we had. It taught Sammy to give to others through the collection of tzedakah, and to be grateful for more than just material things.

Blessings for the candles, wine, challah, and all present reminded us to be thankful for having each other in our lives, the opportunity to spend time together, and the food we eat. In difficult periods, such as when Cameron closed his business due to the economic downturn or illness in our extended family, our practice of sharing the good things that happened to us during the week reminded us that even in tough times we still had many blessings.

Over the years, Cameron and I have seen, through Sammy’s actions, flashes that have given us hope that our efforts to instill a gratitude attitude are working. We have seen glimpses of it in the thank you’s Sammy says during the holiday gift-giving season and the reports of his politeness and good manners from teachers and other parents, and we have witnessed it in his deep desire to give to others who are less privileged.

When he was seven, Sammy decided he wanted to purchase prayer books for a synagogue in need, so we found, with the help of a friend who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, a new congregation in Texas that needed siddurim. Sammy donated money he saved to the temple and his action inspired an anonymous donor to match his contribution.

While we count these actions as proof that our appreciation cultivation program is working, we occasionally see Sammy being tugged by materialism. He is envious that his friends have video entertainment systems and impressed by the size of some of his classmates’ homes.

At moments like these, we remind Sammy that there is more to life than the acquisition of stuff and remind ourselves that thankfulness is like a muscle. To remain strong, it requires regular exercise at various levels of intensity.

In our house, we nurture our feelings of appreciation through light activity five to six days a week, but pick-up the pace on Shabbat. Our Shabbat ritual is the ultimate workout for our gratitude muscle. What is yours?

Back to School, Back to Family

Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.

I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.

Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.

It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.

But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.

As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.

I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.

Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.

For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.

Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.

This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening  our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.

But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.