Healing the World is Our Every Day


Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didn’t flinch knowing I’d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their mom’s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, “healing the world” – and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what we’d ALL learn by doing.

Roxy doing tikkun olam

Roxy learning about the environment during tikkun olam program

I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.

I’m so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that we’re doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.

It’s a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected – that there’s a place for everyone at the table because we’re all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, it’s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.

Everett gardening

Everett learning about environment during tikkun olam program

After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him what’s become a pretty central concept in our family. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. It’s not like he doesn’t know that I’m involved in planning this stuff. It’s not like he doesn’t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. It’s not like he doesn’t know any of these things about me or the kids. But I’ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and I’m not quite sure why.

The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their “Jewish” life and what is their “secular” life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think it’s clear cut. Sometimes I still think I’m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didn’t have to explain things – to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isn’t always just healing the giant world, it’s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.

Charity Begins At Home, Part 2

My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

My son helping to pack snack boxes at the North Texas Food Bank in January.

Last night, my family watched NFL Honors, the National Football League’s awards show that honored players and coaches. Awards such as MVP, Coach of the Year, and Play of the Year were given out. The most prestigious of the honors was the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

Established in 1970, the Man of the Year Award recognized the player who had a significant impact on his community. In 1999, it was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back to honor his legacy as a humanitarian. Payton was himself a recipient of the award when he played.

As my husband, son, and I listened to the stories of the finalists, I thought of my last blog on charity. The men considered for the award didn’t begin to serve their communities after they became successful pro football players; they were all raised in families that emphasized giving back–regardless of whether their families had much to give.

The winner, Anquan Boldin of the San Francisco 49ers, was raised in a poor area of Palm Beach County Florida. His family didn’t have much but what they did have, they gave to others. Anquan spoke of learning what it meant to help those in need from his parents. He said his mother always opened their home to people who had nowhere to go and his family shared food with those without so that no one went hungry. He learned that his purpose was not to play football, but to serve the community; football was just a means by which to do that.

Boldin formed a foundation in 2004 with $1 million of his own money with a mission “to expand the educational and life opportunities for underprivileged youth.” It offers a summer enrichment program, provides 300 Thanksgiving meals annually, holiday shopping sprees and academic scholarships for college.

Boldin took the example set for him by his parents to heart, making the task of repairing the world a central part of his life. His actions showed that Tikkun Olam (repair the world) wasn’t just a Jewish thing.

When I speak to parents navigating life as an interfaith couple, I talk about how the concept of Tikkun Olam is shared by many faiths and cultures. I recommend that starting in preschool, through words and actions, adults reinforce to their children that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Below are some of the things I suggest that families do to teach charity and show kids that mitzvahs aren’t just something done to fulfill a school or bar mitzvah requirement. If you don’t see something that you’re family does on the list, please share it in the comment section.

Collect tzedakah. Each week, set aside money to donate to a cause. Put it in a tzedakah box. If you don’t have one, make one and let your kids decorate it. We still have the one my son made when he was one-and-a-half and we still contribute money to it each week. Place coins in the box immediately before lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night. This ensures that your last act of the week is one of charity. Recite the following blessing as you perform the ritual:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b’mitz’votav, v’tzivanu lir’dof tzedek.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to pursue justice.

At the end of the year, or when your box is full, let your children select where the money goes. They will feel involved, valued, and will learn that their choices can make a difference. Don’t worry about what you see as the cause’s significance. When my son was a toddler, he regularly chose the Australian Koala Foundation because he could help his favorite animal by planting eucalyptus trees. As he has grown, so have his choices. This year we planted trees in Israel through Jewish National Fund and gave to our local food bank.

Engage in social justice. Children of all ages can participate in community service. Shop together for items for a food, toy, or book drive. Collect items from your house. Deliver donations to a local food pantry or clothing resale shop with your kids. Have older kids stock shelves at a food bank, work with animals, or host a birthday or holiday party for those less fortunate through local organizations. Check out The Birthday Party Project which hosts birthday parties for underprivileged children through partner agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

Care for the environment. Caring for the planet has no age requirement. Do a neighborhood or park cleanup. Pick up trash when you walk the dog. Plant a tree. Buy eco-friendly/reusable products. Compost. Recycle. Bring your own bags.

Visit the sick and the elderly. Stop to see a relative. Deliver meals to homebound seniors. Share part of Shabbat afternoon at a retirement or assisted living facility. Make birthday cards for seniors. Brighten someone’s day.

Volunteer on Christmas. Help others enjoy the holiday. Participate in a Christmas mitzvah project. Many synagogues and Jewish agencies organize volunteers to work on Christmas Eve and Day so Christian employees can spend time with their families.

Welcome the Stranger. Ensure that no one is alone for holidays. Invite newcomers to your community to share a celebration with you. Make a seat at your Shabbat or Seder table, and open your home for Hanukkah, the High Holidays, Christmas or secular holidays.

Coming Clean with Your Toddler on Tu Bishvat


Washing handsTu Bishvat starts on Tuesday night. It is a really beautiful holiday; a new year for the trees. It is a time to think about the earth, and to celebrate the many ways it nourishes us. It is also a good time to think about Israel, a place where it might actually be reasonable to plant a tree right now (as opposed to my snow-covered backyard). Tu Bishvat has become a time to think about conservation and, I need to be honest, as a parent of a toddler it is pretty difficult to feel like I am hitting my marks in that department.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about trying to teach Ruthie conservation, and the importance of saving water. I am happy to report that a year later, Ruthie has developmentally hit a place where when we tell her to turn off the tap because she is wasting water, she seems to understand, and will usually oblige. But just as Ruthie has turned this corner, Chaya has entered the age of “I do it.” While I have one daughter on board with conservation, I have another entering the era of the uphill battle to conserve.

In my unscientific observation of children Chaya’s age (2.5), they are fascinated by running water. Turning the faucet gives them a power to create, at a time in their lives when they are both dependent on bigger people to do most things for them and also discovering their own power to interact with the world. A light switch provides a similar fascination, especially as an activity where you make the lights go on and off for minutes on end. And paper goods, the kinds that as an adult I try to use thoughtfully, sparingly when possible, provide endless possibilities for creativity and creation.

There are reasons for using these things that I want to encourage as a parent. It is flu season, for goodness sake, and it is great if Chaya can learn how to make hand-washing a part of her routine. I would like to engender a habit where Chaya is turning on lights when they are needed, and turning them off when she is done. And while I don’t want the whole roll of toilet paper on the floor, I sure do want her to use it in moderation when she needs it.

If taking care of the world weren’t a huge concern of mine (which it is) and these commodities were in endless supply, I would have a different take on all of this. I want Chaya to feel comfortable exploring her independence and to learn to do a few things for herself. I understand that sometimes you need to experiment, to use a little more or a little less of what you need in order to figure out the best way to do something. But because there are limits to the commodities that we take from the earth, I cringe when I see Chaya trying to perform this experimentation with a running faucet. This can be confusing for both of us, since often times, just a minute before I may have complimented her about using the same amount of time and thought to experiment with how to put on a pair of pants by herself or complete a puzzle.

I think the answer is to give her a chance at a conserving behavior, and then take over and redirect her when it is clear she is not going to make an earth-friendly choice. But I also know that toddlers like the safety of reliable rules, and so even though I may do that, I feel a little badly about sending a complex message about when experimentation is OK. So I don’t have an answer, only a lot of mixed feelings. And a hope that she will learn this lesson by watching rather than doing, so that the earth can be in better shape for the generation that proceeds hers.

Tikkun Olam Ted and the Importance of Small Steps


My family is one of the many families who benefits from the amazing PJ Library, an extraordinary program that mails free Jewish books and music to 125,000 homes throughout the country. Ruthie enjoyed the program for three years, and last year Chaya got her very own subscription. It is a real gift to have colorful, modern media to use to talk to the girls about different aspects of Jewish life. This week I’d like to talk about Chaya’s current favorite, Tikkun Olam Ted, and how reading it has reminded me how to boil big ideas down into bite size pieces for my young kids.

The book, by Vivian Newman, is about a little boy named Ted, who “is small. But spends his days doing very big things.” Ted got his nickname because of his interest in helping to “fix the world and make it a kinder, better place.” For each day of the week, Ted takes on a different task. What is brilliant about the book, aside from the adorable, colorful illustrations by Steve Mack, is how Ted’s big things are completely age-appropriate for a preschooler. Ted does not heal the world by going to a soup kitchen, running a blood drive, or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity. He does things that any kid could easily do in the course of their daily life – he recycles, he does yard work, he feeds the birds and he remembers to turn off the lights.

Reading this book, I am reminded of my own eagerness as a parent to teach my girls big lessons, and to endow them with a sophisticated toolkit of ideas and approaches to having a full and successful life.  I dream of raising them to know how to make good choices, to be resilient, to pursue their passions, and to try to fix the world because doing so is meaningful for them.  Before I had kids, and throughout my first pregnancy, I often schemed about how I would engender these traits in them, but I spent more time thinking about a Bat Mitzvah-age service project, or the feminist literature I might sprinkle into a 16-year-old’s Hanukkah gifts, than what the building blocks might be for a two-year old.

But it is a long time before those Bat Mitzvahs, and that toolkit will be even stronger if I can start now. Reading Tikkun Olam Ted aloud to my girls reminds me of the significance of the things that they can do independently now, and that those are probably as important as that adolescent reading list. Sure, I’ll keep bringing them to political events with me, and telling them of the bigger things Eric and I do to fix the world in our adult way.  But I will also remind them how turning off the faucet really matters, or how re-using yesterday’s sandwich bag actually has a ripple effect on the health of our planet. Judging by how frequently Chaya hands Newman’s book to me, I think she’s already starting to grasp the connections.

I Heart my In-Laws. What is Wrong With me?


As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.

In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”

But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.

I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?

I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.

The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.

I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.

My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.

Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.

The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.

Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.

My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.

While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.

But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.

I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.

This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.

It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.

I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.

My Christmas stocking recognizes my faith.

Save Some Water for the Fish


Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.  We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.  Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because he’s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.  So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

And then this morning happened.  Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that we’d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.  When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.  As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.  Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earth’s resources.

There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.  He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).  He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.  So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.

fish tank

“Ruthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.”  She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.  I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.

“Look, Mommy,” she said, “the fish have plenty of water.”  I am guessing my classmate didn’t have a fish tank in his house.

So we keep trying.  As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the “3 more minutes” pitch is over.  The saving water for the fish story isn’t working.  Anyone have a better idea?

Why We Chose Judaism


According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.

But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.

Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.

So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.

So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:

1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.

I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.

Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”

2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.

Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.

3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.

“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”

The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.

I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.