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More Than One Way To Be Jewish

October 26, 2009

When I was growing up in Calgary in the 1970s and 1980s--the child of a "mixed" marriage--there were two choices for Jewish education: day school or nothing. For a variety of reasons, day school was not in the cards for me, and because we lived so far from any of the existing Jewish neighborhoods in the city, I was the only Jewish kid in my class throughout elementary school. I loved school, had some wonderful teachers and made friends I've kept to this day. But at the same time, I always felt different. My Jewish education consisted of celebrating Hanukkah and Pesach at home--I thought of these holidays as the Jewish versions of Christmas, which we also celebrated, and Thanksgiving--and reading whatever books I could find that had Jewish characters.

Downtown Toronto Younge StreetSometimes I felt pleasingly cosmopolitan, poised between two worlds and belonging to both. Other times I felt awkward and uncertain, torn between two cultures and belonging to neither.

When I was twelve I made a stand, announcing that I wanted "to have a bat mitzvah"--and, with a lot of hard work and a lot of help, I did it. But as the one kid in our shul's bar/bat mitzvah class who had neither gone to day school nor ever attended services regularly, I felt like the odd one out there, too. Since then I've swung back and forth in my level of observance, but I've never again failed to identify, or to identify myself to others, as a Jew. At the same time, as the child of one interfaith marriage and now a partner in another I've never felt comfortable with the classic high holiday sermon on the theme of how to stop your kids from marrying non-Jews.

Fortunately, 21st century Toronto, where I now live with my (non-Jewish) husband and our daughter, offers many more options for Jewish kids, all the way from single-sex Orthodox day schools to Reconstructionist and secular humanist Sunday schools. One of the wonderful things about Toronto is its diversity--both the multicultural character of the city as a whole, and the vast variety within the Jewish community.

Our daughter, who is now 7, has always understood that she and Mommy are Jewish and Daddy is not. He celebrates "our" holidays with us, and we celebrate "his" holidays with him and his family. We are fortunate, from my perspective, to live in a neighbourhood where many Jewish kids, as well as kids of many other faiths, or none at all, go to the local public schools. Toronto's public schools make a great effort to help everyone feel included; I knew my kid would not be the only one missing school for Yom Kippur, for example. But having grown up with very little Jewish education or connection to the community, I wanted her to experience both. Because we are firmly an interfaith family, though, I was not wild about sending her to a program where she was likely to be the only kid with a non-Jewish parent. My husband and I also feel that it's important for her to understand the why of things. I hope she will choose to continue to live a Jewish life as an adult--not because it's the only thing she knows, but because she has come to value Judaism and embrace it.

Enter the Morris Winchevsky School, part of Toronto's Secular Jewish Community School (TSJCS), billed as a program for "secular, non-traditional, mixed culture, or unaffiliated" families. At a friend's recommendation, we had attended the Winchevsky Centre's Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations, and although I missed the tefillah of a regular service, we all enjoyed the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, the music, and the spirit of contemplation and togetherness. Might this also be a good place for our daughter to learn about her Jewish heritage, without being made to feel uncomfortable about her other culture?

The MWS program is small, but strikingly varied, including among students, parents, and teachers not just interfaith families but families with same-sex parents, Ashkenazi and Sefardi backgrounds, a wide range of political views and attitudes. Teaching focuses on a variety of aspects of Jewish culture and history, on social responsibility and tikkun olam. Teachers encourage the kids to ask questions and to think about what being Jewish means to them--"There's more than one way to be Jewish!"

My daughter, who is in Grade 2 this year, has just started her third year at MWS. So far, although some module topics have enthused her more than others, she has enjoyed going to "Hebrew school" and seems to be learning a lot. Just as importantly, Winchevsky is becoming part of our Jewish life and our family life--a place we know our way around, and one of our main connections to the Jewish community. We value the open and cooperative spirit of the program and its welcoming feel, as well as the huge variety of module topics--from daily life in Biblical times through Maimonides' teachings on tzedaka (illustrated by the kids via puppet play) to the Jewish influence on the comic-book industry.

The Winchevsky experience co-exists with our on again, off again participation in more traditional Jewish family and community life--lighting Shabbos candles, going to shul, making Pesach--and anchors us in the community, not as a house of prayer or beit tefillah, but as a house of study, a beit midrash and as a community center, a beit knesset. We handle more metaphysical questions on our own terms, while the MWS program offers an equally safe space, with more knowledgeable mentors, for exploring, questioning, and discovering questions of Jewish culture, history, and identity.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "prayer." Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Sylvia Izzo Hunter

Sylvia Izzo Hunter lives in Toronto, where she works as an editor and spends her free time reading, writing, singing, and managing the territorial aspirations of her family's book, comic-book, and stuffed-animal collections.

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