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Where Lamaze Meets L'Chaim: Childbirth Education Classes Are Slowly Catching on As Way for Couples to Connect with Judaism

This article is reprinted with permission of The New York Jewish Week. Visit www.thejewishweek.com .

Alicia and Stephan Altmueller had three weddings: a justice of the peace officiated at one, a Reform rabbi at another and, at the third, in Stephan's native Austria, his brother, a Catholic monk, officiated. This was a couple clearly undecided about their religious path.

But by the time they were pregnant with Klara Rose, who is now 10 months old, they had decided to make theirs a Jewish home. Yet Alicia came from a Jewish family she describes as more cultural than religious, and didn't feel like she knew what to do.

Cruising around the Internet looking for a childbirth education class, she found "In the Beginning: Jewish Childbirth Preparation," which, Alicia says, gave them the tools to deal with both labor and becoming a Jewish family.

Their cycle of "In the Beginning" was held at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Others have met at the Sol Goldman Y on 14th Street, where one is slated to begin at the end of June.

Each session's first half is led by Rabbi Margie Slome, who discusses everything from Jewish birth rituals to how to have "teachable Jewish moments" with kids. A Lamaze instructor who teaches relaxation techniques, including breathing and massage, to help make impending labor a little easier, leads the second hour and everything else that goes into a conventional childbirth education course. Guest speakers include a pediatrician, a mohel (ritual circumcizer) and a rabbi.

Call it the place where brit milah (circumcision) meets Braxton Hicks contractions, where Lamaze meets l'chaim (life).

Taking "the class really opened up a lot for both of us," Alicia said in an interview. Because each week they got to explore psychological and spiritual aspects of becoming a family with Rabbi Slome, "she was the first rabbi that Stephan and I thought we could really talk to. It started a lot more discussion for us, which really made us want to take action and look for a community."

In some Jewish childbirth ed courses, as many as half the couples who sign up are interfaith, say coordinators around the country.

For some, like the Altmuellers, as well as for couples in which both partners are Jewish, the class becomes a gateway into more Jewish involvement.

Though they hadn't done much by way of Jewish ritual before her birth, soon after Klara arrived she was welcomed with a simchat bat (welcoming ceremony) in their home. Then the new family began to "temple shop," Alicia says, and today they regularly attend Riverdale's Congregation Tehillah, which isn't far from their Inwood home. They've put mezuzahs (vessels containing the handwritten text of the Sh'ma prayer that are affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes) on their front and bedroom doors, and, if they're home together on Friday night, they make Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. Saturdays are spent together as a family.

"Taking the class helped jump start us with what we wanted to do," said Alicia.

New York is the most recent of a large handful of communities around the country to offer Jewish childbirth ed. The Jewish Connections program of the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services runs "In the Beginning," and a growing number of agencies like boards of Jewish education and Jewish community centers around the country are looking into starting their own.

"So much of what people's Jewish identity is, is compartmentalized," said Sarah Fenner, a childbirth educator who ran a program called "Milk and Honey" in the San Francisco Bay area. "People go to synagogue and are Jewish, and have a baby and aren't," she said. "It's important to give people something that marries the two, and gives them a place to meet other Jewish couples in the same stage of life."

She ran one cycle of the course, which attracted several couples, but then found it difficult, as do other communities, to attract enough students to continue.

"We had trouble getting enough students who were due at the same time, and it didn't come together again," said Fenner. "In the Bay area people don't want to commit to even six weeks of classes."

Now she's planning to try a different model and offer weekend seminars with just the Jewish component, teaching things like Jewish rituals related to pregnancy and childbirth.

New York has also struggled to get "In the Beginning" up and running. Two attempts to get cycles off the ground in Brooklyn and in Queens didn't attract enough couples, said Rabbi Slome.

"Things like this don't happen overnight. Breaking into the New York City market takes time," she said. "We're going to keep plugging."

The one place where Jewish childbirth education labor pains seem to have ended long ago is in Baltimore, which has the longest continuously running course in the country. "Beresheit--In the Beginning: A Jewish Lamaze Experience" was established about 20 years ago.

Housed at the Jewish community center, the local Jewish family service agency sends a social worker to discuss with the pregnant couples what it's like to become a parent. In addition to a childbirth educator giving participants the usual information, a nurse comes from an area hospital to discuss baby safety in the home and car, a mohel and rabbi come, and a pediatrician speaks at the last class about routine baby care.

Six cycles of the seven-session course run each year, and attract a total of 35 or 40 couples said Rena Rotenberg, coordinator of early childhood education at Baltimore's Center for Jewish Education.

Parents who met at the classes often stay together as informal groups, she said, attending each other's life cycle events and getting together monthly for support and socializing.

Based in the JCC's parenting center, Rotenberg and the educators teaching the classes encourage new parents to return after the babies are born. Now in the works is a more formal, post-birth class with a Jewish educator who will meet with the families and talk about things like Jewish holidays, values and rituals.

A key to getting these courses off the ground seems to be marketing. And the reason that they take off is because of word-of-mouth buzz.

Caron Blanke, director of Denver's "Shalom (peace, welcome) Baby" program at the Jewish Community Center, tries to get her brochures "into every single place a mom-to-be could go." She puts them in libraries, maternity and children's clothing stores, and in all the local synagogues. The local Jewish hospital also distributes it in the packet of information given to every woman planning who comes for obstetric care.

In Baltimore, Rotenberg sends the brochures, along with a stand, to obstetricians' offices, and puts up marketing posters in supermarkets.

Blanke runs a raft of programs in the Denver-Boulder community under the "Shalom Baby" umbrella. "Jewish Baby University," which is the childbirth ed class, is at the JCC, as is a class focusing on "the reality of motherhood," Blanke says, and another on baby safety. For the men there's a "boot camp for dads," and for both parents, classes on infant massage, baby sign language and sibling preparation.

The Jewish childbirth ed class in Denver is offered quarterly and has been growing in popularity. "Classes have almost doubled in size in the last year, to between 13 and 17 couples in each," Blanke says. Nearly every time, participants learned about the program through word of mouth.

"It is the thing to do when you're pregnant and Jewish in Denver," she said, "a great way to meet friends." Each of the groups of new parents has continued to meet on their own after their babies are born, right up through celebrating their first birthday, she said.

Every community's Jewish childbirth ed course sends parents off with lots of goodies: in New York they get a booklet called "The Jewish Baby Handbook," printouts on everything from baby namings to nursing, samples of diapers and wipes and, best of all, a onesie for the baby imprinted with "In the Beginning: Class of 5763." p>Denver's Jewish Baby University grads get scads of giveaways and info on area Jewish preschools. Blanke also goes out to visit new Jewish babies in their home. In the 10 months since that program started, she's brought 120 babies baskets containing a Jewish lullaby tape, Jewish parenting book, tote bag, bib, sippy cup, Bible board-book, and lots of fliers with local family programs. The family also gets a free one-year membership at the JCC.

The motivation for the agencies running the programs, and their funders, is clearly to get young parents engaged with Jewish life.

"The payoff is that you have more knowledgeable and happier families," said Keith Rosenbloom, a young philanthropist who put together the funding for the New York City effort. He's single and childless himself, but sees it as an easy way to start young families on a positive Jewish path.

"It's a dangerous thing to potentially curse someone by telling them they're Jewish and not give them enough good reasons to want to be Jewish," he said. By making Jewish childbirth education available, "we're showing what the benefits of being Jewish are."

The parents-to-be who go may end up living more Jewishly involved lives but for the moment, have more immediate concerns on their minds.

At a Monday night session of "In the Beginning," the three couples in attendance--the fourth, pregnant with twins, had been put on bed rest by her doctor--hung on to the Lamaze instructor's every word. The women, all due the following month, then peppered her with questions about epidurals, fetal monitoring and how they'll know when real labor sets in.

But several said that concern about issues sure to far outlast labor was what prompted them to sign up for "In the Beginning."

"We were initially going to take a regular Lamaze class," said father-to-be Olivier Sultan, but there's something appealing to both of us about taking something which is about more than the mechanics, which has a higher context."

More "In the Beginning" classes are slated to start. For information, call Rabbi Margie Slome at (212) 399-2685, Ext. 228.

Hebrew for "daughter's celebration," a modern term for a naming ceremony for baby girls. Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

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