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Yom Rivii, 6 Adar 5778

Reform Judaism Blog

Jewish Resources for Coping with the Tragic Shooting in Parkland, FL

At least 17 people are dead and more injured in a horrific shooting Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Once again, in the wake of senseless and devastating gun violence, we mourn, we come together, we offer words of condolence – and we ask how we can prevent these tragedies from happening again.

Says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement from the Reform Movement issued after the massacre,

I can imagine the Holy One sobbing along with us, distraught over the senseless bloodshed we’ve collectively allowed to happen. Human care for one another, perhaps Divinely inspired, is what is desperately needed right now. “What's also needed is action. While every person of conscience must be shocked and outraged by the frequency of these horrific mass shootings, no person of intelligence can be surprised.

After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, NV, the deadliest in modern American history, Daryl Messinger, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote,

“[Each] time, the country goes back to business as usual. As the body count grows, with new scenes of senseless slaughter, nothing changes. Thoughts, prayer, and words are appropriate – but they’re not sufficient.”

As Reform Jews, our task remains: to challenge America's conscience and to heed the biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. Here, yet again, we offer words, prayers, and concrete ways to take action to prevent gun violence.

Resources for Parents and Educators

Here are a number of resources to guide parents and educators in speaking to their children about tragedy, especially those based in man-made violence. The following may help both children and parents to process these unthinkable occurrences:

  • "How We Can Help Our Littlest Learners in the Wake of Tragedy": Tammy Kaiser, a Parkland-area neuroscientist, preschool director, mother, and shooting survivor, shares tips for restoring childrens' sense of safety - and talks about her own experience comforting her son after the shooting.
  • “Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism”: After acts of violence, children may have both practical and theological questions, such as: How can we be protected from terrorism? Where is God? Why would God allow such things to happen? Rabbi Edythe Mencher, also a clinical social worker, wrote this in-depth guide for talking to children of varying ages about acts of terrorism and violence.
  • "Responding to Spiritual Questions and Emotional Needs after Tragedies": What do we tell our kids when tragedies like these make them doubt God's presence? This new piece from Rabbi Mencher addresses such questions as they impact both children and adults. 
  • “Parenting Thoughts: Helping Children Cope with Tragedy”: Margie Bogdanow, a parent and Jewish educator in the Boston area, wrote this in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2012. She offers four tips for parents to address tragedies with their children – and to take time to process it themselves, too.
  • “Talking to Children about Death”: Rabbi Mencher also penned this Jewish perspective on 10 common questions parents ask when helping children to better deal with death, grief, and mourning.
  • JECC’s Responding to Crisis: This site, a project of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, is dedicated to helping Jewish educators work through times of crisis. The site includes: resources to help children respond to tragedy, created with the guidance of various professionals; several sections offering avenues for response (through the Jewish tradition, through the spoken word, through the arts, etc.); a collection of Jewish texts that may be appropriate in various crises; and a collection of resources that complement the curriculum guide.

Resources for Prayer

As we mourn the lives lost and those lives changed forever by the terror in Florida, we pray for the victims and for the future of our country. Here are a few prayers (including transliteration) and poems to help us find the right words to speak to God about our grief.

Uv’faris’khem kapeikhem a'alim einei mikem gam ki tarbu t’filah eineni shomeah y’dei'chem damim malei’u
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with blood—

Rachatzu hizaku hasiru ro’ah ma'al’leikhem mineged einei chidlu hareah
Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil;

Limdu heitev.
Dirshu mishpat; ashru chamutz...
Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged...

Resources for Action

Please join us in taking action to prevent gun violence.

  • Take part in the Reform community’s efforts: Visit www.rac.org/gvp for resources from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, including action alerts, news updates, and the latest information about gun violence prevention through a Reform Jewish perspective.
  • Join the teen movement to prevent gun violence: NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement offers resources created by teens, for teens, on the topic of gun violence prevention. Visit www.nfty.org/gvp for individual action items for teens and adults, as well as ways your synagogue youth group can get involved in this vital work. Here, you can also sign up to stay informed of breaking news about NFTY's latest efforts to prevent gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shooting. 
  • Follow the work of our partners: To find additional ways to get involved and to learn more about gun violence prevention efforts nationwide, visit Everytown for Gun SafetyThe Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Metro-IAF's Do Not Stand Idly By Campaign.

We'll continue to update this post as additional resources become available. 

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How We Can Help our Littlest Learners in the Wake of Tragedy

As a Jewish preschool director just an hour north of Parkland, FL, my office has been a buzz of activity after 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. As a shooting survivor, I am intimately aware of the aftermath of a shooting. As a mother and early childhood professional, I am also in tune with the fears and responsibilities that hold the same place in our hearts after a tragedy like this occurs. In my years of working with children and families, and in studying the early childhood brain - especially as it responds to trauma - I have learned a number of things.

First, take a deep breath.

Before addressing the needs of our children, we must take check in with ourselves.  Remind yourself that you are safe. Remind yourself that your children are safe. Right now, unless you are in the inner circle of the tragedy, you are OK.

Doctors, educators, and other well-meaning people advise parents not to expose children to violence on the TV or elsewhere. But, the truth is, that’s impossible unless you are raising your child in a dark, soundproof bubble. Children are aware of the world around them. PBS Parents states that “at every age and stage children are affected by what’s happening in the news, whether parents share the information or shield them from it – because the news is everywhere.”  Children may not process the stimuli the same way as adults, but they can hear the TV in the restaurant, they see the photos on the front pages of the magazines in the check-out line at the grocery. They see the shock and the tears on the adult faces around them. Of course, reducing exposure to acts of violence is something we should all do, but even the children of the most vigilant parents will experience the ripple effect of tragedy. 

What can we do as parents?

Assure our children that they are safe. One of the most important things for healthy development is for children to feel safe and secure.  Point out the things we do every day to keep them safe. Narrate the things in your day that positively affect your child’s safety:

  • “You are buckled into your car seat.”
  • “Mommy is dropping you off in your classroom with Miss Rachel. She is going to take care of you today.” 
  • “You are holding Daddy’s hand while we cross the street. We are helping keep each other safe.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer advises parents to scale conversations about violence to a child’s age and maturity level. “Small children do not need long explanations about the social and psychological ramifications of gun violence erupting in our society.” It is often enough to explain to children that a scary thing happened and that there are many “helpers” who are helping the people who are sad. Providing toys and art materials for children to express their feelings is a good way for parents and caregivers to monitor a child’s processing of an event.  Continuing regular routines and schedules help maintain a sense of security and control over their environment.

I often remind the teachers in my preschool and the parents of our students that these little ones have been on this earth less than the fingers on one hand. It is our job to protect them, to love them, and to assure them that we are their helpers.

The sentences above are the last I wrote before...

I received a call on my cell. It was the assistant principal at my son’s middle school. The recorded call alerted parents that a student threatened to shoot up the school. The student wanted to be like the gunman in Parkland. The call assured parents that the student was in custody and that all students were safe. I left my computer, the article, my desk, my preschool and went to pick up my son.

He was scared. He didn't know if he wants to go to school the next day.

I share this because everything I write, I practice. In the middle of writing this piece, I had to put everything I profess into action. Just an hour ago, I sat with my 12-year-old son, listening to him explain how his PE coach said that he would keep his students safe, no matter what: “Coach said that he would shove us all in the equipment closet if he had to.” I assured my little boy that his coach would do everything he could to keep him safe.

I kissed him. I hugged him. “Baby,” I said, “There are some bad people in the world. And, that can be scary. But, there are more good people. I promise.”

Tammy Kaiser is an educational neuroscientist, preschool director, mother, and shooting survivor. Author of Diameter of the Bullet, Kaiser currently serves as the director of the early childhood learning center at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, FL. 

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My Chinese and Jewish Family Celebrates Three New Years

This time of year, my father is fond of reminding my family of how lucky we are to be Chinese and Jewish. “Three New Year celebrations means three chances for a fresh start!”

He’s right, of course. My family has always felt fortunate to be a part of two rich, longstanding traditions. We are proud of our history. We feel a strong sense of belonging to multiple communities. And we are grateful for the American context that enabled two separate traditions to integrate and form our family’s unique experience.

I am often asked what that experience entails. Because we are a biracial family, people often make assumptions about what our lives must be. Does being Chinese change the nature of being Jewish? Do we do something different on Rosh HaShanah because we are Chinese? Is Chinese New Year affected by our Jewishness? I wonder if people imagine us eating fortune cookies instead of hamantaschen on Purim!

For our family, that is not exactly how it works.

Our holiday celebrations, for instance, are rather typical. If you were to join my family for Rosh HaShanah, you would find a scene that includes a round challah, apples and honey, and kids practicing the shofar. If you were to join us for Chinese New Year, you would find us eating jai (a vegetarian dish of cellophane noodles, fungi, lotus root and ginkgo nuts, to name a few ingredients), handing out red envelopes, and maybe even lighting firecrackers.

The Jewish holidays are Jewish, and the Chinese holidays are Chinese. What may make us different from other Chinese or Jewish families is that we have both as a family heritage. Both celebrations include old family recipes and traditions, and both conjure cherished memories of the past. My family’s commemoration of individual holidays is not distinct; rather, it is the totality of holiday celebrations that is special.

However, you would find our traditions juxtaposed, if you came to a lifecycle event.

My siblings and I all had lion dancers at our b’nai mitzvah celebrations. We include red eggs and ginger in the meals that followed a baby naming or a bris. We have had a full Chinese banquet following a wedding under the chuppah.

A holiday celebration is about the holiday, thus, it is not appropriate to bring in rituals from one tradition to celebrate another. Lifecycle celebrations, though, are about us and about significant moments in our lives. It is important to bring in the symbols and rituals from both Chinese and Jewish tradition because they both represent who we are and how we see ourselves in the greater context of our peoples.

Ultimately, what makes my family unique is the same thing that makes every family unique: It is a blending of families and heritage and how we experience our relationship and belonging to it all. At one time in history, a marriage between a German Jew and a Polish Jew would have created a unique blend of cultural traditions. Interfaith families also foster a mix of traditions that come together in a unique way. All of these variations are normative in the Jewish community.

What does that look like in your life? What distinct traditions have come together to make you who you are? What is unique about your family’s experience? Every Jewish family has a unique and distinct story to tell. When I reflect on my family’s traditions and what makes us unique, I am grateful. As my father reminds us, we are, indeed, lucky for the rich and beautiful traditions we have been given.

Luck is a prominent theme of Chinese New Year. Through many symbols and practices, we wish luck for others and we hope for luck within our own lives. In Chinese tradition, it is a recognition that much of what we have is through no merit, fault or choice of our own, rather, it is simply what the universe presents to us. In a Jewish context, we use the word blessing to mean the same thing.

As my family now celebrates our third New Year celebration this year, we want to wish all of you a Happy Year of the Dog. May you enjoy prosperity, may you have good health, and may you experience luck and blessing all the days of your life. 

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When We Needed It Most, Our Jewish Community Stepped Up

 

I recently reconnected with my rabbi from Brooklyn. In the work I’ve been doing at the Union for Reform Judaism – working on the Presidential Disabilities Inclusion Initiative – I’ve been continually reminded of what a lifeline she was to me and my family after disability entered our lives, and how much of the work of inclusion doesn’t require money or equipment.

The day my son was diagnosed with autism at age 2½, we left the neurologist’s office and got back on the subway, intact and identical in every way to the family that had entered the train that morning, except that everything, of course, was different. V had a severe neurological disorder and I had a new job – one I wasn’t equipped to take on, but that I had no choice but to accept. 

Like anyone faced with unwelcome news about your health, the desire to crawl inside your grief and hide is overpowered by the urgency with which you must act.

With autism, the operative words are “intensive intervention.”  You must submerge your grief, working instead against time, trying to change the brain’s function as quickly and early as possible, while it has the greatest capacity to be altered. Your despair, intertwined with hope, all hinges on that one cellular miracle you likely had never even considered: neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new connections.

In my initial overwhelmed stage, I read about a mother in California who asked her church congregation for volunteers to spend an hour a week with her newly diagnosed son with autism.

I had some trepidation. At the time, I attended family services with my young children, but otherwise, I wasn’t that active in my congregation. In desperate need of community, though, it seemed a risk worth taking, so I asked our rabbi if she would be willing to write a letter to congregants to seek their help.

She agreed, and sent out a short, straightforward email explaining our situation:

“The younger son of one of our members has been diagnosed with autism; they are trying to adhere to early intervention while also tending to another child, jobs, daily life. Can anyone help? They are asking one hour a week.”

In the weeks that followed, the calls and emails trickled in from people we knew and complete strangers, ranging in age from 11 to 70. About 15 people – significant for a small congregation – offered help, as did some of our neighbors.

The volunteers included a retired teacher and a few teens with babysitting experience, but no one had training. There was no special equipment, although someone brought a guitar, and one woman brought her yoga mat. A teenage girl came and took our son on a long walk. A couple of labor lawyers who kept rabbits behind their brownstone brought V to play with them. A young mother put her own baby in the care of a neighbor to spend an hour reading him the same stories her daughter enjoyed.

It was improvised and hit or miss. Sometimes V connected, and other times he just stared into space. But it built a community that came to know and love my son – a community that cared about us, that saw our home at its messiest and me at my lowest.

When the original volunteers explained what had happened and shared our circumstances (sparing me the ordeal of having to repeat the story over and over), they talked about our son in terms that were warm and loving. Soon, the connections grew beyond the volunteers to include other congregants and neighbors. They embraced my older son as a child as much in need of attention as his brother. And when we went to family services and monthly potlucks, fellow congregants started to take turns with V, without being asked or seeming to mind. In fact, they enjoyed their time with him, freeing me to eat, talk with friends, and relax – to feel as cared for as my son.

Of course, there were things they couldn’t help with: the guilt-ridden days and sleepless nights, the bureaucratic entanglements and calls to service providers, the grueling negotiations with our health insurance company, and the search for good therapists, as well as the drain on our savings, and the strain on our jobs and relationships that are common to caregivers of children who need extensive supports.

Still, the community they helped create fortified me to deal with the stress that remained when no one was around.

I wanted to tell my rabbi about how wonderful my sons are, that the little boys she remembers both tower over me. V turns 17 next week, and my older son is a 19-year-old college sophomore who plans to major in social work. I wanted to share, too, that the ad hoc, much-needed community she created for us is far more rare than I ever could have imagined and thus, I am all the more grateful to her and to the people who stepped forward at a time when my family and I truly needed the support they made possible.  

URJ Kutz Camp offers Gibush, a unique camp program for teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With motivated high school students as peer-engagers, Gibush campers participate fully in the Jewish camp experience in a safe and nurturing environment that fosters positive self-esteem and social skill development.

This February marks the 10thJewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

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The Family Secret That Made Me a Proponent for Choice

After my mother died, I wondered if she had ever visited her mother’s grave in Maine, where she grew up. It seems strange now that I did not know the answer. After all, visiting the graves of family members is a Jewish tradition, part of the routine of honoring the dead. But, then again, my mother’s mother’s death was not routine.

My grandmother died in 1921 from an illegal abortion. She had four little girls, the youngest of whom was 15 months old and the next youngest, my mother, was about to turn three. I assume that she just couldn’t go through another pregnancy, but I don’t really know. This was not a back-alley abortion. My grandfather took her to a doctor, and she was given the plant Citrrullus colocynthis to induce an abortion. But the dosage was wrong; she took too much.

Her death, never mind the fact that she had died from an abortion, was the deepest of secrets in my family. Her very existence was denied. My mother told me much later that my grandfather had a nervous breakdown after her mother died. But he quickly got remarried – to a woman who was not happy about taking care of four children. I knew none of this during my childhood.

It seems that my mother’s only connection to Judaism as a child stemmed from the fact that her grandfather, her mother’s father, taught his four granddaughters to read Hebrew. Maybe that was his way of connecting with his daughter. My step-grandmother had a Christmas tree.

My oldest brother figured out that my mother’s “real mother,” as she was called when we learned about her, was deceased. He counted the yahrzeit candles on Yom Kippur. As far as we knew, only one grandparent, my father’s father, had died, but there were two yahrzeit candles. When he asked about it, my mother told him the truth, but he never told me.

The secret was revealed after my bat mitzvah. I grew up in a Conservative congregation – Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA – and starting in the late 1950s girls could have a bat mitzvah. It wasn’t like a boy’s bar mitzvah. I didn’t read from the Torah. I read the Haftarah on a Friday night. My grandfather died at age 76, on my birthday, three days before my bat mitzvah. It was not sudden, but my mother had hoped he would not die that week. My mother did her best to normalize the event. I remember not wanting her to wear black. My mother was a classy lady. She wore a black dress with a blue stripe down the left side. And she asked people to come back to our house to celebrate with us.

Shortly after, my mother became hysterical – crying and yelling, seemingly out of the blue. That is when I learned about Ethel, my mother’s real mother. That is when I learned of her death, though there was no occasion to mourn. My mother had kept her feelings inside because she needed her stepmother to continue to care for her father. And then there was an explosion.

My mother was, as Hope Edelman termed it in her book, a “motherless daughter.” Edelman wrote: “When a mother dies, a daughter’s mourning never completely ends.” Yet, my mother was never able to openly grieve when she was a child. She had a miserable childhood and struggled with this loss throughout her life. Edelman also writes: “Without a mother or mother-figure to guide her, a daughter also has to piece together a female self-image of her own.” And she did. My mother was smart, stylish, funny, and a phenomenal hostess. My father came from a religious background, and she hosted all Jewish holiday dinners. She made a life for herself and all of us. And we never knew how much she suffered from the loss of her mother.

A few years ago, my husband Eric and I were going to Maine on vacation. I thought that we should see if we could find my grandmother’s grave. It was surprisingly easy. There is a website called Documenting Maine Jewry and it had her family listed, including the cemetery and exact location of Ethel Cortell’s grave. We went and there it was. Standing all alone. No graves next to it. The headstone said she was 34 years old when she died. So young. So alone. And no reference to her being a wife and mother.

It finally was time for me to mourn my grandmother. For me to become a strong proponent of choice. To march in Washington in support of abortion rights for women. To become an activist on behalf of my mother and her siblings. To stand up for Ethel S. Cortell. May her memory be for a blessing.

Monday, January 22, marks the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.

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My Cough, My Kippah, and a New Jew

The man sitting next to me on the flight from Frankfurt to Boston had a cough. That’s how this story begins. I remember thinking that this might be bad for me.

Or maybe it began when I was asked to help create a poetic Maariv (evening) service for the URJ Biennial 2017. After all, attending Biennial was the reason I was on that flight in the first place.

My Biennial experience was a whirlwind of friends and music, learning and networking, intense keynotes and intimate conversations, three meet-the-author book signings at the CCAR Press booth, and shopping in the exhibit hall. When it was over, whatever my Lufthansa seatmate transmitted was firmly entrenched in my lungs. I left Biennial with a whopper of a cough.

After two miserably sick days at a friend’s home in Newton Center, MA, I surrendered to the need for some medical assistance and made an appointment at a local urgent care center.

The visit was routine – intake form, vital signs by one professional, a medical interview and exam by another – until I took off my hat on my way to the diagnostic table. Something shifted in the urgent care nurse when she saw my kippah (yarmulke).

After she completed the diagnosis and we discussed a treatment plan, she hesitated for just an instant. She had something to say. She was debating saying it.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I nodded.

“How do you convert to Judaism?”

I was dumbfounded. The only response I could come up with: “Tell me more…”

“My daughter wants to convert to Judaism. She's not Christian. She's Jewish,” the mom said. “That’s been clear since she was 4 years old.” Her daughter is now 15. “She’s gone to all the bar mitzvahs. She loves it. She loves the music.”

Every one of the b’nai mitzvah her daughter attended was at the same congregation. So, there in the medical office, I Googled it. No surprise: It was a Reform congregation. Where else would be so naturally inclusive that a young woman of color could find her essential Jewish soul?

“We both support her, her dad and me,” the woman said. I was struck not just by the selflessness of the parents, but their joy for their daughter. “What should we do?”

“Call the rabbis. Tell them this story. She’s a minor, so I really don’t know what the rabbi will do, but if you make it clear that you support your daughter, the rabbis will find a way to support your entire family.”

Our Reform tent is huge. Big enough to welcome anyone who wants to cast their lot with this people.

“You’ll call the rabbi?” I asked at the end of the appointment.

“Yes. For my daughter.”

As I left, I was reminded of what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said at the Biennial:

We aren’t escorting Jews to the doors of assimilation. Reform Judaism isn’t a stepping stone to their disappearance. No. We’re inviting people in. To dwell with us. To be with us. Welcoming all. And if they hear the call, to become one with us.

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How (and Why) I Let Go of Christmas

Like most people, my teenage years were a time of finding my own identity and questioning my childhood assumptions and values. Included in my rebellion was the most cherished of all memories: Christmas. To my view, the music was cheesy, the gift-giving was shallow and materialistic, the decorations were tacky, and I was never on board with the story of the virgin birth.

It was all a charade.

I loved the smell of the Christmas tree, the beautiful ornaments we hung every year with Handel’s Messiah playing in the background, the homemade cookies we ate on Christmas Eve while drinking eggnog out of special blue glasses that we only used once a year, the thrill of a full stocking on Christmas morning, singing Christmas carols at Mass, and celebrating a baby born to give hope to the world.

Like Charlie Brown, I feared that it was becoming too commercialized, and the hype could be downright depressing, but hating Christmas was my way of not loving it too much.

Then I married a Jewish man and agreed to raise our children as Jews.

Of course, my husband, along with millions and billions of other people, doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but I never thought that my children wouldn’t celebrate it. How would I explain that Santa visits their cousins, but not them? What about all the ornaments and Christmas cookie recipes I had planned to hand down? Did I have to stop liking Handel’s Messiah? With baby boys of my own, I now felt the poignancy of the nativity story of a child in a manger sent to solve all of our problems.

My husband was very wise and never laid down any rules such as, “We’ll have a Christmas tree in this house over my dead body.” He just shrugged and told me to do whatever I wanted.

Baking cookies was definitely OK, no matter the occasion. In our modest Los Angeles apartment, though, we didn’t have room for a Christmas tree, and I had no desire to fight traffic and stand in line with a wailing toddler to see Santa Claus.

Of course, we were celebrating Hanukkah, too, and as a new mom, I found that I had neither the time nor energy to “do” both holidays well.

The more I learned about Hanukkah, the more I appreciated the plucky narrative of a people who refused to assimilate with the prevailing culture. We encountered choices, too, as our sons entered preschool, and December heralded a parade of Christmas-themed crafts and parties, and adorable renditions of “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad.”

Then I remembered another aspect of my upbringing that I never imagined would be different for my children.

I grew up in New England and the Midwest, so winter meant snow, and lots of it. One of my earliest memories is of the Blizzard of 1978, seeing snowdrifts over the top of our windowsills. Snow days, snow angels, snowball fights, sledding, and shoveling were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. The first time my two California boys saw snow – in a carefully planned outing to the mountains with borrowed boots and secondhand mittens – they were perplexed.

“What do we do with it?” they asked. My younger son, who was 3 at the time, found a patch of grass where the snow had already melted and refused to budge from it. But we live in Southern California, and although I occasionally long for the unexpected gift of a peaceful snow day, there is no guilt about it. I can share my memories, but I simply can’t recreate that experience for my children.

That analogy was instrumental in sorting out my feelings about Christmas and letting go of my childhood expectations.

We are a Jewish family, and despite its prominence in our American culture, Christmas is as foreign to my kids as snow in Beverly Hills. My boys don’t need to sit in Santa's lap to ask for presents – and they’re already jealous of every gift another child receives, no matter who gave it or why. (We’re working on that.)

On the other hand, it’s OK for me to enjoy the giant Christmas tree in my office lobby every year and to hum along with Handel’s Messiah and the Nutcracker. In fact, I enjoy these things even more because I no longer have the stress of sending Christmas cards and gifts to everyone I know.

And as a Jewish mom, I appreciate the sense of hope that Christmas brings as a reminder of the universal hope that maybe, just maybe, our sons and daughters can be the ones to repair the world.

Susan Brownstein and her family are members of Temple Sinai of Glendale in Glendale, CA.

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The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law

Sometimes we create our own traditions, sometimes we carry on a tradition we inherit, and sometimes a tradition can come from unexpected places.

Ours began with a cut-crystal dreidel. My mother-in-law, Sue, gave it to me the first time I went home with my then-boyfriend for their family Christmas. My Jewish upbringing didn’t include holiday decor of any sort, beyond lighting the Menorah or weekly Shabbat candles. Our traditions comprised mainly of food, presents, food, family, observance, and food. Mmmmmmm fooooooood. I received the crystal driedel in the spirit intended; a loving and thoughtful gesture, as well as a recognition of my heritage.

I had no idea in 1996 that what Sue actually handed me was a family tradition, especially because in 1996, I did not yet know we would become family. I suspect Sue had an inkling.

Despite our best intentions, not all of our traditions take hold. On Tuesday night – the first night of Hanukkah – we unwrapped each driedel. Our display numbers 19 and counting, one for each year of our union. As we marveled over the artistry of each one, I told my 11-year-old that someday, when he and his brother live in their own spaces, they could divide up the collection. Of course, he began staking his claim immediately, arguing about who would get first pick.

I don’t tend to brag about my children’s developmental milestones, but this one seems advanced in arguing with siblings over heirlooms. May it serve him well.

My favorite part about our dreidel collection is that it comes from the Christian side of our family, and that Sue (aka “Grandma”) takes time every year looking in galleries and museum shops to find yet another unique Hanukkah gem to add to our collection.

From the inside of a culture, it’s easy to take it for granted. Sue has not only given us a new tradition, but has helped us elevate the Hanukkah spirit in our home.

This year, Grandma gave each boy a dreidel fidget-spinner.

Thank you, Grandma.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Lamps Within: A Meditation for Hanukkah

This meditation for Hanukkah focuses on bringing the light we carry inside ourselves into the world and lighting the lamps of awe and wonder in our children. My friend Rabbi Karol wrote this beautiful melody for this prayer.

Lamps Within

A lamp glows inside your heart,
With eight ways to light it,
Eight ways to keep it shining,
Eight ways to keep its glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with this song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with this prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

Bring the lamp of your soul out into the street
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles around us
Will remember the beauty within,
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles of old
Will remember to rejoice.

A lamp glows inside your children.
Keep it shining.
Watch it glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day

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Who Should Teach About Hanukkah and What Should They Be Teaching?

As one of a pair of Jewish kids in my rural Maine elementary school class, I was conscripted each winter to teach my classmates about Hanukkah. I'd dutifully bring in my wax-encrusted brass menorah, a few wooden dreidels, and a bag of foil-covered chocolate gelt to sweeten my description of those plucky Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.

While my teachers’ intent to share cultures outside of the Protestant norm was pure, the annual presentation only set me farther apart from my classmates. Sometimes it opened the door to actual bullying, as when classmates drew swastikas on their notebooks and showed them to me, feigning innocence.

As a rural Maine public school teacher myself, colleagues occasionally ask me to bring the brass menorah and illustrated story of Hanukkah to their classrooms to share, once again, my non-normative winter holiday. But now that my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is in a preschool program, I've come to realize that hearing about cultural and religious practices directly from the practitioners serves only to emphasize our otherness.

This past year, my daughter’s wonderful teachers, neither of whom is Jewish, took it upon themselves to research Purim and Rosh HaShanah. They planned simple, secular activities to acknowledge the holiday, just as they do with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother's Day. The toddlers donned costumes and had a parade for Purim, and they did an art project with apple ink stamps and ate apples dipped in honey for Rosh HaShanah. Just as my child attends our town tree lighting, her peers were now participating in a version of Jewish celebrations normalized through her teachers’ good practices.

Should non-Jewish teachers decide to incorporate Hanukkah into their curriculum, rather than put the onus on Jewish students, the most important consideration is that while Hanukkah and Christmas often coincide on the calendar, Hanukkah is in no way a Jewish analog to Christmas (it predates it by two hundred years, after all!). I'd also want mention made of the institutionalized suppression of religious practices that the Jews endured under Antiochus, and the fact that millions worldwide face the same marginalization and fear today. I would want teachers to explain that while many families give and receive presents for Hanukkah, the lights, which symbolize hope and tenacity, are, as they say, the "reason for the season." Latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), dreidel, and gelt are all examples of fun and secular ways students can experience a little of the holiday spirit, the way I do at tree lightings, carol sings, and my school's annual reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Make no mistake, incorporating the holidays celebrated by non-mainstream Protestants into the classroom still stirs up plenty of controversy. Not all parents are thrilled to have their kids listening to Purim songs or wishing one another a sweet new year in September.

No decisions have been made about future holidays at my daughter’s school, and the kids will be on vacation for both Hanukkah and Christmas this year, but I very much hope her teachers will be allowed to bring out some matzah for Passover, dates and milk for Ramadan, and maybe next winter some latkes for Hanukkah.

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Teach Kids about Taking a Knee – Plus a Head, Shoulders, and Toes

I’m willing to bet that this catchy song has stuck with you since childhood:

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes,
Knees and toes
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes,
Knees and toes
And eyes and ears and mouth and nose
Head, shoulders, knees, and toes

For this well-known ditty, youngsters point to the body parts as they sing them – in some renditions, faster with every round – and, sure enough, they happily get the knack of key parts of the anatomy, including knees, at a tender age.

Today’s troubled world, however, demands that we go further. We must not stop at educating our children about how a body is built; we must show them, on the most age-appropriate level, how a democracy is built.

One of the controversies that continues to command headlines in our democracy is the story of taking one such body part – a knee – at ballgames. Football player Colin Kaepernick and others have conscientiously taken a knee during the singing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustices across the United States. In response, we have witnessed a swirl of distracting, divisive, and disheartening rants against their protests.

In the face of regrettable stunts attacking those who engage in peaceful protests, this is the imperative for those rearing the next generation: We must prepare our children to provide thoughtful leadership when they grow up.

For a few ideas on how to go beyond body parts to the body politic during the formative years, let’s stretch our creativity a bit to mine “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” for some metaphorical nuggets. When preschoolers sing the notes to this classic jingle, parents can leap past the literal meaning to contemplate these notes:

Head

Teach children to use their heads to learn all they can about our world and to be wary of anyone who, for selfish purposes, boils complex societal problems down to simplistic divides.

Next up: Head to the library for children’s books on civics and kind acts. You will find a treasure trove at both your public library and your temple library.

Shoulders

Help kids decide on whose shoulders they want to stand. Tell them that awesome examples preceded them both yesterday and a long time ago to oppose inequality, discrimination, and oppression – and say that, likewise, they can become tomorrow’s champions.

Don’t forget: Commemorate holidays such as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day so that your children can stand on the shoulders of civic giants who came before them. Make sure also to take your kids to a Passover seder, where they will hear the Biblical story of the quintessential Jewish journey from slavery to freedom. 

Knees

Tell children that knees are powerful body parts that some football players and many others use, not because they disrespect American symbols, but because they object to societal ills – one of many peaceful approaches that make America grand.

Have fun: Watch a game with your kids in which you proudly point out the star-spangled flag and majestic national anthem, explaining that some patriots honor our country by going out on a limb to challenge us to be better.

Toes

Equip children to be on their toes to stand up for what’s right, particularly in the face of toxic speech and deceptive actions aimed at tearing our democratic ideals apart.

Idea: March your kids into the voting booth with you to see democracy in action. Tell them that Jews, who have not always had the right to vote, cherish this right for all Americans.

Eyes

Inspire young ones to see the beauty in community service.

To-do list: Quoting the haggadah’s call to action to “let all who are hungry come and eat,” take your kids to a soup kitchen to serve food and to open their young eyes to the meaning of mitzvot. Tell your children that their good deeds go to the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew, for we are passionate about tikkun olam, repair of the world.

Ears

Guide children not to let the sounds of suffering and sorrow around them fall on deaf ears.   

Hear this: Play Kol B’Seder’s version or other musical versions of the Eilu D’varim, and let your young ones know that it is our obligation to perform acts of loving kindness. Then, ask your kids to pick out clothes and toys from their closets to share with those less fortunate.

Mouth

Stir young people to speak out for protection of the earth and its inhabitants.

Add to shopping list: Plant seeds with your children to show them how gardens grow, and give them a watering can to nurture new sprouts. Learn with them about Arbor Day, as well as the Jewish holiday of Tu BiSh’vat. Like flowers budding in the garden and trees spreading their branches, your children will blossom when they raise their sunny voices for worthy causes.

Nose

Encourage the young to smell the roses when they can and smell a rat when it’s necessary.      

Reminder: In your daily actions, set an ethical example of compassion, hope, and truth with your words and deeds, and do not fall for the foul politics of prejudice, fear, and distortion. Participate in the life of both your congregation and the broader community in ways that engage and uplift you and your family, and surely you will fall on the very right side of this increasingly sharp line.

To play on kinder, the Yiddish word for children: May we raise our kinder to be kinder. Whether children stand tall on their tippy-toes to lend a hand or do so on bended knee, it is never too early to teach them how to use their gifts for good.

Let’s raise our kids to repair our world one head, one shoulder, one knee, and one step at a time. 

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Is Halloween Right for Your Jewish Family?

Do Jews celebrate Halloween?

Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Reform Jews seem to be particularly divided on the subject of celebrating the spooky, now-mostly-secular holiday of Halloween. In “Tricks, Treats, and Tradition: Being an American Jew on Halloween,” Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr shares some of the holiday’s known origins and explains what makes her uncomfortable about the holiday – namely the “tricks” element of trick-or-treating (through she writes that, ultimately, she does allow her children to celebrate Halloween, albeit in an understated way).

So what’s the norm among American Jewry? Well, first of all, let’s get something important out of the way. People often ask, “Is Purim akin to a Jewish Halloween?” Rabbi Victor Appell is here to answer the question (spoiler alert: The answer is no) and explain why.

For additional perspectives on celebrating Halloween – or not – check out some of these essays:

  • Howard Lev, who learned upon joining his synagogue’s religious education committee that some Jews don’t celebrate Halloween, says his family still celebrates the holiday. He writes, “As Reform Jews, we live in a secular world, and while we may not agree in principal with the backstory of Halloween, sometimes, in my opinion, we have to adapt.”
  • In “Why My Jewish Family Celebrates Halloween,” Jonathan Theodore, a father and president of his synagogue’s brotherhood, writes, “Celebrating Halloween is not the least bit contradictory for my family or me. In fact, the opposite is true.”
  • In “Halloween Hospitality, and Jewish Values,” Rabbi Ruth Adar explains why she passes out candy to neighborhood children, even though she doesn’t observe the Halloween holiday herself. She says, “This isn’t my holiday, but I can practice Jewish hospitality in the midst of it.”

Rabbi Adar isn’t the only one who’s written about bringing Jewish values into Halloween. Want to try the same within your own family? Rabbi David Vaisberg shares three ways to do so, writing, “[We shouldn’t] check our Jewishness at the door. Rather, we have the opportunity to bring Jewish values to heart for that festival evening.”

In the same vein, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, a mother of four, shares her family’s tips for a simple celebration, writing, “In an effort to add some Jewish values to the day and not let it overwhelm my family, here's my recipe for a low-key Halloween.”

To help your family make an informed decision inspired by Jewish values, check out “Halloween: A Jewish Perspective for Parents” for a quick rundown of the inherent messages of Halloween and what types of celebrations (or lack thereof) might be best for you.

How does your family celebrate Halloween – or not? If you celebrate, do you work Jewish values into your observance? We’d love to hear about it! 

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4 Ways to Spread Kindness this Sukkot

The messages of Sukkot are about welcoming and about recognizing our vulnerability in the face of the natural world.

This year, we’ve seen too many instances of people being displaced from their homes by hurricanes and earthquakes, and we’ve also seen many examples of individuals and communities welcoming those people after these disasters.

But these communities still need our help, and even beyond this year, we know there will always be people who do not have shelter, food, or other basic needs. In that spirit, here are a couple of ideas you can do with your kids using items you probably already have at home.

  1. Have a bake sale or other fundraiser to raise money for an organization that helps victims of hurricanes or other disasters.
  2. Make cards for synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish organizations affected by these disasters. They appreciate the messages of hope and friendship. Use Google or this blog post from the Union for Reform Judaism to find lists of congregations in the affected areas.
  3. Go local. Homelessness and lack of food and shelter are, unfortunately, not just problems brought on by hurricanes. Sukkot is a great time to make food and deliver it to a shelter or to support an organization in your area that helps people get back on their feet.
  4. Invite someone over for dinner or even a snack. A little bit of welcome, even if you don’t have a sukkah, can go a long way toward building and strengthening bonds in your community and beyond.

For more ideas, check out our Sukkot and Simchat Torah Social Action Guide and 5 Sukkot Actitivties You Can Do with What You Have at Home. Then tell us: How will you help make the world a better place this Sukkot? 

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Jewish Resources for Coping with the Las Vegas Shootings

At least 58 people are dead in the wake of the worst mass shooting in modern American history. Again and in ever more terrifying ways, gun violence has shaken the United States to its core. We mourn. We come together. We offer words of condolence in an attempt to somehow address the compounding and boundless scope of grief and the scale of innocent human lives lost.

But, writes Daryl Messinger, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, “[Each] time, the country goes back to business as usual. As the body count grows, with new scenes of senseless slaughter, nothing changes. Thoughts, prayer, and words are appropriate – but they’re not sufficient.”

As Reform Jews, our task is to challenge America's conscience and to heed the biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. Here, we offer words, prayers, and concrete ways to take action to prevent gun violence.

Resources for Parents

We offer a number of resources to guide parents in speaking to their children about tragedy, especially those based in man-made violence. The following may help both children and parents to process these unthinkable occurrences:

  • “Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism”: After acts of violence, children may have both practical and theological questions, such as: How can we be protected from terrorism? Where is God? Why would God allow such things to happen? Rabbi Edythe Mencher, also a clinical social worker, wrote this in-depth guide for talking to children of varying ages about acts of terrorism and violence.
  • “Parenting Thoughts: Helping Children Cope with Tragedy”: Margie Bogdanow, a parent and Jewish educator in the Boston area, wrote this in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2012. She offers four tips for parents to address tragedies with their children – and to take time to process it themselves, too.
  • “Talking to Children about Death”: Rabbi Mencher also penned this Jewish perspective on 10 common questions parents ask when helping children to better deal with death, grief, and mourning.

Resources for Prayer

As we mourn the lives lost and those lives changed forever by the terror wrought in Las Vegas, we pray for the victims and for the future of our country. Here are a few prayers (including transliteration) and poems to help us find the right words to speak to God about our grief.

Resources for Action

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – here are a few ways to take action. In response to the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said,

“We cannot say that there are ‘no words’ to express our grief and our outrage. We must find the words, and we must not stop saying them and acting on them until we stop this plague of gun violence that has gripped our nation for far too long.”

Please join us in taking action to prevent gun violence.

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A New Beginning and a Chance to Become Our Better Selves

I was born about half a century ago on the morning after Yom Kippur. Apparently, I made my appearance more than two weeks early and may have been prompted by my mother’s repeated standing and sitting during lengthy prayer services, running after two toddlers, and fasting – against her doctor’s orders.

Fast forward a generation. When I was pregnant with my middle child, my doctor sternly cautioned against fasting on Yom Kippur. A Catholic, the obstetrician knew nonetheless that the Jewish Day of Atonement and the day that followed were notoriously busy in her practice as many babies made early entrances after their moms had deprived themselves of food and water. Ultimately, my son arrived halfway between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Although the timing was inconvenient for my congregation’s senior rabbi, it’s been easy to remember my son’s birthday on the Hebrew calendar.

A 2014 Israeli study published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine found that Jews had twice as many preterm deliveries during Yom Kippur as non-Jews. Professor Eyal Sheiner, who led the study, attributes the Yom Kippur spike in labor and delivery to a variety of chemical and hormonal changes connected to fasting. While this fact may prove interesting to some, the post-Yom Kippur burst of new life strikes me as deeply symbolic.

The High Holidays teem with imagery of birth and beginnings. According to the machzor (High Holiday prayer book), Rosh HaShanah is “ha-rat olam,” typically translated as “the birthday of the world.” A more literal Hebrew translation of the phrase, however, indicates that our new year is actually the day of the world’s conception or pregnancy. If Rosh Hashanah is the day of the world’s conception, then perhaps Yom Kippur is the true day of the world’s and our own birth and rebirth.

References to babies and children appear throughout the High Holiday liturgy, especially in the Rosh HaShanah Haftarah reading from the Prophets, in which Hannah, a pious woman desperate to become pregnant in the 10th century B.C.E., prays to God for a child, ultimately giving birth to the prophet Samuel. We blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, not only calling to mind the ram in the story of the binding of Isaac, but also reminding us of the cries of a mother in labor, aligning with ancient rabbis’ explanations that shofar blasts are meant to arouse God’s parental compassion toward us. Regarding parental compassion, I am sure I am not the only mother who, during the breastfeeding years, was startled to learn during High Holiday services that shofar blasts can elicit lactation, a visceral and physical response not unlike that triggered by a wailing, hungry infant.

Throughout the 10 days of repentance and especially on Yom Kippur, we struggle with ourselves, shedding our flaws and the parts of our spirit that detract from our holiness and giving birth to our new selves for the year ahead. As a complement to this ending and rebirth, some traditional Jews wear a kittel, a white robe that both serves as a burial garment and, in its whiteness, symbolizes purity. Similarly, even as we are reborn on Yom Kippur, we remember and honor, during Yizkor (memorial services), those we have loved who have left the world of flesh and blood.

By the time the extinguished Havdalah candle signals the close of this holiest of days, separating the sacred from the everyday, we, too, have separated from our flawed selves, born anew into the people we believe we can grow to be.

As we turn to one another in the new year, let us learn to see the tender, newborn spirits within our hearts. May we share a year of blessing and comfort, a year of goodness and kindness, a year of pardon and favor, a year of wholeness and peace. Happy birthday to us all.

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On Chocolate and Children: High Holiday Reflections

Our daughter-in-law gave birth to a son, our first grandchild. A couple of months later, On the Chocolate Trail was published, my first book. Each whispers of mortality and immortality. At this High Holiday season of remembrance, I muse about this confluence of baby and book. I am not surprised by the feelings of awe related to the birth, but I have been amazed by what the book has meant.

The book idea found me serendipitously. At 55. On the Chocolate Trail was published seven years later. I had mooned over book possibilities – good ideas and not so, off and on. But there had been no time, much less energy in the years of marriage to a rabbi, of raising children, and of work as the senior rabbi in an active congregation. However, my self-diagnosed, mid-life radar for chocolate experiences, what I call my choco-dar, tantalized me with yet another idea at a life stage when I could harness time to research and write. In Paris, my adventuresome husband and I chanced into a chocolate store where I happened to pick up the company literature. Luckily, I could read it with what I had retained of my high school French. It boasted that Jews brought chocolate making to France.

Ooo, la, la.

I had never heard this fact during my years of Jewish education – Sunday school, Hebrew school, Jewish studies classes at college, rabbinical seminary – nor in all of my preparation for adult teaching in some 30 years of congregational work. That encounter launched us on the chocolate trail, two rabbis exploring chocolate’s travels through the world. I unpacked chocolate’s connections to religions, yielding tasty, historical findings such as these: North American Jewish colonial merchants traded chocolate, and chocolate outed Jews during the Inquisition in New Spain.

One of the oldest of comfort foods, chocolate supported Mayans, Aztecs, Jews, Catholics, and Quakers during personal and societal disruptions. Chocolate, and my investigations into it – and yes, eating it – nourished me as I transitioned through career and retirement identity shifts. My anguish of uncertainty about the next stage, what transition expert William Bridges calls the “neutral zone,” turned out to be, as he advised, abundant with creativity and risks. How do I develop these themes? Will anyone care? How will I know when the book is finished? Feeding word after word into my laptop was sometimes akin to a chocoholic stupor, yet also energizing as I measured the information, separated the chapters, stirred ideas, and molded phrases. Chocolate adventure and discovery expanded my palate metaphorically and literally.

Shaping On the Chocolate Trail mixed together ingredients from my earlier clergy life – learning, reading, traveling, writing, teaching, and religion. Molding a book proposal and a manuscript at a career threshold certainly melted my earlier skills into new purposes. What now feels like a life capstone venture, On the Chocolate Trail served up a sweet spot for audiences, regardless of members’ preferences: chocolate but not history, history but not travel, travel but not religion, or Jews and not food. (Is that last one even possible?) Or any of it. Really, what’s not to like?

Now I travel the world on the chocolate trail, sharing stories of the age-old passions for chocolate and religion with a growing sense of myself as the author of the first-ever book about chocolate and Jews. I giggle when someone introduces me as the world’s leading expert on chocolate and religion. I schedule my presentations, set my own timetable, and work at my personal pace. I carry my chocolate brown autographing pen with me everywhere. I blog. I post on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Others certainly helped shape On the Chocolate Trail with tips, clues, and edits. Yet the book is mine, my voice, and my material. And, it renewed me. It turns out that I am as resilient as chocolate’s history has been.

Sometimes people sidle up to me at an event and say, “Do you remember me? Do you remember me?” Perhaps I was the rabbi at his son’s naming; maybe I officiated at her granddaughter’s wedding; or, I was their confirmation teacher. I do remember. I enjoy meeting folks from the past. I realize that I too wish to be remembered.

As I reach for a piece of chocolate, I savor the harvest of this book of these later decades. I look forward to the chocolate trails yet to be discovered and to sharing them – and more – with my now four grandsons.

More importantly, as I consider the multiple legacies of being a rabbi, of authoring a book, of parenting, and of grandparenting, I hope, too, that surprise, risk-taking, and opportunity will also be sources for their generativity.

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Returning to the People – and the Parents – We Want to Be

We live on the third floor, and have a little balcony. When Yonatan, my oldest, was 4, he took to throwing things – toys, pillows, books – off the balcony. It really wasn’t OK, and he knew it. He also knew that if he threw toys, he wouldn’t see them again for a while, and that there was likely to be some other consequence, to boot. But a 4-year-old’s impulse control is not so hot and he was testing boundaries.

One morning, I asked him to share the toy he was holding with his little brother, so he ran halfway across the apartment to throw it off the balcony. It was a clear eff-you: If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. It was the last straw of a frustrating morning, and I shouted at him, really screamed, as I put him in a time out.

There are a lot of reasons I don’t want to raise my children in a home with yelling. I have a pretty firm commitment to raising them to feel loved, safe, and unafraid in their own home, and a screaming adult is terrifying to a small person. So, to have slipped in a way that’s human and understandable but still, well, really not great – it’s a terrible feeling. That was one morning (not the first, not the last) when I failed my son and I failed myself.

Every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis start talking about the work of the season, t’shuvah. T’shuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but it literally means “return.” It’s about coming back to where you need to be – emotionally, spiritually, ethically, interpersonally – and repairing any damage you’ve done in your relationships with others, and perhaps with God, when your actions strayed from your ideals. There are several steps to making t’shuvah. You have to acknowledge what you did wrong (whether or not it was intentional). You have to take actions to correct the mistake, if that’s possible. If it was an interpersonal hurt, you have to apologize to the wronged person – up to three times, if they refuse you at first. You have to make amends, if that’s possible. And you have to invest some time working out how things can be different next time. After all that, then you can work on making things square between you and the Divine.       

The classical literature on t’shuvah talks about cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul that happens as part of this process. That is, you should spend some uncomfortable time figuring out exactly how and when you failed to be the person you want to be. Essentially, you can’t return – make t’shuvah – until you have some real understanding about where you’ve gone; you can’t make amends until you’re clear about how you’ve messed up.

Lucky for us parents, we are offered ample opportunities to see our failings. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to how we are with our children for a couple of hours – a week max – and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? When are we pretending to be engaged but are checked out (or checking our phones)? When are we manipulative or deceitful with our kids, even with little things that ostensibly “don’t matter?” When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect about who we are and how we behave is necessarily comfortable or fun to see.

The good news is that if we can untangle the places where we’re stuck and broken as parents, it can impact our entire lives in a powerful way. Our relationships with our kids offer an easy-access on-ramp to all our laziness, pettiness, and unresolved stuff, if we’re willing to look.

The medieval sage Maimonides defines perfect t’shuvah as that moment when you come to a situation in which you had previously acted badly and, this time, do it right. The second (or fifth, or 20th) time around, when you finally behave concordantly with your values and ideals? That’s t’shuvah. But a person might reasonably ask: How could it be that you might be back in the exact same situation as the one in which you had previously screwed up? Who gets an instant replay like that?

The truth is, if you haven’t faced down your problematic traits and unhealed wounds, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in some variation of the same situation over and over. It’s only when you do the work necessary to become a different person that you, naturally and organically, make a different choice.

Fortunately, kids continue – over and over and over – to offer us the chance to try again, to do better. The intensity of these bonds is indeed an enclosed spiritual space in which to do the work we need to do. It’s tricky, sometimes, and inelegant, but if we choose to face who we are with intention and humility, there’s the possibility for us to grow into the people that our children so desperately need us to be.

For more about Jewish parenting, visit this page.

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Creating New Rituals and Tradition for the School Year and the New Year

The long, sweet days of summer are drawing to a close, and September is right around the corner. As a parent, an educator, and a Jew, September has always indicated two significant events; the start to a new school year, and the start to a new Jewish year, Rosh HaShanah.

For me, each of these new beginnings has always been met with a great deal of tradition and ritual.

I remember so clearly, as a child, going shopping for brand new school supplies, purchasing just the right folders, notebooks, pens, and pencils. I would carefully select a first-day outfit and barely sleep a wink the night before school began.

Similarly, Rosh HaShanah was filled with ritual – arranging colorful sliced apples next to a small bowl of honey, smelling the matzah ball soup simmering on the stove, and listening to the shofar at temple. Although these experiences are from my childhood, they have stuck with me through adulthood, and they remain part of my life today.

For young children, traditions and rituals are significant; they provide predictability, support, and familiarity, while bringing families together, creating unity, and a strong sense of belonging.

One tradition and ritual that is a critical part of Judaism is the Shehecheyanu prayer. It’s a prayer we recite to thank God for allowing us to reach this day, for enabling us to experience something new, and for sustaining us. On Erev Rosh HaShanah, along with many other times throughout the year, we recite this blessing as we thank God for bringing us to a new year and to this moment in time.

I believe this prayer also has significant value in our secular lives. I think about all of the big moments we each experience – the firsts, the new opportunities – and these, too, are Shehecheyanu moments.

When we stop, take a breath, and acknowledge these critical moments in time, we also have a great opportunity to reflect on time that’s gone by, and to look forward to the moments ahead. Many families have the tradition of taking a picture of their child on the first day of school. How lovely would it be to expand on this by looking back on the photos from years past – reflecting on each of those moments in time, being thankful for getting to this new school year, and dreaming about the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead?

In getting ready for the coming year, many parents help their children envision what the new school year might be like, including how the classroom may look. Will there be the same toys as last year’s classroom? What new books will be on the shelf to read? What kinds of engaging activities will he or she participate in?

Similarly, maybe this will be the Rosh HaShanah when your family creates a new tradition or ritual – writing cards to friends and family around the country, or even visiting your local farmers market to select fresh apples and homemade honey for your holiday table. Helping a child to make connections – to himself, to what he knows, and to the world around him – creates opportunities for clarity, meaning, and authenticity.

When we reach these incredible moments, and together create new rituals and traditions – these are the priceless and distinctive Shehecheyanu moments that are forever ingrained in us, and the lives of our families.

As you and your family welcome the start of a new school year and the start of a new Jewish year, I encourage you to think about and acknowledge the Shehecheyanu moments in both of these new beginnings. Each new moment we reach is precious and sacred, and this special time of year also invites us to reflect on the importance of time gone by and to be grateful for the gift of the time that is yet to come. I wish you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year. Shana tovah!

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After Charlottesville, 5 Jewish Ways to Help Kids Deal

The day after the acts of terror and hate in Charlottesville, my friend and colleague Sara posted the following on Facebook:

My son asked me when he went to camp to write to him via camp email about current events. I don't know what to do. What would you do? I can't support him when he reads what I write, and I don't think that his age group at camp will discuss this.

What followed was a heartbreaking discussion that revealed our shared struggle: How do we help our children understand this world? How do we both protect them and make sure that they are knowledgeable enough to take action when needed?

I find, of late, that this struggle not only applies to my parenting, but to me as well. How much time do I spend online Googling what’s happening in the world? When do I walk away from it? When do I do I take a Sunday afternoon to march, and when do I take a Sunday afternoon to watch a movie with my family?

Our tradition provides wisdom on how to handle these moments – both as parents and as individuals: Don’t be afraid to learn. Take large actions. Embrace small acts. Tell the stories to your children, and know when to let it go.

1. Don’t be afraid to learn.

One of the greatest mitzvot (actions that bring us closer to the Divine) of Judaism is learning. It is as much a part of our tradition as holiday celebrations and bagels with shmear.

Our tradition is unique in that throughout our sacred commentaries we have preserved both the majority decision and the minority position. Why? Because we have an obligation to learn and understand all views, even when they differ from our own.

Don’t be afraid to learn. Push yourself to read the full article. Read the perspectives that are different than your own. Fact check the stories. Watch the commentary to understand the nuances. Choose what your children are ready to hear. Embrace the learning, even when it is painful to do so.

2. Take large actions.

The rabbis tell the story that Abraham, as a small boy, went in to his father’s idol shop and smashed all of the idols to show that they were not gods at all, but just stone and pottery.

What do we learn from this? Sometimes you need to go big. Go on marches. Give generous donations. Volunteer your time. Show up for rallies and for when your voice is needed. Do the things that will not only make a difference, but help you know you are making a difference.

If you can and it feels comfortable, bring your children with you. Let them not only hear about the terrible things going on, but also feel a part of the people who are taking action.

3. Embrace small acts.

I have been pushing myself to smile and make eye contact with people who I wouldn’t normally. Sometimes it is awkward (I think one guy at the grocery store thought I was flirting), but in most cases, there has been appreciative nod.

In our Torah we find the words: You shall love the stranger as yourself. This isn’t an easy love. This is an audacious love – a love that pushes us out of our comfort zone. Change isn’t only made in large meeting rooms and rallies with thousands of people. Change is often made by one person reaching out to another in small, but important, acts of love.

4. Tell the stories to your children.

Each Passover, we fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children the story of our people. However, we often stop there and don’t tell the stories of justice we are still creating.

A friend of mine once pointed out that if you give tzedakah (charity) every month, but you never tell your children, then they will never know to do this act in their own lives. Teach your children. Tell them the stories of the actions you are taking. Point out the moments you make eye contact with a stranger. As they get older, tell them about the struggles of our people and of all people who struggle for justice in our world.

5. Know when to let it go.

Our tradition is very smart. Each week it gives us Shabbat, a break from our work and our regular worries. The lesson of Shabbat is even more profound than the day: Sometimes we need to step away and let it all go.

Find the moments that are holy for you – moments of Shabbat rest. Whether they are at dinner tables with challah and candles or in the sunshine at the park, honor those moments. Put down your phone. Let go of the worries. Let you and your family breath and remember the goodness in our world. Shabbat is not a gift to disengage from the world permanently. It is an opportunity to rest and recharge so we can enter the world again.

To delve deeper on this topic, check out Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism, written by Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, who is also a social worker. As she writes, “Together, we can take actions that restore a sense that there is indeed love, justice, protection, and order in our world.”

Join the Reform Jewish community's response to the hate and bigotry in Charlottesville. This week, #BeTheLightForJustice: Take a photo of yourself holding a candle of unity, then post it to Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag. Next, learn about action steps to take for direct responses to terror from the Union for Reform Judaism.

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How Our Son Put the Mitzvah in His Bar Mitzvah

The most memorable part of our son Liam’s bar mitzvah on December 31st, the seventh day of Hanukkah, was also the most meaningful. On Shabbat morning, he chanted from Parashat Mikeitz about Joseph creating a plan to distribute food in Egypt in a time of scarcity. That night, after Havdalah, friends and family joined Liam to pack 21,600 meals that would be sent to Honduran orphanages, schools, and clinics where nutritious food often is not available.

We spent two hours doing this mitzvah before our synagogue social hall was transformed from an assembly line into a festive New Year’s Eve party. The party was great, but many of the 200 guests, ages 3-80, said that packing the food was the highlight of the evening.

Our congregation has a family education program entitled “Putting God on the Guest List” after Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s book with that same title. Our colleague, Rabbi Esther Adler, guides families in conversations about the mitzvot (commandments) that emerge from their children’s Torah portions and ways to have those mitzvot come to life in the service or the celebration. When we talked with Liam about Parashat Miketz, the chapters of Joseph’s life in which he emerges from Pharaoh’s dungeon to becoming second in command in Egypt, we were quickly drawn to Joseph's masterful economic plan, and how it was linked directly to the basic need for food.

The mitzvah of ha’achalat re’evim, feeding the hungry, was one often discussed at home. During the last couple of years, Liam volunteered with a local food shelf in the summer, collecting vegetables from a farmer’s market so that people using the food shelf could have fresh food. With a little research, we found an organization that did mass food packing events and could assure us that the food would not be distributed by missionaries spreading their faith.

Rise Against Hunger was founded in 1998, originally as Stop Hunger Now, with the mission to “end hunger in our lifetime by providing food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable and creating a global commitment to mobilize the necessary resources.” Their Kansas City office sent Baylee DeLaurier, their community engagement manager, to coordinate the event at our synagogue, Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.

Rise Against Hunger was able to do this event only with a commitment to pack a minimum number of meals and to raise funds (29 cents per meal) to cover the costs. To reach this goal, Liam asked for donations in lieu of gifts. He raised $9,800 from friends, family, and congregants. He felt great about what he was able to do, but, like any bar mitzvah, he didn’t mind receiving some gifts from his family and closest friends.

When Baylee arrived Saturday evening, we gathered in the sanctuary to watch a couple of videos about the organization, and Liam explained to the group why he chose to do this mitzvah. Then, as we went to the social hall, Baylee engaged everyone to set up assembly lines for packing the meals of enriched rice, soy protein, dried vegetables, and 23 essential vitamins and nutrients. There were separate tables for weighing and sealing the plastic bags and others for packing the boxes. Our guests were happy, the energy so alive, as everyone filled, measured, packed, and ran back and forth with supplies. The DJ was so moved by the scene that he started the music early, playing Liam’s favorite music from Hamilton and throwing in a few Hanukkah songs for good measure. In the meantime, every time the group finished packing a couple thousand meals, Baylee rang a gong, and everyone cheered.

It is not always easy to match values and mitzvot with concrete actions that large groups can do together, and we are fortunate that Liam’s project was so successful in this and so many other ways. Nonetheless, there are many ways to find the mitzvah in bar and bat mitzvah and when kids lead us in doing mitzvot, the result is unforgettable – and we truly feel the meaning of becoming b’nai mitzvah.

Cantor Rachel and Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker are members of the clergy team at Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.

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