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Yom Sheini, 23 Kislev 5778

Reform Judaism Blog

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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My Big, Gay, Jewish Family

As I skimmed headlines on the Israel new sites I check daily, I saw many of the same topics that have filled this space for the past few weeks. I ran through the list in my head: Kotel? Check. Conversion bill? Check. Blacklist of Diaspora rabbis? Check.

Opposition to gay adoption?! My stomach dropped.

I am immediately pulled back to the summer of 2015, tears streaming down my face as news returns of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in the US. I think of close friends in same-sex relationships posting pictures of the day they brought new bundles of joy back from the hospital. I feel the blisters still on my feet from dancing last weekend at my mother’s wedding to her female partner.

The elation of those moments contrasts sharply with the pain I feel reading statements and opinion pieces about LGBTQ couples adopting in Israel. Many insist children need a mother and a father. Others chime in that kids with two mommies or daddies will be mocked in kindergarten, so they are better off staying in an orphanage. Just for good measure, someone pipes in with a misguided reading of Leviticus.

My pain mixes with suspicion. How many of these commentators have actually lived in a household with LGBTQ parents? I would venture a guess: absolutely none.

But I have. Not only did I live with lesbian mothers, I also grew up with a mom and a dad. Let me explain. My mother and father raised me together until I turned 12, then they divorced, and I lived with my mom and her female partner.

Critics out there assume my standard of living decreased dramatically. I must have been mocked mercilessly and tormented in school. I probably failed out of my classes and suffered intense emotional problems. To those worried about my religious identity, I likely lost all connection to Judaism. Sorry to disappoint the homophobes, but I was well cared for in a loving household. I always had support in middle and high school from both teachers and students, even in a politically diverse district. I earned straight A’s throughout secondary school, and maintained that average when I attended an Ivy League university. I majored in Judaic Studies, served as Hillel president, attended a summer yeshiva, lived in Israel for a year, and read the entire Tanach from cover to cover.

So take your false concerns for the children of LGBTQ parents elsewhere; we're doing just fine, thank you.

I have lived with a mother and father and with a mother and mother. I benefitted tremendously from seeing my mothers be true to themselves. What defines a good household is not the gender or sexual orientation of the people living in it, but the love shared within those walls. The idea that children in Israel, a country that so often prides itself on embracing the LGBTQ community, will remain in orphanages when there are same-sex couples that want to create a family together with them is heartbreaking.

And it is davka because this is happening in Israel that my stomach dropped. A ban against LGBTQ adoption is not just offensive and misguided, it is deeply anti-Jewish. Our first commandment is פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ, be fertile and increase. Adoption, in addition to medical advances and reproductive technologies, mean that LGBTQ folks can partake in this mitzvah if they choose. Taking that choice away, in a country that values and centralizes family life so much is cruel to parents and children.

Let’s expose the cynical handwringing of challengers to same-sex adoption for what it really is: another attempt to strip progressive Jews of rights in Israel. The opposition to gay adoption is not separate from my daily news checklist, it is fully integrated. As religious extremists seek to impose their rules at the Kotel, they also want exclusive control over questions of Jewish identity, so naturally they intend to barge into LGBTQ homes, too. These are all issues of religious freedom and civil rights.

If those of us who believe in equality, acceptance and democracy plan to stop these attacks, we must advocate for our values and share progressive Zionist vision for the Jewish State. 

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From Generation to Generation: Keeping Camp in the Family

I remember my own summers at Reform Jewish summer camps better than almost anything else at that time of my life. URJ Kutz Camp and URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute shaped me, gave me a safe place, allowed me to explore my emotions and spirituality, taught me the true meaning of friendship, and helped me understand what respect for our world and the people in it (including self-respect) was all about. The rabbis and counselors took me seriously, believed in me, listened to me, appreciated my passion for causes, and, overall, nurtured my soul.

My time at camp cemented my love for being Jewish, and especially my pride in what was unique and special about Reform Judaism. This many years later, some of my very closest friends are the ones I met and truly got to know in those life-changing summers.

When I returned from my first summer at camp in 1972, I was called to a meeting with a few some adult committee members who asked what I thought was special about the camp. Why? I learned that a Reform Jewish camp would be opening in Canada within a few years, modeled after the camp I’d just returned home from. Wow, did I ever feel important! I remember a lot of smiles in that room.

“A few years” later turned into 27 years, but when that reform Jewish Canadian summer camp – called URJ Camp George – opened in 1999, there was no question in my mind that it would be the summer home for my own children.

Like me, my eldest child Maurie, now 39, spent a summer at OSRUI and also studied abroad with NFTY in Israel. My younger kids, ARi and Mira, at ages 11 and 13, respectively, began at Camp George during the camp’s inaugural summer, and both children quickly fell in love with camp (and, for Mira, fell in love at camp, where she met her now-husband, Ely!). They stayed through as campers, counselors, and even senior staff.

Our family was a foster family, and various other children who lived with us through the years also found their home at Camp George, which was exceptionally welcoming to children with unique needs who thrived in the camp’s nurturing and comfortable atmosphere – always respecting Jewish values.

Everything Reform Jewish summer camping had done for me, it was doing for my children – and more. Camp was important enough to Mira and Ely, in fact, that it’s the place they got engaged, even making special entry arrangements during the camp’s off-season, and it was where they got married, welcoming “home” so many of their camp friends for their weekend ceremony. It was a place where ARi could write and sing music, where Mira could develop programming for social justice causes — and that camp influence is present in their current careers.

I was able to return a few times as faculty, watching the magic in young faces. I had an experience at another non-URJ “Jewish camp” where adults were people to stay away from, so I loved participating as faculty at a camp where young people want to sit on a rock or at the beach to shmooze and ponder life with rabbis, cantors, educators, and other adult leaders. Truly, it was a reminder of the beauty of the relationships that develop at Jewish camp – amongst everyone, not just the campers.

Last year, Mira and I both returned as guest faculty- and her new baby daughter, Sadie, came with us. My heart skipped beats as I anticipated Sadie being a camper in about seven years – along with the children of so many of my children’s friends who also attended camp. L’dor vador, from generation to generation; teach your children diligently, Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule. That’s Jewish summer camp, for me and my family and for so many others – and it doesn’t hurt that the learning is hidden in all the fun of water sports, ropes course, arts and crafts, music, drama, bike riding, and so much more!

Suzie Lyon grew up at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Ontario, and attended both URJ OSRUI and URJ Kutz Camp. She served as Holy Blossom’s youth director for 10 years, spent another 10 years in administration at an Orthodox day school in Toronto, and worked for nine years as the director of education of a large synagogue in New York. Now back home in Toronto with her husband Jack, Suzie hosts family Shabbat dinners and runs what she lovingly calls “Safta [Grandma] Daycare.”

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My Jewish Youth Group Friend Allowed Me to Become a Parent

One day my son Jacob will ask how he was made, and I have the answer ready for this inevitable question: “God, science, and a whole lot of love.” Of course, there are many more details to his story…

My husband Zach and I found our place as teens on opposites sides of the country as leaders in NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement. Back then, our society did not excel at making room for the other. NFTY defied norms by defining itself as a place for all Jewish youth, an inclusive haven where everyone’s Godliness – b’tzelem Elohim (created in the image of God) – was celebrated. It was also NFTY that championed our potential as young people to make our world a better place as social action - tikkun olam - trail blazers. For Zach and me, NFTY became our social core, the place where we made lifelong friends and felt accepted as our true selves. Alas, it would be many more years before we came out to ourselves and our communities as gay.

Fast forward to the 21st century. As a young man in my 20s, I was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. I became comfortable and confident in my skin, eager to serve as a spiritual leader for our people. I can also thank NFTY and the Reform Jewish summer camps for helping me find my professional calling.

Years may have passed since I was in NFTY, but I was still close with my circle of friends. In fact, I had the honor of officiating the marriage of a number of these friends, and later, naming their children. I accepted this special role, understanding that my life path was different.

Sure, I hoped to find my bashert (intended one), but I never thought marriage – and especially children – was in the cards for me. My friends were not convinced.

They assured me that a nice Jewish boy was nearby, and they would often share that one day I would make a wonderful abba (Hebrew for “dad”). Kate, one of my closest friends from NFTY, shared that she would feel privileged to help me have kids when the time came. I remember feeling so grateful for this unbelievable offer, but I couldn’t imagine taking her up on it.

A well-known Yiddish proverb teaches that “man plans and God laughs,” but I could not possibly have planned for the most recent steps in my life journey. Soon after moving to Toronto, I connected with Zach. It appeared that we had been following parallel lives on opposite coasts! After dating for two years, we were married.

Both of us were open to parenthood, but neither of us expected to be dads. Upon the advice of a friend, we took a class offered at the LGBT community center about options for gay men to have children, and we quickly pinpointed surrogacy as our choice. But then we wondered: Who could we possibly ask to carry our baby?

Then I remembered my conversation from 10 years earlier.

I reminded my still-close friend Kate about our conversation, and after careful thought and many discussions, she agreed to carry our baby. The process was not easy, but with the help of family, friends, doctors, and a whole lot of love, our son Jacob was conceived. As scientific as this process was, God was a large part of it, too. We are especially appreciative that Auntie Kate gave of her whole self as she nurtured Jacob’s life. She inspires us each day. Kate has three of her own children, and when asked why she served as a surrogate, her answer is simple: “I want to demonstrate to my kids the importance of kindness and love in our world!” Both Kate and I attribute this key life lesson to our time in NFTY.

Jacob was born as our world is in a tumultuous state. On the surface, it is a scary time to begin one’s life journey – there is too much talk of walls, and terrible stories of discrimination. However, Jacob’s birth models an alternative story of a land filled with hope, care, and generosity.

Soon Jacob will be off to summer camps and NFTY conclaves; he will celebrate his place in the world, the culmination of his fathers’ hopes and dreams. His smile already represents the important Reform values of b’tzelem Elohim, tikkun olam and community. May his light always beam bright and inspire kindness.

Photo: Anne Marie Comte

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Pride Helped My Husband and Me Celebrate Being Jewish and Gay

“It’s not as much fun being gay;
It’s now the American way.
What was edgy and cool
Is really old-school
When everyone thinks we’re OK.”

So begins a world premiere song that the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, of which I am a proud upper second tenor, is singing for our pre-Pride concert, “Gay Kitchen Sink,” on June 16 and 17. The lyrics remind me of the response I often get from friends when I ask, “What are you doing for Pride this year?” I too often receive a ho-hum, yawned, “Oh, I don’t do Pride anymore... It’s so yesterday.”

For me and my dear, recently deceased husband, Ed (of blessed memory), Pride was always an annual reaffirmation and celebration of our mid-life decision to come out and to come together as a couple.

Ed and I loved thinking about and planning how to participate in fabulous ways with both close friends and with throngs of thousands. Even a year ago, when he was on his third year of chemotherapy and was wearing out from all the brutal regimens, we made it to our annual Pink Saturday dinner at our favorite Catch Restaurant in the Castro, deciding with regret that we would not march the next day in the San Francisco Pride Parade – for the first time in a dozen-plus years.

Our first Pride Parade was in early June 2003, a small but happy affair in front of only hundreds in downtown San Jose. We marched with a South Bay GLBT Havurah group we’d joined after coming out the previous September. (The organizer, Mike Bromberg, and his husband, Ken Repp, became great friends of ours and annual attendees at our big day seder.)

That same year, we also marched for the first time in the nation’s largest (and one of the world’s largest) parades in front of 1.5 million people in San Francisco. During the first couple of years, we marched proudly with a group from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the largely LGBT Reform congregation where we made lifetime friends. Being able to be proud of both our gay and Jewish selves was important to both of us, both as Jews-by-choice and now, finally, as openly gay men.

We also often marched with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus after I joined, with Ed always joining in as a loyal husband and learning the parade choreography that accompanied our singing. Various kids often marched with us, especially the youngest of our six, Brenton and Lindsay, who, as youngsters, loved giving out beads to the spectators on the sidelines.

Over the years, we attended Pride celebrations from Guerneville to Montreal, New York to Reykjavik. A deep regret I have is that we never made it to Tel Aviv Pride. That was one of Ed’s few dreams that we were not able to fulfill, mostly due to the timing of his chemo treatments the last few years.

But I am thankful for the Pride celebrations we did get to, year in and year out. We loved the sense of broad community among the masses and yet the deep, intimate possibility of new connections – even with total strangers. Gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans – we all focused on individual and collective memories and hopes, the good and the scary present challenges, and, of course, on the fun and the funny... and the sexy.

Traditions were a big part of Ed’s and my Jewish and gay lives together. Listening to a half dozen of Ed’s 100+ Jewish CDs at our Friday night Shabbat dinners; inviting friends and family each night of Hanukkah for a dinner of a crazy array of latke recipes I was trying on any given year; hosting 20-plus guys for our gay seder, when we read from the booklet Ed created featuring more than 100 gay, Jewish heroes… these were the traditions that defined being Jewish for us.

Attending Pride celebrations gave us an annual chance to remind ourselves of the past pioneers who allowed us to come out so easily when we did and to celebrate the many monumental milestones that were met during our fourteen years together (the right to marry and the striking down of DOMA being prime examples). Traditions are important, in my opinion, to remind us of who we are, of our values, and of who is important to be a part of our daily lives.

This year, my first Pride without Ed, will not be easy. But I will march on Sunday, June 24 in San Francisco – this year as part of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as the 2017 Community Grand Marshalls. I know Ed will be there with me. He wouldn’t miss it for the world!

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For All Our Dads on Father’s Day

For the dads up to their elbows in poopy diapers
and the dads whose kisses cover every owie
and always know where the bandaids are
and make certain the fridge is stocked with ice cream

And for the dads who weep because their children are too old to be tucked in
and the dads whose wisdom shapes our hearts
and the dads who raised our spirits when we wept
and the dads who held us as we sobbed broken hearted
and the dads who wiped our noses 

For the dads who inspired us to stand up for what is right and speak out clearly for justice
And for the dads who showed us our strength was our compassion
For the dads who brought to life the Torah of our people
And for the dads who believed we had Torah in our souls that they listened to with reverence and patience and delight

For the dads who taught us how to ride bikes
and bake cookies
and respect our bodies
and love our partners

For the dads whose children died before them
And for the dads who still long to welcome a child into their lives to parent

For all of these dads
Over all the generations
In every moment
In every place on the planet

We lift our hands in robust gratitude:
Thank you, dads.

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"What Can I Do?" Bringing Together Jewish and Muslim Moms

Through a Jewish/Muslim playgroup, my sister Beth has found an answer to a question many of us ask ourselves these days when we learn of incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: “What can I do?”

Beth calls herself a “Jewbu,” a Jew who practices Buddhist meditations. During college, she studied in Nepal, where she lived in a Buddhist monastery and with a Tibetan family. Now, she incorporates Buddhist practices into her work as a therapist. Despite her nontraditional approach to Judaism, Beth felt a need to respond to these recent events as a Jew, based upon the Jewish values our parents instilled in us.

Growing up, we celebrated Jewish holidays and attended religious school, but the most important aspect of our upbringing was the values and history, both Jewish and American, that we learned. We were taught tolerance, empathy, respect for others, the centrality of family, and a reverence for learning.

Essential to all of this was the history, struggle, and persecution, of our people. As a small boy, our paternal grandfather fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side of New York City. I remember, as a child, asking my dad where Grandpa came from. His answer: The Romanian shtetl of his birth was no longer on the map because it had been entirely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

Given this legacy of religious persecution, our family understood the special nature of the American government and our Constitution’s First Amendment. My maternal grandfather, a prominent attorney, defended the rights of Nazis to march through a Jewish suburb in the 1960s, even though he vehemently opposed their ideology. He believed that our Constitution’s protection of such abhorrent viewpoints ensured that all Americans would be afforded its protections. We were taught that in America, all people could worship as they wish, or not at all. We learned that our good fortune to grow up in the United States was made possible through the sacrifice of our ancestors.

Recognizing the powerful connection that mothers with young children can make, Beth contacted a local interfaith organization in her small Southern California town. She suggested organizing a Jewish/Muslim playdate with the purpose of establishing connections between the Jewish and Muslim communities and expressing support for what she calls “our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The response Beth received was immediate and heartfelt. She baked cookies with her three young boys and brought them to a local park for their first playgroup. Many Muslim and Jewish families attended, as did some Christian families, quickly forming bonds; now, the group now meets regularly.

Surely these personal connections will be powerful in a time when members of both communities feel vulnerable. My nephews will have their young Muslim friends in mind if they hear Islamophobic remarks, and I hope their friends will keep my nephews in mind if they see anti-Semitic graffiti.

While picking up a challah from a bakery for Friday night Shabbat, my sister ran into a woman she met at her playgroup. This new Muslim friend, together with others from an interfaith council, wished Beth “Shabbat shalom.” Our world needs more of these small but powerful, acts of kindness!

Despite troubling news reports of violence and religious intolerance, stories of acts of love abound. I am moved by the Muslims who raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for repairs following the desecration of headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and by Muslims who showed up to assist with repairs only hours after a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.

Something about this moment in history is creating solidarity between Muslim- and Jewish-Americans in a way I have never experienced. We must stand together against hate. I urge others – Jewish, Muslim, and otherwise – to share their own acts of kindness and to stand in solidarity with one another. Perhaps some Jewish-American and Muslim-American moms or Jewish and Muslim preschools will follow my sister’s lead and start interfaith playgroups of their own.

Wouldn’t that a beautiful answer to the question “What can I do?”

Emily Marcus Levine is an attorney who lives in Bethesda, MD. She is a member of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.

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The 7 Best Jewish Moms on TV (and Streaming)

It’s common knowledge at this point that we’re living in the Golden Age of Television, but did you know that we’re also living in the Golden Age of Jewish Mothers on Television? With shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent, and The Goldbergs, we have more Jewish moms to watch on TV than ever before. While we celebrate the moms we love this Mother’s Day, let’s also celebrate the moms we love to watch.

Beverly Goldberg, The Goldbergs

Beverly Goldberg is everybody’s favorite “smother.” Her wit and strength are unstoppable, and her fierce protectiveness of her children makes her hilarious – and dare I say, heartwarming - to watch. She also has a killer ‘80s wardrobe and dance moves.

Naomi Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Naomi Garfinkel Bunch has a lot of chutzpah. Sure, her high standards for her daughter, Rebecca, drove Rebecca to quit her job and move across the country for a boy she dated one summer at camp, but Naomi always does what she thinks is best. She knows that lotion makes a great gift, and she’s tight with her rabbi. Also, Naomi is featured in what is arguably the best Jewish comedy song of all time. Now would be a great time to start watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (both seasons are on Netflix) if you aren’t already.

Frankie Bergstein, Grace and Frankie

Of all the Jewish moms on this list, Frankie Bergstein is the kookiest. She says exactly what’s on her mind and is always ready to stick it to the man – even if that man is Kenny Loggins. She’s extremely confident and intensely caring. She is also excellent at puns.

Bobbi Wexler, Broad City

Bobbi Wexler is only in two episodes of Broad City, but it’s all she needs to prove that she’s the best New York Jewish mom on television. She knows where to find the cheapest manicure, where to buy the best knock-off handbags, and she’s on a first-name-basis with the staff at Zabar’s. Plus, she's incredibly supportive toward both of her children, and she’s willing to learn just about anything from them. Bobbi Wexler cares.

Maura and Shelly Pfefferman, Transparent

Most of the mothers that we see on television are only there in their capacity as moms, but Maura and Shelly Pfefferman are representing their own stories in refreshing and empowering ways. They are both proof that it’s never too late to find yourself, and in Shelly’s case, proof that it’s never too late to write and perform a one-woman show.

Marilyn Kessler, Difficult People

Marilyn Kessler is one of the funniest characters on television. She’s a therapist, playwright, actress, but in her own words, she’s “just a woman.” She gives tough love, and she takes every opportunity she can to make sure her daughter, Julie, is safe. You’ve got to admire the confidence of a woman who deems herself the most brilliant person alive. 

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How to Talk About “13 Reasons Why” with Your Teens

The Torah is filled with horrible stories. Though we paint Noah’s pretty ark on nursery walls with animals two by two, the real story is that of a flood that kills all life on earth. We celebrate Joseph’s beautiful coat of many colors but have far fewer conversations about how cruel the brothers are to one another. We focus on the bravery of Moses, but ignore the fact that his first act of leadership is to kill a taskmaster.  

We don’t like horrible stories. Though they have lessons to teach us about life and pain, and how to survive this world, we don’t like them – and as parents, we especially don’t like them. The drive to protect our children is strong, and that drive only becomes stronger as they become teenagers. Horrible stories remind us of those moments where our children get hurt and we are unable to protect them.  

13 Reasons Why, the new miniseries from Netflix, is filled with painful stories about sadness, bullying, rape, and suicide.

Perhaps what makes these stories even worse, though, are the adults on the show. In the most horrible moments, the adults don’t protect the children. In fact, they are painfully apathetic. When the teens bully each other at school, the parents turn away. When one of the boys comes home bloodied from a fight and tells his mother he doesn’t want to talk about it, she lets him walk away. Watching the show is like holding up a mirror to our worst moments as adults.

But like the biblical silence of Noah, who doesn’t argue with God to save the people from the flood waters, or Joseph’s father Jacob, who turns a blind eye to his sons’ fighting, 13 Reasons Why is a wakeup call for us. We must not turn away. This show begs us to talk to our teens about horrible things. They need our help unpacking what they are seeing and how it makes them feel. So how do we do that?

1. Raise the conversation and make space for teens to talk.

When we talk to teens, we often tell them what we are feeling and thinking, rather than giving them space to share. While this is quite natural, it doesn’t help us understand our teens – it just helps them understand us. Start by asking open questions about the show. Even if your teen hasn’t seen it, they have probably heard about it at school. Ask:

  • What did you think about 13 Reasons Why
  • What are your friends saying? 
  • Why do you think there’s so much buzz about it? 

Ask the question, then be quiet; leave space for your teen to answer.

2. Offer to experience this with them.

If your teen has seen the show, ask them what they saw and what they think was important. Let them tell you what mattered to them. Then, ask if they will show you the specific scenes. Some teens will say no, and we as parents should be OK with that – but open the door to experience this together.

3. Reinforce their decision not to watch the show.

There’s a lot of pressure right now to see this show, but allow your teen the space to say that he or she doesn’t want to watch it. Reinforce that this is a good, heathy choice. The show is intense, and if your teen knows it isn’t for them, reinforce the importance of knowing your limits and respecting yourself.

4. Recognize that the show is complicated.

Though the media is very focused on the suicide at the end of the series, many issues in this show that warrant our attention, including bullying, apathetic parents, rape culture, lack of discussion around mental illness, and more. Recognize that your teen may be concerned about other moments, too, and avoid focusing exclusively on the ending.

Like the biblical stories we prefer not to read or talk about, 13 Reasons Why forces us to confront the reality of difficult things in our world and invites us to have much needed conversations about how to deal with them. Unlike the parents in the show, we can’t turn away. Let’s use this as an opportunity to support our teens by opening the conversation.

Dr. Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist and an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She has taught pastoral counseling, human development, adolescent development, and adolescents in crisis. Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp.  A longtime Jewish educator, author, and speaker, she holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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The Terrific Jewish Life We Found in Rural Alabama

There aren’t many people out there willing to uproot their entire lives to relocate to Dothan, Alabama. Although Dothan is a wonderful, modern city, just minutes from both Florida and Georgia, most people who hear about the Jewish Community Services (JCS) Relocation Project generally respond with something along the lines of “Move to rural Alabama? Are they serious?!?”

By offering relocation grants of up to $50,000 to Jewish families who move here, JCS of Dothan seeks to “build, sustain, and assure the continuity of a vibrant Jewish community” in southeast Alabama. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 5.3 million Jews in America. To date, the number of people who have made that huge leap of faith to become a part of the JCS Relocation Project is 32.

I am one of them.

The families who have joined the Project since it began nine years ago were either pushed or pulled to Dothan. Some were fleeing expensive and impersonal congregational experiences, the rat race, sky-high housing prices, or frigid winters. Others were attracted by the kehillah (community) that defines Jewish life here or the slow, easy manner of Alabama’s people. Still others appreciated the idea of living where communities of all faiths are strong. Indeed, Alabama is the third most church-going state in the nation.

My family moved to Dothan to join the Family Relocation Project in 2009, but it wasn’t our first foray into the Cotton State. My husband was born and raised in a small town in the opposite corner of the state and I lived in Birmingham until third grade when my family moved to Boca Raton, FL. I returned to attend the University of Alabama, where my husband and I met.

Kevin and I always had the sense that we should raise our children in Alabama – and it turns out, we were right. We like that our neighbors think that the behavior of our 9- and 10-year-old sons is their business, and that they tell us about it when the boys don’t do right. We like that no one thinks it’s odd that we expect our boys to say “sir” and “ma’am,” and that we’re not raising our children in a hyper-competitive environment. Here, they can just be themselves. Most of all, we like that in Dothan, we have more people in our lives whom we trust than there are blanks on the school emergency contact form.

In fact, that’s the very thing one of my friends said last weekend when four JCS families were hanging out on one of our front porches. We agreed that although we all had lots of acquaintances in the bigger cities we had moved from, there were too few people we could really count on. In Dothan, we know plenty of people who we can call in a pinch to pick up our kids from school or soccer, or God forbid, in a real emergency. One JCS family includes a person who has limited mobility. When she needs help, there is always someone who can be there in minutes.

Occasionally, a JCS family moves away. While catching up with a friend in one of those families over the phone last week, she said they had joined a large synagogue in their new city. She loves the music, the sermons, and singing in the choir, but when her dad passed away unexpectedly, she was distressed that no one from the congregation reached out to her or her family.

So yes, finding families that want to pick up and relocate to Dothan, Alabama, certainly can be a challenge. But once they’re here, they’re part of our kehillah, enriching Dothan and the vibrant Jewish community we’re maintaining in our wonderful corner of southeast Alabama.

Photo: From the documentary "There Are Jews Here" courtesy of 371 Productions. Film directed by Brad Lichtenstein. 

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