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Yom Shlishi, 8 Sivan 5778

Reform Judaism Blog

Shavuot Backyard Fun: Making Blueberry Balsamic Ice Cream

Growing up, Shavuot wasn’t really part of my Jewish experience. It fell just outside of the religious school season, and much of the “cheesecake holiday” remained a mystery to me until my adulthood.

My children, however, will know Shavuot. In fact, they’ll look forward to it all year. This is because we’ve created a family tradition that they’re excited about. Of course, it involves dairy and, most appropriately for a festival set to fall in early summer, we decided that our new family tradition will be to make homemade ice cream.

We wanted to involve the kids in the production process, so you can put away the fancy ice cream maker. This ice cream is made with 100% kid power! I love this process because it’s fun, interactive, and takes some stamina.

You will need:

  • One large coffee can
  • One small coffee can (or peanut butter jar or plastic gelato container)
  • Ice
  • Rock Salt
  • Duct Tape

This recipe is for blueberry balsamic ice cream at my 4-year-old’s request, but it can be made no-cook and created completely outdoors if you substitute a little vanilla for the blueberry and balsamic. This makes it great for camping or simply for containing the mess.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cups blueberries (frozen or fresh)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½  cup milk
  • 3/4 cups heavy cream

Directions:

  • Heat blueberries, balsamic vinegar, sugar, and salt to a simmer in a sauce pan.
  • Over heat, smash blueberry mixture with wooden spoon or potato masher.
  • Remove from heat and chill in fridge for one hour.
  • Once blueberry mixture is chilled, mix in milk and cream.
  • Pour mixture into the smaller container (small coffee can or plastic jar) and replace top.
  • Place small container into larger coffee can.
  • Fill area surrounding smaller container with alternating layers of ice and sprinklings of rock salt.
  • Place lid on large coffee can and reinforce with duct tape.

Now the fun begins! Kids need to roll the can continuously for 20 minutes or until all the ice has melted. Consider:

  • Go on a family walk and have them kick the can to roll it along the way.
  • Play a game of backyard soccer using the can, or have timed races kicking the can.
  • Make a double batch and have backyard races while kicking the cans.
  • Younger kids really enjoy rolling the can down a slide. (My 2-year-olds could do this for hours!)

After about 20 minutes, most of the ice should be melted. Open the container to check on the ice cream for thickness. If it's not yet of an ice cream consistency, you may want to load in more ice for another round. Then, rinse the inner jar and serve the ice cream immediately, or place it in the freezer for two hours to further harden.

Enjoy! This is a backyard ice cream treat for Shavuot that the entire family will enjoy. Chag sameach and happy Shavuot!

Want to learn about other ways to make homemade ice cream? Check out "3 Ways to Make Ice Cream with Kids for Shavuot."

Hannah Riederer lives in Saint Paul, MN, with her husband, daughter Charlotte (age 4), and sons Judah and Levi (age 2). As a special education teacher, her days are filled with children. She is a member of Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul.

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13 Heart-Warming Jewish Stories about Moms for this Mother’s Day

Throughout the years, we at ReformJudaism.org have been honored to publish countless essays about families, many of them with a focus on motherhood. We’ve shared stories from mothers, about mothers, honoring late mothers, and hoping for motherhood.

This Mother’s Day, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite stories about moms to share with you. We hope you’ll read them, enjoy them, relate to them, comment on them, and maybe share stories of your own mothers. Happy Mother’s Day!

1. “Rings and Things: Remembering Loss, Moving Toward Life"

Esther Kustanowitz writes about a piece of jewelry she inherited after her mother’s death and how it helps her feel connected to both her late mother and her late grandmother – as well as to her Judaism. “Remembering how it was on my hand instead of my mother’s, how she wouldn’t touch my hand again, the tears would return,” she writes – but there’s a message from her mother at the end of the story.  

2. “My First Time Praying at the Kotel's Egalitarian Prayer Plaza"

Jacob Kraus shares how it felt to pray at the Western Wall with his mother instead of separating from her: “As we approached the plaza together, I remember feeling grateful and hopeful… I also felt hopeful that the establishment of this plaza would not mark the end of the journey toward increased recognition of progressive Judaism in Israel.” His mother, a Reform rabbi, likely felt the same.

3. “Honoring My Mom's Legacy, on Mother's Day and Every Day”

Jane E. Herman writes about how, even after her mother’s death, she continues to celebrate Mother’s Day: “Just as I honor my sister and my aunts on Mother’s Day for the roles they play in my life, I use the occasion – and every day, for that matter – to honor my mom.” She shares language from her late mother’s ethical will and explains how it inspires the way she lives today.

4. “Making Soup, Making Shabbat”

Stacey Zisook Robinson shares memories of her mother making chicken soup for Shabbat – the smells, the tastes, and the memories that linger with her, long beyond her mother’s time on earth. “The soup was Shabbat,” she writes, “in the same way that going to synagogue and being part of my community is now.” She even shares her bubbe’s recipe for chicken soup.

5. “My Jewish, LGBT family: Normal but Not So Nuclear”

In an essay written before the legalizatoion of marriage equality, Leah Dawson writes about growing up in a two-mother home. While some aspects up her upbringing may have been different from those of her peers who had heterosexual parents, she says, “My emotional development –my feeling whole and loved, cared for and accepted (the true qualifications of parenthood) – have never been for want.”

6. “Seven Shiva Lessons from My Mom”

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein shares seven “mourner’s tips” – one for each day of shiva – in honor of her mother’s Jewish life. “She touched thousands of lives and inspired not just me but hundreds of other kids to become rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, synagogue presidents, and involved, passionate Reform Jews,” Rabbi Goldstein explains.

7. “A Letter to My Mother on Her First Yahrzeit”

Cantor Sheila Nesis writers about how Psalm 23 reminds her of her late mother on the anniversary of her death. “Although this psalm talks about God,” she writes, “I think about it this morning and see it under a completely new light. Today, I think it talks about you.”

8. “Growing Up with Parents with Disabilities”

Howard Lev shares his experiences as the child of two parents who both had disabilities; his mother used a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child, and his father had a pronounced limp due to scoliosis. “I desperately wish my parents were still alive today to see the strides made for people with disabilities,” Lev writes after discussing the challenges they faced – and overcame – together. “I know they would’ve loved the opportunity to take part in communal life without the many barriers they faced.”

9. “What Has Your Mother Taught You?”

Rabbi PJ Schwartz shares the many lessons his mother has imparted upon him and how they have impacted his character. “My mom never has just been a mom,” he says. “She has been someone who I have looked up to, someone who has been proud of me for my successes and failures, and someone who never has given up on me.” That’s what so many mothers strive for!

10. “How My Mother's Organ Donation Changed My Commitment to Social Justice”

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen talks about how his mother’s extraordinary act of selflessness – donating a kidney to a stranger – influenced his worldviews and his own commitment to tikkun olam (repair of our broken world). He pledges: “I will donate blood more regularly. I will write, vote, and advocate to prevent gun violence. I will build on the work of the NAACP to respond to racial injustice in our communities.”

11. “The Best Gift My Parents Ever Gave Me”

Sean Carlin writes about the decision that his Jewish mother and Irish-Catholic father made to send him to Jewish summer camp as a child. “I cite my parents’ decision to raise a Jewish family as my gift of a lifetime because of the astronomical impact it has had on my life thus far,” writes Carlin, who went on to work for URJ Camp Harlam.

12. “Trying to Please Mom: A Son’s Labor of Love”

Deborah Rood Goldman tells the story of restaurateur Peter Gethers, author of My Mother’s Kitchen. “He regales readers with the history of Ratner’s and its famous customers, but that is only one facet of his story. My Mother’s Kitchen is Gethers’ clear-eyed assessment of his mom, Judy” – and a gift to her for all she has given to him.

13. “4 Things I Learned From My Catholic Mother that Have Made Me a Better Jew”

Allyson Zacharoff shares the top four things she’s learned from her background and her mother’s Catholic faith that have strengthened her Judaism: “Through this lens,” she explains, “I learned about love and about respect for all people, regardless of their beliefs.”

What's your favorite story about your own mother? Leave us a comment and let us know! Don't forget to check out this Prayer for the Shabbat before Mother's Day, too. 

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A Mother’s Day Wish: An Interview with My 96-Year-Old Mother

There are some questions about growing up as the son of Holocaust survivors I had never asked my parents, so a week before Mother’s Day, I phoned my 96-year-old mother, Adela, and asked her to share some memories and thoughts about motherhood.

Aron: What was it like for you as a mother when Rose [my sister] and I were little?

Adela: Whenever I think back to that time, I feel regret. I never had time to be a mother. I was always running: being a nurse to your father, leaving for work at 6:00 in the morning and coming home at 7:00, cooking and cleaning. I was in some kind of cloud. What I regret most [tearfully] is when you asked me a question, I would say, “Please ask me later,” because I was always in the middle of something.

I am proud of what you and Rose have achieved in life and how close the two of you are, but I can take no credit, because you did it on your own.

What is the most important thing a parent can give a child?

Sincere love. Nothing can replace that.

Looking back, did you realize that I was like a parent to my little sister?

Of course. You dressed her to go out and play and took her to school. Listen to what you did: One time on the school playground, you accidentally knocked out two of her front teeth with a baseball bat. When I asked, “What happened?” she said some guy did it. Only years later did you tell us the truth. Even as a young child, Rose appreciated how good you were to her and showed it with loyalty. This is a good quality of hers.

You like to tell the story of the time we were in store and you offered to buy me a toy. What did I say?

You said, “I don’t need toys, buy yourself something.” So I looked at you, 5 years old, and I thought, “Oh my God, how well I raised you.” But I don’t really deserve the credit. Something higher was at work. I think it was the charitable heart of my father, who was orphaned at age 5.

What is the most important lesson you learned from your father?

I learned that love comes to you when you give it to others. He said the most important thing in life is to have a good name, because that is all that remains after you are gone. Nothing makes me feel better than giving tzedakah (donating to charities).

What did you learn from your mother?

When the Nazis came into our town and the synagogue was burning, my mother took me aside and said, “I see we are going to be separated soon. Remember one thing: If somebody hits you, don’t hit back because two bad ones don’t make a good one. You will be rewarded, but you have to be patient.” And that’s how I live.

Did you and Pop ever consider not telling Rose and me about the Holocaust?

Never. When other survivors said to me, “I don’t want to upset my children,” I said, “I am living with the truth.” It would have been a lie if I didn’t tell you and Rose what happened to us in Europe. You would not have known how I suffered through that terrible five-month death march, or gone with me to the Czech Republic in 1995 for the reunion commemorating the 50th anniversary of our liberation.

You and Pop were engaged to be married in Poland just before the war broke out. What was it like when you saw him again for the first time after five years?

Pop was a patient in a tuberculosis sanitarium. He said, “Listen, I came out sick. You came out OK. Forget that we were engaged before the war.” I answered, “Vos vet zeyn mit dir, vet zein mit mir.” – “What will be with you will be with me.” I have never regretted that decision.

So you’re saying the three most important things a mother can give a child are sincere love, truthfulness, and faithfulness?

That’s right. Toys and clothes are thrown away; love stays.

Be truthful with your children; don’t overprotect them with lies and secrets.

Like love, knowing that somebody will always be there for you, no matter how difficult the situation, is precious.

These are the values that shaped who I am, and how I try to live my life.

My wish for you this Mother’s Day is that you’ll give yourself a little credit for being a good mother to Rose and me. How about it?

It’s hard to change at my age.

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Shavuot: Counting Up to the Celebration

Riding home from school in the car the other day, my youngest daughter excitedly exclaimed, “Mom! We counted today that there are only seven weeks of school left. If there are five days each school week, and seven times five equals 35, that means there are only 35 days left of school!”

Every year, when my kids have this realization, it stops me in my tracks and I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Chaos is coming, I think, as the countdown to the end of school begins. The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve is another big countdown – and likely the most well-known one of all. For some reason, despite the promise of a new year, I often feel a bit of sadness at this countdown, perhaps because counting down can represent a desire to make time pass more quickly, even though once it’s gone it can never be regained.

When the kids begin to count down to the end of school, I notice that they, like me, also express a sense of sadness. The end of the school year represents a change in what they have come to know and expect in their daily lives. My oldest daughter is moving into middle school next year, creating a sense of sadness about leaving elementary school behind. Although summertime will bring visits with family and friends, new experiences, and swimming lessons, there still is a sense of sadness in the counting down that will lead to this transition.

In contrast, counting up has an entirely different connotation.

Recently while leading t’filah (prayer) for some of our Hebrew school students, I guided them in reciting the blessing over Counting of the Omer. We discussed how we count up from the second night of Passover all the way to Shavuot – a total of 49 days – which symbolically covers the period from our Exodus out of Egypt until we received the Torah at Mt Sinai.

One student shared a “lightbulb moment” when he realized we do the exact same thing for Hanukkah.  Indeed, there is a classic debate about whether we should add one candle every night to increase our joy and light, a position espoused by Rabbi Hillel, which ultimately won out over the suggestion of Rabbi Shammai that we should start with eight candles and remove one on each consecutive evening. According to Rabbi Hillel, “Maalin bakodesh, veein moridin,” which means holiness should only increase and not decrease.

Increasing our holiness is the tradition we adhere to in our celebrations today. Just as the light grows as Hanukkah continues, so too do our joy and excitement grow as we count the Omer for 49 days on the way to Shavuot.

Counting up toward an event is something I can relate to in a personal way, too. My birthday falls on January 12th and every year as January 1st hits, it is a natural practice for me to count up toward my birthday, adding numbers and excitement as each day passes. (Part of this excitement stems from the great birthday traditions in our family, including multiple signs around the house, balloons, special meals, and long-term planning of parties and gifts.)

As our Jewish community counts up toward receiving the ultimate gift of the Torah in just a few weeks, we’re also planning the rituals and routines of Shavuot: participating in late-night Torah study sessions that include cheesecake, ice cream, and other dairy foods to remind us of the land of milk and honey; reading the Ten Commandments as part of the festival worship service; and, in some congregations, celebrating confirmation and honoring those students who have continued their religious education beyond b’nai mitzvah.

Chag sameach!

This year, Shavuot begins at sundown on Saturday, May 19. Check out these Shavuot family activities to help young children connect Torah to the holiday.

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The Day I Discovered I’m Not Italian: Lessons from My DNA Test

On Saturday afternoons during my childhood, my mother blared the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcasts in stereo on every radio in our house. Although the Italian operas generally ended with a young, beautiful heroine succumbing to murder or a bout of tuberculosis, I particularly adored the colorful and tragic characters in these performances. To my young ears, the singers’ flowing Italian arias meshed with the formal Hebrew I knew from synagogue, creating a wonderful mash-up of cultures and languages.

Perhaps it was my family’s personal mash-up.

My dad’s olive skin and dark hair always raised suspicion that a dash of Italian genetic material might be part of our family’s DNA. In fact, whenever we’d dine in Italian restaurants, patrons and staff would speak warmly to my father in Italian, as though we were part of the famiglia.

Recently, a second cousin submitted saliva to a DNA service that tracks family lineage and was delighted to learn she likely is at least 10% Italian. Inspired by her results, I ordered a similar kit, spit into the test tube, and sent it off for analysis.

A few weeks later, I received an email telling me my results were in. I logged onto the site, excited to see them, as questions circled in my mind. What would my DNA reveal about me? Where did I fit in on a map of the world? Who were my ancestors? How many new relatives might I discover? How much of my DNA can be tracked to so-called Jewish roots?

My results confirmed what my fair skin, dark, curly hair and brown eyes have been hinting at for half a century: I am 97.7% Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish with the small balance indicating eastern and northern European ancestry.

What? No Italian? Not even the tiniest speck?

Mamma mia! So much for my love of gelato, angel hair pasta, the Italian moms with whom I sit at Little League games, Sinatra, Vivaldi, and the concept of democratic republics.

The results also showed that I belong to the “maternal haplogroup” N1b2. Fewer than 10% of all Eastern European Jews derive from this subgroup. Its bloodline indicates ancient ancestry from the Near East or Levant, with individuals migrating upward toward the north Mediterranean nearly 2,000 years ago and then branching off into Ashkenazic Jewish lines and Italians.

Wait, did someone mention Italians?

In the internet research that naturally followed, I found this article, in which the author explains that the overwhelming majority of Eastern European Jews came from European stock that converted to Judaism thousands of years ago. However, the N1b2 group (numbering 30,000 to 50,000), which included my mother’s predecessors, was a bit older and probably landed on the Italian peninsula around the first millennium B.C.E. These ancestors later formed Ashkenazi communities with other Jews along the Rhine and then settled in Eastern Europe after they were expelled from Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

My tiny container of spit connected me to 1227 mostly distant and a few close relatives, five of whom I know personally. Even though none of my DNA seems to speak Italian, the fine print of the DNA website does point to a distinct 2,000-year-old connection between my mom’s ancestral line and that boot-shaped country on the Mediterranean.

Just as an individual doesn’t need to have a country in her blood to feel love or connection, neither does a Jewish individual need to have a maternal haplogroup indicating an ancient Semitic line. Nonetheless, this test confirmed that my children and I come from very old Jews, but unless I help them appreciate Judaism’s beauty and meaning, this legacy means nothing.

As far as my fascination with Italy’s food and music goes, although my family and I might look a bit Italian, the opposite never occurred to me: Perhaps Italians look a little bit like us! 

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The Best Gift My Parents Ever Gave Me

The best gift I ever received was not wrapped, it was not purchased, hidden in a closet until a special night, or even something I asked for. It was given to me before I can even remember. My gift of a lifetime was an intentional decision.

But it was a gift that changed my life.

My parents grew up across the street from one another in Elkins Park, PA. My Jewish mother and my Irish-Catholic father started dating in high school and have been together ever since. I remember hearing stories of my dad leaving school at Bishop McDevitt a few minutes early to make sure he was able to get across town to pick my mom up at Cheltenham High School. I envy some of the experiences they’ve had together, like living next door to their best friends before they were married, countless Flyers games, and the more-than-occasional Grateful Dead show. Many of these interests were passed down to me naturally, but one thing about my life was thought about, toiled with, and decided on very intentionally.

Fast forward to 1991: I was born. The high school sweethearts from Elkins Park became parents for the first time and were forced to make a decision about the spiritual upbringing they wanted me (and my future siblings) to have. From what I have gathered over the years, my dad – the Irish Catholic – made the final push to raise a Jewish family. After finding a Reform congregation they wanted to join, the rest, as they say, is history.

I cite my parents’ decision to raise a Jewish family as my gift of a lifetime because of the astronomical impact it has had on my life thus far.

For many, Judaism is seen as a birthright. If one or both of your parents are Jewish, “Boom!” you’re a Jew. That story has never really aligned with my truth, though, for I am certain the discussions my parents had, the outcomes they thought through, and the reasons they cited did not lead to a decision easily.

Because I see my Judaism as a gift, I have always seen my role in the Jewish world as something of a repayment. Think about it: When someone does you a really big favor, I mean, a really big favor, what do you do? You repay them. You express your appreciation in any way that you can. You try your best to show them how their influence on your life has changed it for the better. I wanted to do just that.

I pushed myself to really take in the bar mitzvah process, to learn and grow as a Jewish adult. I was less interested in the center pieces at my party and more interested in an article my mom found that offered a beautiful insight to my Torah portion. I don’t remember much of wearing light bracelets or dancing the hora, but I do remember my rabbi at the time allowing my dad to hand the Torah to me on the bimah.

The next summer, I found URJ Camp Harlam. I was hooked - immediately. As a camper and then as a staff member, I experienced the magic of living in an immersive Jewish environment. 

I was not destined to be a member of this community. Neither of my parents went to camp, and without the generosity of others, I would have never made it there. Again, the idea of a gift was solidified.

Now, as an assistant director at Camp Harlam, I do not take this gift for granted. In fact, it is my desire to repay the gift of Jewish identity and the gift of Reform Jewish summer camp that has driven me to pursue this career. I want to do my part to give back to my Jewish community as a way to thank my mother and father for making the decisions they made to give me the greatest gift of all: a family that goes so far beyond the walls of our home, one that spreads across the globe.

My identity as a Jew who comes from an interfaith family has been strengthened by my time at camp. Harlam is a place where your “Jewishness” is not judged, the make-up of your family is not dissected, and you are free to find your place in Jewish history. And I hope that the small role I have played, play, and will play in the future will repay the gift of lifetime.

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How a Rare Jewish Ritual Added Meaning to Our Family

Pidyon haben (Redemption of the Firstborn) is an unusual Jewish ritual that commemorates the birth of a family's firstborn child, when that baby is a son. Originally, firstborn sons were inducted into God's service because they had been spared from the Egyptian plague of the firstborn.

However, when the Jews – firstborns included – built the Golden Calf, the firstborns forfeited their status as servants of God. The priesthood was transferred to the only tribe that did not participate in the construction of the Golden Calf: the Levites, and particularly to the descendants of Aaron.

Ever since, it has been traditional for firstborn males – in a ceremony known as pidyon haben, which typically occurs 31 days after birth – to be “redeemed” from God’s service by a Kohen, considered to be descendants of Aaron.

Pidyon haben is perhaps the rarest of all Jewish life cycle rituals because it can occur only under a perfect storm of circumstances: The child must be male, must be the family’s firstborn child, and must not have been delivered via Caesarean section.

My husband and I welcomed our son, Alexander Dov, on December 4. Although Alex met all the requirements for a pidyon haben, we were torn about whether to have the ceremony for him.  At first, the idea of redeeming a newborn son to a Kohen seemed sexist and outdated, but then we thought about how infrequently the ritual takes place and struggled to find a modern context for it. We decided to explore ways to put a present-day spin on the tradition and use the ceremony as an educational opportunity for my congregation.

Our sages offer much commentary for carrying out the pidyon haben ritual. For example, the redemption of the child is traditionally completed by the exchange of five silver coins. In Numbers 18:15-16 we are told that the child is to be redeemed for five shekels, “by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs.” Since we do not know for sure what amount the shekel of the sanctuary amounts to in modern currency, the Rabbis suggest using the equivalent of 100 grams of pure silver. In the U.S., the custom is to use five silver dollars.

The pidyon haben ceremony affirms that a newborn belongs to God and the Jewish faith. As progressive Jews working toward repairing our world (tikkun olam), our first child also signifies our desire to build a family with an eye toward social justice. In addition to the symbolic ritual of exchanging the five coins, we celebrated Alex's birth by giving tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice) to five Jewish organizations that are significant to us – one for each coin. We hope that doing so will highlight our devotion to family, education, Israel, and the arts as one facet of welcoming welcome Alex into the Jewish community.  

Although pidyon haben is specifically a male ritual, some progressive Jews have created a pidyon habat, adapting the ceremony for a firstborn daughter. As a Jewish woman who is deeply devoted to egalitarianism and the belief that men and women share equal responsibilities in the Jewish community, I researched why the redemption of the firstborn has historically been a male-centered ritual. Although redeeming sons and not daughters may seem sexist, the biblical reasoning applies only to males because in Egypt, only the firstborn males were in danger, which was why only they were redeemed in later generations. Furthermore, a pidyon haben was necessary after the building and worship of the golden calf. Women did not take part in this event directly (nor in any worship during that period), so they did not have to be redeemed into the service of God.

When viewed this way, a pidyon haben does not necessarily represent male superiority. Just as women today wear tallit (prayer shawls), tefillin (phylacteries), and kippot (yarmulkes) during worship, there is no reason a family couldn’t choose to have a pidyon habat as a symbolic gesture for a baby daughter. It is for precisely these reasons that we chose to have a pidyon haben for Alex: to commemorate tradition, to take advantage of a rare opportunity for a mitzvah (commandment), and to lay a foundation for him to live a meaningful life within the Jewish community and beyond.

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Whose Fight Is This?: My Parenting Challenge

“It is the policy of the University to respect its members' religious beliefs. In compliance with New York State law, each student who is absent from school because of his or her religious beliefs will be given an equivalent opportunity to register for classes or make up any examination, study, or work requirements that he or she may have missed because of such absence on any particular day or days. No student will be penalized for absence due to religious beliefs, and alternative means will be sought for satisfying the academic requirements involved.”

– School of Nursing Handbook

As my children will attest, I can be “bossy.” Now that they’re in their early 20s, I try to step back and let them live their lives as independent, confident adults, but it’s hard.

Last year, when my daughter was pursuing a master’s degree in nursing, she couldn’t commit to attend the seder because her clinical rotation assignments were made week-to-week. Nonetheless, I nagged her and shortly before the seder, she hastily rearranged her schedule with the on-site preceptor, and simultaneously emailed the change to the liaison at the university.

During the seder, I watched her stunned expression as she read an email from an associate nursing professor who questioned the way the schedule change had been made. Even today, as I chronicle the events that unfolded after Becca received that email, I can feel my blood pressure rise.

When she returned to her clinical site the next day, two different assistant professors arrived unannounced and informed her of the proper protocol for taking time off without repercussions, telling her she should have contacted their office as soon as possible if she wanted to change her schedule to be able to attend a seder.

Later that week, Becca was informed that her grade for the clinical rotation would be reduced a full letter grade as a penalty for taking time off and not following established protocols for doing so.

At that point, steam was coming out of my ears.

My son, upset by the school’s punishment and my frustration and anger over it, was quick to implicate me because I’d encouraged his sister to attend the seder. The entire scenario, he told me, would have been avoided had I not done that.

Although I knew this wasn’t my fight to fight, I sought out advice from many people, including top leaders and rabbis in the Reform Movement. Following the advice of one rabbi-colleague with whom I work, I reached out to the university’s Hillel rabbi, who as our liaison, was understanding, but realistic about the likelihood that the academic penalty would be reversed.  

Indeed, when Becca received her grades for the semester, the clinical rotation grade was a full letter grade below what she had earned. Despite her desire that I let the incident go, I was more determined than ever to see justice done. My fortitude bred her resentment, and we became locked in a vicious cycle. She sent polite emails and I nudged her to follow-up with a request for a face-to-face meeting with the dean of the university’s school of nursing.

A face-to-face meeting was arranged for a Friday afternoon shortly before graduation. That morning, the liaison from Hillel called to tell us that his conversation with the dean – initiated at my request, to smooth the way before my daughter’s meeting – hadn’t gone well. The dean, he said, didn’t quite see our side, and the Hillel rabbi was dubious about whether she could be swayed. Hearing that, my daughter said she wouldn’t meet with the dean.

I insisted she go.

As I drove home from dropping her at the train, I silently acknowledged that around this issue, I, a hands-off parent, had somehow morphed into a tiger mother. And, although we don’t know the reason, shortly after her in-person meeting with the dean, the academic penalty lodged against Becca was reversed.

Looking back, I still wonder if my hands-on approach was right. Was it worth the prolonged stress, aggravation, conflict in our family, and the sour taste it left as we attended graduation? Did I adequately model for my daughter – and my son – that there are times when one must pursue what’s right – even when it’s uncomfortable and others tell you to let it go?

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Hide and Seek: Re-Imagining the Rituals of Afikomen

The Passover ritual of the afikomen – breaking the middle matzah, declaring a portion of it to be afikomen, hiding it, sending people to find it, then re-dividing it and sharing it with everyone – is wonderfully playful and deeply profound. It was a stroke of pedagogical genius to include a ritual so physical, one that requires participants to get up and move around, to infuse a healthy dose of variety and contrast to a night that revolves around a lot of talking, listening, and staying in place.

So, too, is the progression of afikomen events consistent with the essentials of great storytelling. We introduce the elements of the subplot, build anticipation, step back from the game, return to the seder, create even more suspense, reopen the search, try to keep up with any number of those looking for the hidden matzah, and finally rejoice in the afikomen being found.

Participants meet the afikomen. Participants lose the afikomen. Participants get the afikomen back.

Both the ones who hide and find the afikomen have one another over a barrel. The seder cannot end without the afikomen being shared, so the lucky winner wants a prize for its return. Then again, we cannot go home (or go to sleep) without the afikomen being shared, so the host has the leverage of peer pressure to help bring negotiations to a close. All of those present have a personal stake in “getting to yes.” Like other elements of this game-like ritual, the return of the afikomen teaches that we are mutually dependent on one another for a positive outcome.

What else does the afikomen hunt teach?

It teaches that finding requires seeking.

That seeking, in and of itself, is worthwhile and fun.

That discovering new meaning demands that we keep looking.

That we can’t bring anything to a satisfying conclusion without the patience and persistence needed to get there.

The seder calls not only for imagination but for re-imagination. What would happen if our children were the ones to hide the afikomen, and we adults were the ones expected to find it? What would they learn from the task of placing it so that finding it is difficult enough to be challenging yet easy enough to allow us to welcome in Elijah before midnight? What would we learn from the task of looking for it and from the joy of looking at our children looking at us look?

Knowing where things are and how to look for them is good for young and old alike. Our children need to know that we’re still interested in seeking, and we need to remember that where we put things will surely have an effect on the ability of others to find them.

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The Feminist Seder in the Time of #MeToo

Each year, after my childhood family seders at Uncle Danny’s (first night) and Aunt Betty’s (second night), I looked forward to a whole new world the third night, in New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea.  There was the improvised “table” – patterned fabrics spread on the floor of someone’s loft, the pile of pillows we all brought to sit on in a huge circle, and the myriad platters each guest contributed for the potluck meal.

The Feminist Seder was a highlight of my youth in the 1970s and ’80s. I started attending these innovative, women-only observances at age 12, but hadn’t been to one since college. So when my mother invited me along two years ago, I accepted.

I capitalize Feminist Seder because although there are now hundreds of them, this was the original – the revolutionary ritual started in 1976 by the late Esther Broner (an esteemed academic and spiritual presence) in collaboration with a group of women, including my mom, Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

“The Seder Sisters,” as they called themselves, reimagined a ritual that had largely sidelined women in the Bible, Haggadah, and the seder ceremony itself; traditionally, while men would do the praying, reciting, recounting, and discussing, women would do the cooking, serving, clearing, and cleaning.

I remember being soothed by Esther Broner’s ethereal voice, being riveted by her poetic asides, pushed by her incisive questions. I felt privileged to be a “seder daughter,” sitting among leaders of the women’s movement, such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.

I listened attentively to the teachings of writer Phyllis Chesler (usually in a caftan), artists Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose (the first lesbians in my life), filmmaker Lilly Rivlin, who directed the 2013 documentary film Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, which chronicles The Feminist Passover.

The 40th Feminist Seder was led collaboratively by a small group of Esther Broner’s devoted friends.

As had been the custom for the past 40 years, each woman introduced herself by her matrilineage. I invoked, for the first time, the name of my teenage daughter: “I am Abigail, mother of Molly, daughter of Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny.”

Lilly Rivlin asked us to “bring an invisible guest” to the table — a woman, living or dead, whom we wish could be present. Nahama Broner, Esther’s daughter and a psychology professor, “brought” all the unnamed women of the Exodus story, the Israelite women who danced on the shores of the Red Sea, and her own daughter, Alexandra, who was in Kenya doing development work.

Canadian writer Michelle Landsberg “brought” Ernestine Rose, a little-known 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer.

My mother Letty “brought” my late Aunt Betty, who warmed to the women’s movement after initially resisting it, and who eagerly participated in the Feminist Seder for years until she died in 2013.

Our evening’s host, Barbara Kane, “brought” Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Carl Jung’s who became one of the very first female psychoanalysts. She was killed by a Nazi death squad.

After the blessing over the candles, we were asked to bless the woman sitting to our right. My mother blessed me – a little over-emotionally, but I could see it was sentimental for her to have one of her daughters back at this ceremony.

We then took turns reading The Ten Plagues According to Women, written by my mother back in 2010.

Here’s her take on the fourth plague, beasts:

“Our beasts don’t always prowl in public; they attack in private, in the caves of our lives – on dark streets, in parked cars, in offices after hours, in shuttered bedrooms. Our beasts are men who abuse and violate women, physically, emotionally, and sexually. Men who rape and say “she wanted it.” Or, “She wore a short skirt.” Men who attack their wives and children behind closed doors, some with mezuzot on the doorposts. For years we were told Jewish men don’t beat or rape or commit incest. But they do. A plague on them.”

This year, with the explosion of the #MeToo movement, our modern plagues – such as Mom’s hidden beasts – could pack a renewed punch at feminist seders everywhere. Who could have known, eight years ago, that so many who prowled in private would be outed, and so many women delivered from the silent shame they thought was the only way?

My night at The Feminist Seder ended with my favorite rite, the so-called “Sacred Schmatta” (rag, in Yiddish) a chain of gauzy fabric, one piece tied crudely to the next. We wrapped it around ourselves like one continuous tallit (prayer shawl) and sang Michelle Landsberg’s version of “Dayenu,” including the verse:

If only Torah told the story
Of the women, gave them glory
If our mothers were remembered
Dayenu.

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6 New Children's Books that are Perfect for Passover

A talking parrot saves the family seder and a moose-musician is eager to host his perfect first Passover meal in a pair of delightful new children's books for the holiday, which this year begins on the night of March 30. A third book celebrates the rich diversity of the Jewish people through photographs.

Looking beyond Passover, a new crop of Jewish children's books beckons for the spring that includes a picture book on Moe Berg, the Jewish baseball player who became a spy for the U.S. government; an adventure chapter book that travels back to the days of King Solomon; and a rollicking graphic novel on the life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Paulie's Passover Predicament

Written by Jane Sutton; illustrated by Barbara Vagnozzi
Kar-Ben; ages 3-8

Paulie is a guitar-playing moos-ician who is hosting his very first seder and wants it to be just perfect. At the grocery store, he piles his cart with boxes of matzah, candles and lots of grape juice. But Paulie's guests - a porcupine, bear, bunny and others - giggle and poke fun at his seder plate with its really big ostrich egg, saltwater with pepper, and pine cones rather than walnuts for the ceremonial charoset.

Kids will get in on the action when Paulie sets out to search for the hidden afikomen - until the basement door closes shut behind him. Paulie ingeniously solves the problem and later leads his friends in a rousing rendition of "Dayenu"; he is especially grateful for his freedom.  Jane Sutton's playful story, enhanced by Barbara Vagnozzi's brightly colored illustrations, captures the excitement of celebrating Passover with a tender touch that reinforces the importance of being kind to friends.

The Passover Parrot

by Evelyn Zusman; illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker (Kar-Ben; ages 3-8)

Lily lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn with her parents and six brothers and sisters. She loves swinging on a tire swing that hangs from a large tree in their New York City backyard. As the family prepares to celebrate Passover, a neighbor who is moving drops off her pet parrot as a gift that delights Lily -- her mom, however, doesn't share the excitement. The parrot's name is Hametz, the word for bread and other leavened food that is not eaten during Passover.

Lily is determined to recite the Four Questions in Hebrew at the seder, but everyone is too busy to help her practice. Except Hametz, that is, who repeats the questions back to Lily. With a houseful of guests for the seder, Lily's father is not amused when Hametz chimes in with Lily and he banishes the parrot to the girl's room. Will the seder be ruined when Lily discovers Hametz and the afikomen missing from her room? Lily solves the mystery and the seder comes to an uplifting end.

This is a newly illustrated 35th anniversary edition of this story by Evelyn Zusman, who was a Hebrew school teacher in New York and Los Angeles, according to Kar-Ben. A lively Lily and playful Hametz are center stage throughout the book's large, colorful illustrations by Canadian artist Kyrsten Brooker. She draws readers in on the scenes that evoke a nostalgic feel of urban Jewish life in the early to mid-20th century.

We Are Jewish Faces

by Debra B. Davick (Apples & Honey Press; ages 5-8

This joyful collection of colorful photographs conveys the rich diversity of Jews today, with the faces of Jewish children and teens with their grandparents, friends, brothers and sisters. While the recommended age range is 5-8, the lively but simple photographs will appeal to even younger ones, who will be fascinated by the smiling, cheerful faces of other kids. The settings traverse the globe and the Jewish life cycle and calendar, from blowing the shofar, eating matzah and lighting a Hanukkah menorah to graduations, bar mitzvah celebrations and other milestones. Kids are dressed in contemporary clothes and traditional elaborately decorated Yemenite clothing.

In an author's note, Debra Davick writes that she was first inspired to create the book by visiting her children Jewish day school many years ago - a community that included Jewish children from an array of Jewish families.

Here are some new Jewish titles on the springtime bookshelves:

The Spy Who Played Baseball

by Carrie Jones; illustrated by Gary Cherrington (Kar-Ben; ages 5-9)

Nothing says spring like baseball. This new book introduces kids to the unusual story of Moe Berg, a Princeton-educated, multi-lingual major leaguer from the 1930s who was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. During World War II, Berg became an intelligence officer for the U.S. war efforts, including in Nazi-controlled Europe.

Search for the Shamir

by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrations by Ivica Stevanovic (Kar-Ben; ages 6-9)

This is the second in the "Scarlett and Sam" series, a Jewish chapter book for older readers. Eric Kimmel, a popular and award-winning author, delivers a fun adventure story with returning fictional twins Scarlett and Sam, who travel back in time to ancient Jerusalem, where they face the challenge of finding a mythical insect called the shamir that the ruler needs to build the First Temple.

Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth

by Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and Pierre Lehu; illustrated by Mark Simmons (Apples & Honey Press; ages 8-12)

In this graphic novel, kids follow the remarkable life journey of Ruth Westheimer, the popular sex-therapist media star known as Dr. Ruth who fled the Nazis on a Kindertransport, trained as a sniper with the Haganah in Israel and immigrated to the U.S. 

Penny Schwartz writes for JTA, where this piece originally appeared. It is republished with permission.

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6 Important Lessons from Sam, My 5-Year-Old Friend

One of my closest friends, Sam, is 5-years-old. On most weekdays at about 3 o’clock, he comes into my office, puts his Spiderman backpack and lunchbox on the floor, takes a seat, and begins our conversation.

“Rabbi PJs, let me tell you about my day.”

Sometimes, Sam brings his favorite toys for us to play with, tells me about something he learned that day, or whether he liked the story I read during our preschool Shabbat. Recently, he invited me to his birthday party, and I’ve had Shabbat dinner at his home. He’s been to my house for dinner as well.

Although I know some might argue that I have broken the cardinal rule of being a rabbi – never play favorites – there is something about my relationship with Sam that goes beyond any kind of favoritism. From the moment we met, we had an instant connection that has grown stronger with time.

Sam has asked me to promise to officiate at his bar mitzvah, and has given me his blessing to officiate his older sister’s bat mitzvah. I think he genuinely understands that becoming a bar mitzvah is an important moment in a Jewish person’s life. During our chats, Sam has asked me about God, why we light Shabbat candles, and frequently corrects me when I incorrectly sing the lyrics to some of our Shabbat songs.

Thanks to Sam, I have allies in his parents, whom I can count on to volunteer in our congregation and act as a sounding board for some of my crazy ideas. I also have developed a relationship with Sam’s older sister, who has declared me to be “the biggest rabbi kid she has ever met, who just happens to be an adult.”

Although I don’t think Sam realizes it, our friendship informs my own philosophy of early childhood and young family engagement in my congregation. These are some of the important lessons I’ve learned from him (which can be valuable to anyone with young children in their lives):

  1. Affirm children’s creativity and imagination: Allow children to lead you into their world of make believe and you will experience awe and wonder through their eyes. As Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus says, “Get messy and make mistakes.” When you play with children and let them lead you in play, you not only get to embrace your inner child, you also can get a good sense of how children process information, and what excites and disappoints them.
  1. Encourage children to verbalize their feelings:  When children are sad or angry, help them verbalize and explain their feelings. Children are easily discouraged when they don’t feel they are being heard, so active listening is a crucial skill for adults who interact with children.
  1. Adapt parenting strategies to help you interact with children: When possible, find opportunities to observe how children’s parents engage with them and mirror those techniques that seem to be effective. Parents appreciate when you complement their own parenting styles.
  1. Learn children’s likes and dislikes, their strengths and areas for growth: As in any friendship, knowing and caring about the other person not only strengthens the relationship, but also allows you to help facilitate how children and their families interact in group settings.
  1. Ensure children feel a sense of belonging: Families want their children to feel a sense of belonging and community throughout their lives. Although it’s not possible to know precisely what this means for each family or each child, it’s important to make sure that families’ concerns, interests, ideas, and more are heard and, when necessary, to have the community respond to needs and concerns.
  1. Begin building Jewish connections with children as soon as possible: Providing meaningful Jewish experiences that foster personal, physical, cognitive, and spiritual development of children from the get-go, means that children (and their families) are more likely to feel connected to their Jewish community throughout their lives – from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.

As Sam and I know well, a true friendship is one in which both people learn and grow together. I’m grateful to Sam for being my friend and for helping me learn and grow every day. As always, I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at around 3 o’clock.

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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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