Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sharing the Sweetness of the New Year

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you 
Happy birthday dear friends 
Happy birthday to you

Birthdays are one of life’s simple pleasures. They don’t celebrate an achievement or accomplishment; rather they celebrate life, existence.

We are about to celebrate a big birthday, the world’s birthday. In addition to marking the New Year, Rosh Hashanah also marks the universe's creation. While it may not feel like a birthday when you're sitting in services, Rosh Hashanah mirrors secular birthday observances. It's a time to take stock of the past year, be with family and friends, eat sweet treats and think about the year ahead.

My family started to get into the spirit of the holiday last Friday evening. With our havurah (a small group of like-minded Jews who gather for Shabbat and holidays, communal experiences, or learning), we volunteered at The Birthday Party Project.

The Birthday Party Project brings joy to homeless children through the magic of birthdays. It partners with shelters and agencies to help children and families experience what it feels like to have someone recognize you simply because you're you. The organization works alongside agencies dealing with the complexities of poverty and homelessness to address some of the emotional needs of children in this situation. As an advisory board member of the group has said, “The Birthday Party Project…says to these kids, ‘Homelessness may be your circumstance, but it is not who you are. You matter. Your dreams matter. You are worth celebrating.’"

So, instead of gathering around a Shabbat table, we gathered to throw a big birthday party. We had crafts and a petting zoo, cakes and gifts for the four children celebrating their birthdays in the month of September, and cupcakes for all. The smiling faces smeared with icing communicated all we needed to know about the impact we made. Watching the children cuddle the animals and play with balloons showed us how joy changes lives.

After the party, we learned that the families we served did not actually live on the street, but were part of a program that provides transitional housing, household management skills, and childcare to participants.

Parents and caregivers have jobs and undergo regular drug testing, the children attend school. The birthday parties help celebrate the fresh start they are making.

As I thought more about these families, I realized that the work they are doing is similar to the work we are asked to do on Rosh Hashanah. They are facing their mistakes, asking for forgiveness, and working to create a better life for themselves and their children. The same things we will be tasked with over the next 10 days.

Volunteering at The Birthday Party Project was a fun mitzvah and a great way to share the sweetness of the Jewish New Year. It was also a real example of what the High Holy Day season is all about.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Leaving Our Jewish Bubble

For nine-and-a-half years, my family has lived in a Jewish bubble. Our son attended Jewish preschool, then Jewish day school and attends Jewish overnight camp.

The majority of our Dallas friends are either Jewish or interfaith raising Jewish children. Our synagogue is the center of our social network.

This Jewish circle has nurtured our religious identity and made engaging in Judaism easy for my interfaith family. Many of the stories in From Generation to Generation grew out of the supportive Jewish community in which we are immersed.

But the time has come to expand our interaction with the non-Jewish world beyond extended family, business associates, a few neighbors, and families from our son’s extracurricular sports activities. It’s time to leave our Jewish bubble.

The catalyst for this transition is our son’s education. That might be a surprise since I dedicate a chapter in From Generation to Generation to our decision to use day school and our satisfaction with our choice.

But between the writing of that chapter and the publication of the book things changed. A new administration came in and adjusted curriculum and teaching style. We gave the changes a chance, but after two years, it was clear the adjustments weren’t working for our child.

Our son who had always loved learning and bounced out of bed excited to go to school, now dreaded getting up. It became harder for him to get to school on time. He told us he wanted to leave. We agreed to investigate other options.

We found a school that we felt was a better fit for our son. It was not a Jewish school, but one affiliated with the Episcopal Church. It had a religiously diverse student body and celebrated the traditions and stories from the major Eastern and Western faiths during chapel. Still, I needed reassurance that a Jewish family, even an interfaith one, would not feel like outsiders.

I spoke to Jewish friends whose children had been students. They assured me that the faith component of the curriculum was egalitarian, representative of various religions and emphasized universal values.

Still, I wondered what it would be like, especially for our son who had been in Jewish schools all his life, to move from an all-Jewish environment to one where Jews were a minority. I pushed the thought aside. There were only 12 openings for fourth grade and at least 100 applicants. There was no guarantee he would get in.

But as From Generation to Generation moved deeper into production, we learned that our son had been accepted at the school. Now my wonders edged closer to worries.

Would the religious component really be as innocuous as my friends said? Would our family feel like outsiders because we practiced Judaism? Would we encounter prejudice or proselytizing? Would our son want to shed his Jewish identity? Should I stop production of the book and remove chapter seven?

After much thought, I chose to leave the education chapter in the book. Over a four-year-period, day school deepened our family’s connection to Judaism and nurtured our son’s heart and mind. While our son was no longer thriving, we didn't regret our choice. It was the right place, for a time, and I hoped the experience I shared would make others consider day school, even if only for a few years.

As for my other concerns, after a week of classes, there have been no problems. There are two other new Jewish students, and their shared faith has helped the three boys connect. My son said that during chapel they read about creation and the burning bush – stories familiar to him. He said that some children clasped their hands and placed them on their foreheads during a prayer, but many of his classmates did not including him. He said he didn’t feel uncomfortable in any way.  

I don’t know how this new environment will affect our family’s Jewish identity and practice. The Talmud teaches us that it’s difficult to know what is truly good or bad, regardless of appearances, when a story is still unfolding. Right now, breaking out of our Jewish bubble is just another stop on our interfaith and Jewish journey.