Friday, October 24, 2014

Non-Sectarian Chapel? Seeing is Believing

This week I had my first chapel experience at my son’s new school. It was birthday chapel where boys (it’s an all-boys school) with October birthdays were recognized. My Jewish and Muslim friends told me to expect a non-sectarian service, but I was skeptical.

One reason for my skepticism was that we lived in Dallas, the most Bible-thumping city in Texas according to a 2014 study by the American Bible Society. Christianity was practically a state religion, and it wasn’t hard to find Jesus in public life. He was discussed in Gymboree classes; served through dance schools, baseball clinics, and talent agencies, and talked about in boardrooms and public school lunchrooms. It was hard to believe that a school named for a Christian saint would have a non-denominational service.

The other reason I questioned the non-sectarian nature of the chapel was that in pictures, it appeared very Christian–candles, altar boys in robes, an organ, and wooden pews. It reminded me of Our Lady of the Lake church in my New Jersey hometown. How could something that seemed so Christian be ecumenical?

This was how: The school was created in 1950, not by the church, but through the merger of two schools–one secular and one Episcopal. As in any merger, as the two organizations worked to become one, compromises were made.

One compromise was chapel. It was decided that the new institution would have a non-sectarian spiritual component that honored all faiths, but the chaplain would always be an Episcopal priest. 

The chapel compromise sounded very peace-love-and-happiness-ish, but I still needed to see how it worked in practice. After experiencing it, I realized that my friends were right. The spiritual aspect of the school was as advertised: non-denominational and designed to provide moral direction through the integration of teachings from a variety of faiths.

The reading at the service was from the Tipitaka, the sacred book of Buddhism. The homily delivered by the priest included a brief overview of Buddhist beliefs–decrease suffering, increase happiness–and a story about Siddhartha, the prince that became the Buddha. Rather than succeed his father as king Siddhartha chose to work to alleviate suffering and make the world a better, happier place.

Sounded like Siddhartha knew something about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam; repairing the world. The priest then discussed Buddhism’s focus on ethical speech, action and living. As he talked about each of these principles, I was reminded that Judaism requires the same things from Jews.

Regardless of the faith, the story was reinforcing the same moral doctrines my son learned at home and in our synagogue, and heard about from his Jewish and non-Jewish family. I was thankful for the assistance in driving home these messages.  

Following the story, we sang a few songs about appreciating the beauty of all of God’s creations while the birthday boys and their parents were honored. The hymns used the words"God" and "Lord," but were otherwise religiously generic. The most Judeo-Christian aspect of the service was a blessing in recognition of the parents in attendance. The priest offered the prayer in the name of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and Mary.

After a brief announcement, the service ended. The priest said, “Chapel is over.” There was no closing hymn or parting words of wisdom. I gave my son a kiss and said goodbye. He left for his next class and I headed towards the parking lot.

As I walked to my car, rather than feeling concerned about the religious component of the school’s curriculum, I was delighted. My son was learning about other faiths in a way that taught him to recognize the values shared by many religions. Important tenets of Judaism such as asking questions and living a life of responsibility were being reinforced through Jewish and non-Jewish stories.

As I drove home, I thought about how my son would be a more enlightened and tolerant person because of this spiritual education. I thought about this in the context of the actions being perpetrated today around the globe in the name of God. And I saw that the non-sectarian chapel was good.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A New Kind of Friday Night Lights

For the past eight-and-a-half years, Friday night lights meant one thing: Shabbat candles. Each week, before we lit them, we would dim the lights in our kitchen and family room so we could enjoy the glow of the flames. Even on the nights when Shabbat dinner was hastily thrown together, the candles’ radiance was calming, helping to put the work and school week behind us. But this fall, we’ve had to make room in our routine for a new kind of Friday night lights; the Friday night lights of high school football.

One of the traditions at our son Sammy’s new school, which includes first- through 12th-grade, is that students and their families from all grade levels attend varsity home games on Friday nights. On game days, the players wear their jerseys over dress shirts with ties and slacks, and stand at the entrance to the lower school during morning carpool. They greet each boy (it’s an all boy’s school) as they enter the building, encourage them to go to the game and give them a team ribbon to wear. 

With a sales pitch like that, you can imagine that all the boys, including Sammy, want to go to the game that evening. Cameron and I want to go also, not only to support the school, but also to get to know the parents of Sammy’s classmates and integrate into the school community. The problem is that the games begin at 7:00 p.m. about the same time we start Shabbat.

This wouldn’t be an issue if I were willing to trade our home ritual for football. Instead of reconnecting as a family over Shabbat dinner, we could reconnect at the game. The spotlights on the field could fill-in for the candles. We could pretend it was kind of like Shabbat.

But Sammy planned to meet his friends and play football in a grassy area next to the field, leaving Cameron and me in the stands with the other parents. While this was nice, it wasn’t time spent connecting as a family. It wasn’t Shabbat or even sort-of Shabbat-like.

Since I wasn’t willing to abandon Shabbat on game nights, I had two other choices: say no to football or find a compromise. Shabbat was an important ritual and one that had been key to building my interfaith family’s connection to Judaism. But I knew if I said, "no football," Sammy would resent the observance and me. I wanted him to look forward to Shabbat, not feel it was an obligation pushed on him by his mother.

I decided to work out a compromise solution, a way for us to have our football and challah too. A quick pre-game Shabbat dinner was considered but was nixed because leaving burning candles unattended while we cheered on the football team sounded like a recipe for disaster or at least fire.

A post-game celebration was suggested but voted down because Cameron and I didn’t want to start our observance at 10 p.m. At that hour, after a long week, we wanted to go to bed.

What we finally came up with was a two-part ritual–a pre-football dinner that included all the blessings minus the candles, followed by post-game candle lighting. This ritual wasn’t ideal, but it allowed us to have Shabbat and football, candles and spotlights.

This week we will again welcome Shabbat with our two kinds of Friday night lights. One ancient; one modern. One that bonds us to the Jewish people and one that makes us Yankee transplants a little Texan.