I was recently visiting my family in Spain. My mother, sister and I were ordering some drinks in an outdoor bar, enjoying balmy Andalusian weather, when my mother, starting a conversation with the waiter asked how the financial crisis is affecting the business. He responded without missing a beat: “As long as there is money for food and laughter everything is okay”. I was struck. Really? All you need is food and laughter? That is all? What about a house? What about health? What about a Jewish education? And then I considered the lesson in this waiter’s words. A complete stranger had brought me to a new understanding of what joy is and the place it can take in our lives. We are all so busy, with long to-do lists, work, social commitments, and responsibilities. Where is there room for joy? If we think of joy and laughter as sustenance, then its pursuit takes on new meaning. It lightens our spirits. How much time do we spend doing things that are fun with our families? Are we teaching our kids the value of being “b’simcha” being in joy? My son came home saying that he learned in school that when we smile it actually makes us feel better inside; it makes us happier. Lately we are making a point of smiling at each other at home. Just because.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
There is no concise manual for how to be a good parent. No matter how many hours of pregnancy classes or how many books one reads in preparation for this amazing adventure rife with challenge and revelation, from the first day a child enters the world, s/he changes it. No matter what we think we can expect, rarely a day goes by that doesn’t bring a surprise of one form or another. And parenting doesn’t end once our children graduate from infancy, or childhood, or adolescence. Just as we think we might be mastering a particular stage of our child’s development, a new stage emerges, often with new expectations, and no two children experience these stages the same way. So where does Parenting Through a Jewish Lens fit into the picture?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began preparing for our first session this year. Having served in a number of educational capacities and worked with diverse populations, I anticipated that this would still be something new and I was certainly correct in that assumption. The past four sessions with my cohort from Kadimah-Toras Moshe in
Brighton have been extraordinary. I do not presume to
evaluate my impact as the facilitator but rather to reflect on the overall
contributions from everyone in attendance. As a modern orthodox community with
a diverse population, our cadre is comprised of a range of current and future
parents, some with young children, some with teens, some anticipating becoming
the parents they hope to be. Each member of our group adds color and depth to
our conversations, often promoting deeper understanding and sparking new
I anticipated that this type of learning environment would be different. I did not fully understand to what extent I would be benefitting from the process of learning with such a dynamic group of individuals. Rarely is one presented with the opportunity to truly learn among peers and to wrestle with and sometimes be inspired by the amazing resources that the Torah and our heritage provide. One of the most rewarding aspects of this “chavruta” (learning group) has been the aggregate wisdom shared and the sense of strengthened community resulting from our collective and collaborative learning. We may not become perfect parents as a result of participating in this program but I certainly expect we will become better able to face the exciting challenges and opportunities that parenthood presents. It could be a song, a prayer, an inspiring passage, or any of the many wonderful conversations and stories that we share that reminds us that we are not alone in our efforts.
PTJL is no panacea for the parenting challenges we all face. It is a wonderful outlet to learn and share, laugh and cry as we work together to help foster the next generation. It reminds us of how influential each person can be and how important our roles as parents and as children can be as we strive to be meaningful contributors to the world around us.
What am I grateful for? This question has come up at many of the community Shabbat celebrations I have attended. Sometimes the question comes in the form of a request to name a highlight of the week, to which most people answer, “I am most grateful to be here, with all of you!” And I am sure it is true. Shabbat can feel like a relief, and it feels nice to share that sense of relief with others who value this time enough to have attended such a gathering. Each of us is there, trying, in our own capacity, to press the stop button, to add some sense of humanity, of belonging, and perhaps a little bit of the sacred to our lives, and it feels good.
And yet, I have also felt this expression of gratitude for being together to be low hanging fruit, grabbed out of convenience in the moment the question is asked; if the highlights we shared with people who don't know us were more personal, this might actually make us feel more unique and isolated, just when we were trying to feel connected.
I never suspected, though, that taking the ritual of talking about highlights of the week into the home setting would change this dynamic so profoundly. It helped that in our Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class it was suggested that we might want to use the Blessing of the Children as an opportunity to recognize our kids for one of their personal triumphs that week, and then for parents to turn to each other and share an appreciation of each other. Hearing a reflection of what stood out for others about our behavior set a tone for subsequent conversation that helped bring the sacred sweetness of Shabbat into our relating with one another. It helped us to see the best in each other and focus on the personal strengths we bring to the things we do. Highlights were no longer about good things that just happened to us, but more about actions we had taken that had a positive impact on ourselves and those around us.
May these rituals and conversations continue to help us grow, reflect, and take positive actions that strengthen our relationships within and beyond our families. Thank you Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Since my son was very young, and we were very new parents, we have always had a nightly routine. It has changed somewhat throughout my son’s 2+ years, but always includes a bath, one (or many) books, and some iteration of “cuddle time.” In our family, bedtime is one ritual that is sacred in our lives, when sitting at the kitchen table for meals or snacking on healthy food simply falls through the cracks of our working-parent existence. However, since beginning our Parenting through a Jewish Lens class in October, bedtime has changed.
One of the most important pieces of advice I have gotten as a new parent is that just when you despair that your child will never sleep through the night, will never stop pooping in the tub, or will always throw tantrums when they can’t get what they want, things change. Sometimes these behaviors extinguish themselves, sometimes they demand special focused attention, sometimes they get worse, and sometimes they get better. But the one thing we can count on is that they will change.
Every Sunday morning, we get ourselves dressed and out of the house in order to meet with our knowledgeable teacher and other Jewish parents of young kids for PTJL. When we started this class five weeks ago, we didn’t know what it would be like, what we would learn, or how this learning would influence our development as a Jewish family, but we were open, and interested, and motivated, and we made sure to show up.
During the first class, we talked about morning and evening rituals, and ways that Jewish tradition helps us to ease these very present transitions in the day. One way we talked about is by saying the Shema at bedtime. This is our tradition’s way of easing the transition from wakefulness to sleep, by affirming our belief that we will be protected during the night. When we left this first class, we thought that by saying the Shema at night, it would be an easy way to bring Jewish tradition into our bedtime ritual. Five weeks strong, we are saying the shema every night. My two year old asks to say it when he is ready to “snuggle,” and covers his eyes . During this moment, everything else stops. My husband and I cuddle our son together as we say this prayer.
At our fifth class, many parents voiced frustration about time spent in houses of prayer: How can we model Jewish engagement for our young children when we spend the time there chasing them around or keeping them from disturbing others? The other night, during bedtime, my son answered this question for me. After the Shema and before going into the crib, my son and I snuggle while he initiates conversations about his day, such as “Talk about the library,” or “Talk about pre-school.” From there I muster up everything I can about what happened that day, and try to engage him in conversation about it, although he usually just wants me to talk. The other night I was shocked when he said, “Talk about Jewish Lens.”
The funny part is that while we learn during PTJL, he goes to babysitting. He is not there to engage in a discussion of Jewish values. WE are. Yet somehow he knows that this matters. Even our very young children know, can understand and internalize our values. So when our son says Shema at night, even though he doesn’t understand what the words mean, he knows it matters. And when we go to services on Saturday mornings, we may not spend a moment praying, but he knows this matters. And when we snuggle together at night, talking about his day, he knows that our time together with him is what matters. Our children are not the only ones learning, growing and changing. We are too.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
During this crazy time of the year as we’re caught up with Chanukah and Thanksgiving, it’s easy to forget that we actually get to celebrate a holiday every week: Shabbat! I love that our tradition gives us this weekly opportunity to press the pause button on our hectic lives and encourages us to spend time with our families. For those of us with young children, though, this can seem more daunting than enjoyable. In my work with families, I try to help them see that there are so many things they are already doing from day to day that are Jewish.
One of these family rituals is Shabbat dinner. There is overwhelming evidence showing the benefits of eating together as a family, from better long-term academic performance to improved health for all involved, and most importantly the relationship building that happens when we eat with the people we love, spend time together and talk about what’s really important to us.
I know that at the end of a busy work week, putting together a nice dinner for your family can seem especially challenging. Many of us have in our minds that Shabbat Dinner = Roast Chicken. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a leisurely chicken dinner, but with 2 working parents, a 1 year old and 3 year old, we don’t always have the time and energy for that. More often than not these days, Friday night dinner at our house is homemade pizza. It’s a great way to use up the leftovers in your fridge, and even if you live with picky eaters, if it’s on a pizza, it seems to be more palatable. Some tips on getting this meal on the table:
- If I make pasta with tomato sauce earlier in the week, I reserve about half a cup for the pizza.
- Keep some frozen pizza dough in the fridge, it’s just as easy to double or triple the recipe.
- Trader Joe’s has some GREAT prepared pizza dough, whole wheat, spinach, etc.
- Involve our kids in preparing dinner, they can help roll out the dough, place the topping on the pizza, sprinkle the cheese, etc.
- Whatever leftover veggies you have in your fridge will work great, throw some cheese on top and bake away, don’t over think it!
- Serve with a simple salad, if you have a salad spinner this is another great way to involve young kids in helping to prepare dinner.
Once you sit down to dinner with your family, make a point to mark this meal as something different, something sacred. By saying the Shabbat blessings over the candles, bread and wine, we have the chance to show that Shabbat is different from the rest of the week, and that the time we have to spend together over the next day is special. I love the tradition of incorporating a blessing over our children into our Shabbat dinner ritual. It doesn’t need to be formal, just a moment to reinforce how much we love them and how important family is.
Sometimes Friday night just won’t work for your family, and that’s OK! Find another time during the week to be together, there’s nothing special about dinner, breakfast works too, or a Saturday lunch. Just making the point to be together is what truly matters.
Here are some of my favorite resources for making Shabbat dinner a little easier for all of us:
The Family Dinner Project- Great information on why it’s so important to eat together. Helpful hints on conversation starters and easy recipes as well.
100 Days of Real Food- Suggestions for meal planning with HEALTHY food. Terrific recipes.
French Food Rules- A fabulous jumping off point for thinking about what’s important when it comes to eating in your family
Real Simple Magazine- A great all around recipe resource, especially this easy to follow month of meals
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Life changes when your first child is born. All of a sudden you are whisked into a world where focus and priorities are forever altered and everything you do is accompanied by the thought “what is best for my child?” During the first year, there is so much to learn and do that new parents are often overwhelmed with the small things and little questions. This was especially true for my wife and me as we moved to the Boston area from Montreal only a couple weeks before my first son was born. When that initial parenting stage passed, our lives didn’t become any calmer, rather new activities took over and questions now arise that are often much more complex.
My wife and I were raised in Conservative Jewish households. While my wife felt comfortable with this branch of Judaism, I never quite did. When life settled down after moving and having a baby, we both wanted to find our way back to some sort of Jewish community and were open to exploring wherever we might fit in. We joined a Reform synagogue, largely because we liked their kids programs. Now I felt comfortable, but my wife didn’t. As our son grew older and began attending the temple’s religious school and our daughter was at their nursery school, the question of how to include our faith and beliefs in our children’s lives became one that was harder to answer. This was especially true being in a community without our family and familiar surroundings to fall back on.
When we heard that Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (then called Ikkarim) was being offered at our temple during the time my son was in religious school, and with babysitting available for my younger daughter, it was really a no brainer to sign up. Not only could we tell our son that he wasn’t the only one who had to go to Hebrew school on the weekend, but we felt a need to dig deeper into the role Judaism played in our everyday lives.
Our class was amazing! While we read interesting texts, it was the discussions that came out of them that really broadened our horizons and helped both to reinforce ideals we already had and to open our eyes to new ways of thinking. The people in our group were an eclectic bunch and to our surprise, the majority of couples weren’t made up of two Jewish partners yet wanted to raise their kids Jewish. Navigating being a Jewish parent from a Catholic, Presbyterian or even Baha’i background is a big challenge and offered an entirely new perspective on our Conservative versus Reform debate.
The wonderful thing was that the class did not push anyone into a particular path, but instead opened up our minds to how incredibly flexible Judaism can be and demonstrated that throughout history even the greatest scholars and prophets have not always agreed on their interpretations of the Torah. And, even after all the stimulating educational sessions and invigorating discussions, we were left with something that to us was far more valuable: many new friends within a community that we were still getting to know. Several years later we remain close with a number of families from our PTJL class.
I recently joined the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens Alumni Advisory Group. While there are many great opportunities through Hebrew College, synagogues, and other organizations for continued Jewish learning, we still have a bond to PTJL and its concept of learning through the angle of parenting; and we have an even bigger bond to the families we met. The experience of PTJL does not have to end when the class is over. While the PTJL Alumni Advisory Group is a relatively new endeavor, there were two great inaugural events last year that we are building on by offering further opportunities to learn, grow and have fun together as parents and families. I am already looking forward to the Latkes and Light event on December 4th (5-7pm at
in Newton), a
family Chanukah program for alumni, current families and friends. I hope you’ll
Thursday, October 10, 2013
The summer of 2009 was a time of big changes for our family. My husband and I had made the decision to move our children – then ages 8, 6, and 2 – from
area. We were happy to be moving to a
place where we had family just a short drive away, but we were torn about
leaving the unique and close-knit Jewish community we had come to love in Boston . After unpacking our boxes and reprogramming
the “home” button on our GPS, one of our first goals was to look for a Jewish
community where we could begin to connect with other families like us. Pittsburgh
The task proved to be more difficult than we had expected. In
our older kids had gone to a day school with 20-30 kids per grade and in which
all the families knew each other; now there were nearly 60 kids in each of
their grades, so it was easy to fly under the radar as a new family. Moreover, since neither child was entering
the school as a kindergartner, we missed out on the “getting acquainted”
activities tailored for new families.
Our two-year-old wouldn’t be old enough for Jewish preschool for another
year, so we couldn’t connect through that venue either. Pittsburgh
We next looked to find community in the synagogue setting. We attended High Holiday services at
and began going to Shabbat services there, too.
However, as any parent knows, most of our conversations after services
were limited by our children’s needs – especially our two-year-old, who by the
end of a Shabbat service and kiddush lunch was ready to nap (if we took him
home) or decompensate (if we did not)! Temple Aliyah
Some of the young families I’d begun talking to at
invited me to join a Parenting Through aJewish Lens class that would begin there later that fall. I decided to give it a try, admittedly more
for the chance to get to know people than for the Jewish content. It turned out that the Jewish content was
what made it such a great way to get to know people. As a newcomer, it can be difficult to move
beyond “So what brought you to the Temple Aliyah
area?” But as I sat in a classroom week
after week, talking about Jewish texts and concepts and how they apply to our
lives and those of our children, I got to know what really mattered to my
classmates, who were gradually becoming my community. Boston
Because the class met at
I got to know not just my classmates and our PTJL educator, but also
itself. I saw congregants arrive for
evening services and committee meetings; Rabbi Perkins was a guest speaker one
evening; and before long I came to associate the place itself with a supportive
community interested in Jewish learning and practice. Temple Aliyah
What did I gain from my PTJL experience? I gained a sense of community with a group of people who are parents like me, and I found a synagogue in which I have since celebrated my own adult bat mitzvah, and where I look forward to celebrating when my children become b’nai mitzvah in the years to come.
Heidi Schwartz lives in
with her husband
and their three children. She took part in PTJL at Needham
in 2010. Temple Aliyah