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Yom Rivii, 29 Elul 5777

Reform Judaism Blog

On Chocolate and Children: High Holiday Reflections

Our daughter-in-law gave birth to a son, our first grandchild. A couple of months later, On the Chocolate Trail was published, my first book. Each whispers of mortality and immortality. At this High Holiday season of remembrance, I muse about this confluence of baby and book. I am not surprised by the feelings of awe related to the birth, but I have been amazed by what the book has meant.

The book idea found me serendipitously. At 55. On the Chocolate Trail was published seven years later. I had mooned over book possibilities – good ideas and not so, off and on. But there had been no time, much less energy in the years of marriage to a rabbi, of raising children, and of work as the senior rabbi in an active congregation. However, my self-diagnosed, mid-life radar for chocolate experiences, what I call my choco-dar, tantalized me with yet another idea at a life stage when I could harness time to research and write. In Paris, my adventuresome husband and I chanced into a chocolate store where I happened to pick up the company literature. Luckily, I could read it with what I had retained of my high school French. It boasted that Jews brought chocolate making to France.

Ooo, la, la.

I had never heard this fact during my years of Jewish education – Sunday school, Hebrew school, Jewish studies classes at college, rabbinical seminary – nor in all of my preparation for adult teaching in some 30 years of congregational work. That encounter launched us on the chocolate trail, two rabbis exploring chocolate’s travels through the world. I unpacked chocolate’s connections to religions, yielding tasty, historical findings such as these: North American Jewish colonial merchants traded chocolate, and chocolate outed Jews during the Inquisition in New Spain.

One of the oldest of comfort foods, chocolate supported Mayans, Aztecs, Jews, Catholics, and Quakers during personal and societal disruptions. Chocolate, and my investigations into it – and yes, eating it – nourished me as I transitioned through career and retirement identity shifts. My anguish of uncertainty about the next stage, what transition expert William Bridges calls the “neutral zone,” turned out to be, as he advised, abundant with creativity and risks. How do I develop these themes? Will anyone care? How will I know when the book is finished? Feeding word after word into my laptop was sometimes akin to a chocoholic stupor, yet also energizing as I measured the information, separated the chapters, stirred ideas, and molded phrases. Chocolate adventure and discovery expanded my palate metaphorically and literally.

Shaping On the Chocolate Trail mixed together ingredients from my earlier clergy life – learning, reading, traveling, writing, teaching, and religion. Molding a book proposal and a manuscript at a career threshold certainly melted my earlier skills into new purposes. What now feels like a life capstone venture, On the Chocolate Trail served up a sweet spot for audiences, regardless of members’ preferences: chocolate but not history, history but not travel, travel but not religion, or Jews and not food. (Is that last one even possible?) Or any of it. Really, what’s not to like?

Now I travel the world on the chocolate trail, sharing stories of the age-old passions for chocolate and religion with a growing sense of myself as the author of the first-ever book about chocolate and Jews. I giggle when someone introduces me as the world’s leading expert on chocolate and religion. I schedule my presentations, set my own timetable, and work at my personal pace. I carry my chocolate brown autographing pen with me everywhere. I blog. I post on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Others certainly helped shape On the Chocolate Trail with tips, clues, and edits. Yet the book is mine, my voice, and my material. And, it renewed me. It turns out that I am as resilient as chocolate’s history has been.

Sometimes people sidle up to me at an event and say, “Do you remember me? Do you remember me?” Perhaps I was the rabbi at his son’s naming; maybe I officiated at her granddaughter’s wedding; or, I was their confirmation teacher. I do remember. I enjoy meeting folks from the past. I realize that I too wish to be remembered.

As I reach for a piece of chocolate, I savor the harvest of this book of these later decades. I look forward to the chocolate trails yet to be discovered and to sharing them – and more – with my now four grandsons.

More importantly, as I consider the multiple legacies of being a rabbi, of authoring a book, of parenting, and of grandparenting, I hope, too, that surprise, risk-taking, and opportunity will also be sources for their generativity.

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Returning to the People – and the Parents – We Want to Be

We live on the third floor, and have a little balcony. When Yonatan, my oldest, was 4, he took to throwing things – toys, pillows, books – off the balcony. It really wasn’t OK, and he knew it. He also knew that if he threw toys, he wouldn’t see them again for a while, and that there was likely to be some other consequence, to boot. But a 4-year-old’s impulse control is not so hot and he was testing boundaries.

One morning, I asked him to share the toy he was holding with his little brother, so he ran halfway across the apartment to throw it off the balcony. It was a clear eff-you: If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. It was the last straw of a frustrating morning, and I shouted at him, really screamed, as I put him in a time out.

There are a lot of reasons I don’t want to raise my children in a home with yelling. I have a pretty firm commitment to raising them to feel loved, safe, and unafraid in their own home, and a screaming adult is terrifying to a small person. So, to have slipped in a way that’s human and understandable but still, well, really not great – it’s a terrible feeling. That was one morning (not the first, not the last) when I failed my son and I failed myself.

Every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis start talking about the work of the season, t’shuvah. T’shuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but it literally means “return.” It’s about coming back to where you need to be – emotionally, spiritually, ethically, interpersonally – and repairing any damage you’ve done in your relationships with others, and perhaps with God, when your actions strayed from your ideals. There are several steps to making t’shuvah. You have to acknowledge what you did wrong (whether or not it was intentional). You have to take actions to correct the mistake, if that’s possible. If it was an interpersonal hurt, you have to apologize to the wronged person – up to three times, if they refuse you at first. You have to make amends, if that’s possible. And you have to invest some time working out how things can be different next time. After all that, then you can work on making things square between you and the Divine.       

The classical literature on t’shuvah talks about cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul that happens as part of this process. That is, you should spend some uncomfortable time figuring out exactly how and when you failed to be the person you want to be. Essentially, you can’t return – make t’shuvah – until you have some real understanding about where you’ve gone; you can’t make amends until you’re clear about how you’ve messed up.

Lucky for us parents, we are offered ample opportunities to see our failings. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to how we are with our children for a couple of hours – a week max – and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? When are we pretending to be engaged but are checked out (or checking our phones)? When are we manipulative or deceitful with our kids, even with little things that ostensibly “don’t matter?” When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect about who we are and how we behave is necessarily comfortable or fun to see.

The good news is that if we can untangle the places where we’re stuck and broken as parents, it can impact our entire lives in a powerful way. Our relationships with our kids offer an easy-access on-ramp to all our laziness, pettiness, and unresolved stuff, if we’re willing to look.

The medieval sage Maimonides defines perfect t’shuvah as that moment when you come to a situation in which you had previously acted badly and, this time, do it right. The second (or fifth, or 20th) time around, when you finally behave concordantly with your values and ideals? That’s t’shuvah. But a person might reasonably ask: How could it be that you might be back in the exact same situation as the one in which you had previously screwed up? Who gets an instant replay like that?

The truth is, if you haven’t faced down your problematic traits and unhealed wounds, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in some variation of the same situation over and over. It’s only when you do the work necessary to become a different person that you, naturally and organically, make a different choice.

Fortunately, kids continue – over and over and over – to offer us the chance to try again, to do better. The intensity of these bonds is indeed an enclosed spiritual space in which to do the work we need to do. It’s tricky, sometimes, and inelegant, but if we choose to face who we are with intention and humility, there’s the possibility for us to grow into the people that our children so desperately need us to be.

For more about Jewish parenting, visit this page.

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Creating New Rituals and Tradition for the School Year and the New Year

The long, sweet days of summer are drawing to a close, and September is right around the corner. As a parent, an educator, and a Jew, September has always indicated two significant events; the start to a new school year, and the start to a new Jewish year, Rosh HaShanah.

For me, each of these new beginnings has always been met with a great deal of tradition and ritual.

I remember so clearly, as a child, going shopping for brand new school supplies, purchasing just the right folders, notebooks, pens, and pencils. I would carefully select a first-day outfit and barely sleep a wink the night before school began.

Similarly, Rosh HaShanah was filled with ritual – arranging colorful sliced apples next to a small bowl of honey, smelling the matzah ball soup simmering on the stove, and listening to the shofar at temple. Although these experiences are from my childhood, they have stuck with me through adulthood, and they remain part of my life today.

For young children, traditions and rituals are significant; they provide predictability, support, and familiarity, while bringing families together, creating unity, and a strong sense of belonging.

One tradition and ritual that is a critical part of Judaism is the Shehecheyanu prayer. It’s a prayer we recite to thank God for allowing us to reach this day, for enabling us to experience something new, and for sustaining us. On Erev Rosh HaShanah, along with many other times throughout the year, we recite this blessing as we thank God for bringing us to a new year and to this moment in time.

I believe this prayer also has significant value in our secular lives. I think about all of the big moments we each experience – the firsts, the new opportunities – and these, too, are Shehecheyanu moments.

When we stop, take a breath, and acknowledge these critical moments in time, we also have a great opportunity to reflect on time that’s gone by, and to look forward to the moments ahead. Many families have the tradition of taking a picture of their child on the first day of school. How lovely would it be to expand on this by looking back on the photos from years past – reflecting on each of those moments in time, being thankful for getting to this new school year, and dreaming about the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead?

In getting ready for the coming year, many parents help their children envision what the new school year might be like, including how the classroom may look. Will there be the same toys as last year’s classroom? What new books will be on the shelf to read? What kinds of engaging activities will he or she participate in?

Similarly, maybe this will be the Rosh HaShanah when your family creates a new tradition or ritual – writing cards to friends and family around the country, or even visiting your local farmers market to select fresh apples and homemade honey for your holiday table. Helping a child to make connections – to himself, to what he knows, and to the world around him – creates opportunities for clarity, meaning, and authenticity.

When we reach these incredible moments, and together create new rituals and traditions – these are the priceless and distinctive Shehecheyanu moments that are forever ingrained in us, and the lives of our families.

As you and your family welcome the start of a new school year and the start of a new Jewish year, I encourage you to think about and acknowledge the Shehecheyanu moments in both of these new beginnings. Each new moment we reach is precious and sacred, and this special time of year also invites us to reflect on the importance of time gone by and to be grateful for the gift of the time that is yet to come. I wish you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year. Shana tovah!

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After Charlottesville, 5 Jewish Ways to Help Kids Deal

The day after the acts of terror and hate in Charlottesville, my friend and colleague Sara posted the following on Facebook:

My son asked me when he went to camp to write to him via camp email about current events. I don't know what to do. What would you do? I can't support him when he reads what I write, and I don't think that his age group at camp will discuss this.

What followed was a heartbreaking discussion that revealed our shared struggle: How do we help our children understand this world? How do we both protect them and make sure that they are knowledgeable enough to take action when needed?

I find, of late, that this struggle not only applies to my parenting, but to me as well. How much time do I spend online Googling what’s happening in the world? When do I walk away from it? When do I do I take a Sunday afternoon to march, and when do I take a Sunday afternoon to watch a movie with my family?

Our tradition provides wisdom on how to handle these moments – both as parents and as individuals: Don’t be afraid to learn. Take large actions. Embrace small acts. Tell the stories to your children, and know when to let it go.

1. Don’t be afraid to learn.

One of the greatest mitzvot (actions that bring us closer to the Divine) of Judaism is learning. It is as much a part of our tradition as holiday celebrations and bagels with shmear.

Our tradition is unique in that throughout our sacred commentaries we have preserved both the majority decision and the minority position. Why? Because we have an obligation to learn and understand all views, even when they differ from our own.

Don’t be afraid to learn. Push yourself to read the full article. Read the perspectives that are different than your own. Fact check the stories. Watch the commentary to understand the nuances. Choose what your children are ready to hear. Embrace the learning, even when it is painful to do so.

2. Take large actions.

The rabbis tell the story that Abraham, as a small boy, went in to his father’s idol shop and smashed all of the idols to show that they were not gods at all, but just stone and pottery.

What do we learn from this? Sometimes you need to go big. Go on marches. Give generous donations. Volunteer your time. Show up for rallies and for when your voice is needed. Do the things that will not only make a difference, but help you know you are making a difference.

If you can and it feels comfortable, bring your children with you. Let them not only hear about the terrible things going on, but also feel a part of the people who are taking action.

3. Embrace small acts.

I have been pushing myself to smile and make eye contact with people who I wouldn’t normally. Sometimes it is awkward (I think one guy at the grocery store thought I was flirting), but in most cases, there has been appreciative nod.

In our Torah we find the words: You shall love the stranger as yourself. This isn’t an easy love. This is an audacious love – a love that pushes us out of our comfort zone. Change isn’t only made in large meeting rooms and rallies with thousands of people. Change is often made by one person reaching out to another in small, but important, acts of love.

4. Tell the stories to your children.

Each Passover, we fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children the story of our people. However, we often stop there and don’t tell the stories of justice we are still creating.

A friend of mine once pointed out that if you give tzedakah (charity) every month, but you never tell your children, then they will never know to do this act in their own lives. Teach your children. Tell them the stories of the actions you are taking. Point out the moments you make eye contact with a stranger. As they get older, tell them about the struggles of our people and of all people who struggle for justice in our world.

5. Know when to let it go.

Our tradition is very smart. Each week it gives us Shabbat, a break from our work and our regular worries. The lesson of Shabbat is even more profound than the day: Sometimes we need to step away and let it all go.

Find the moments that are holy for you – moments of Shabbat rest. Whether they are at dinner tables with challah and candles or in the sunshine at the park, honor those moments. Put down your phone. Let go of the worries. Let you and your family breath and remember the goodness in our world. Shabbat is not a gift to disengage from the world permanently. It is an opportunity to rest and recharge so we can enter the world again.

To delve deeper on this topic, check out Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism, written by Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, who is also a social worker. As she writes, “Together, we can take actions that restore a sense that there is indeed love, justice, protection, and order in our world.”

Join the Reform Jewish community's response to the hate and bigotry in Charlottesville. This week, #BeTheLightForJustice: Take a photo of yourself holding a candle of unity, then post it to Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag. Next, learn about action steps to take for direct responses to terror from the Union for Reform Judaism.

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How Our Son Put the Mitzvah in His Bar Mitzvah

The most memorable part of our son Liam’s bar mitzvah on December 31st, the seventh day of Hanukkah, was also the most meaningful. On Shabbat morning, he chanted from Parashat Mikeitz about Joseph creating a plan to distribute food in Egypt in a time of scarcity. That night, after Havdalah, friends and family joined Liam to pack 21,600 meals that would be sent to Honduran orphanages, schools, and clinics where nutritious food often is not available.

We spent two hours doing this mitzvah before our synagogue social hall was transformed from an assembly line into a festive New Year’s Eve party. The party was great, but many of the 200 guests, ages 3-80, said that packing the food was the highlight of the evening.

Our congregation has a family education program entitled “Putting God on the Guest List” after Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s book with that same title. Our colleague, Rabbi Esther Adler, guides families in conversations about the mitzvot (commandments) that emerge from their children’s Torah portions and ways to have those mitzvot come to life in the service or the celebration. When we talked with Liam about Parashat Miketz, the chapters of Joseph’s life in which he emerges from Pharaoh’s dungeon to becoming second in command in Egypt, we were quickly drawn to Joseph's masterful economic plan, and how it was linked directly to the basic need for food.

The mitzvah of ha’achalat re’evim, feeding the hungry, was one often discussed at home. During the last couple of years, Liam volunteered with a local food shelf in the summer, collecting vegetables from a farmer’s market so that people using the food shelf could have fresh food. With a little research, we found an organization that did mass food packing events and could assure us that the food would not be distributed by missionaries spreading their faith.

Rise Against Hunger was founded in 1998, originally as Stop Hunger Now, with the mission to “end hunger in our lifetime by providing food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable and creating a global commitment to mobilize the necessary resources.” Their Kansas City office sent Baylee DeLaurier, their community engagement manager, to coordinate the event at our synagogue, Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.

Rise Against Hunger was able to do this event only with a commitment to pack a minimum number of meals and to raise funds (29 cents per meal) to cover the costs. To reach this goal, Liam asked for donations in lieu of gifts. He raised $9,800 from friends, family, and congregants. He felt great about what he was able to do, but, like any bar mitzvah, he didn’t mind receiving some gifts from his family and closest friends.

When Baylee arrived Saturday evening, we gathered in the sanctuary to watch a couple of videos about the organization, and Liam explained to the group why he chose to do this mitzvah. Then, as we went to the social hall, Baylee engaged everyone to set up assembly lines for packing the meals of enriched rice, soy protein, dried vegetables, and 23 essential vitamins and nutrients. There were separate tables for weighing and sealing the plastic bags and others for packing the boxes. Our guests were happy, the energy so alive, as everyone filled, measured, packed, and ran back and forth with supplies. The DJ was so moved by the scene that he started the music early, playing Liam’s favorite music from Hamilton and throwing in a few Hanukkah songs for good measure. In the meantime, every time the group finished packing a couple thousand meals, Baylee rang a gong, and everyone cheered.

It is not always easy to match values and mitzvot with concrete actions that large groups can do together, and we are fortunate that Liam’s project was so successful in this and so many other ways. Nonetheless, there are many ways to find the mitzvah in bar and bat mitzvah and when kids lead us in doing mitzvot, the result is unforgettable – and we truly feel the meaning of becoming b’nai mitzvah.

Cantor Rachel and Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker are members of the clergy team at Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.

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My Big, Gay, Jewish Family

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

Opposition to gay adoption?! My stomach dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Generation to Generation: Keeping Camp in the Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Jewish Youth Group Friend Allowed Me to Become a Parent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I remembered my conversation from 10 years earlier.

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

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

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

Photo: Anne Marie Comte

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Pride Helped My Husband and Me Celebrate Being Jewish and Gay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For All Our Dads on Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 7 Best Jewish Moms on TV (and Streaming)

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

Beverly Goldberg, The Goldbergs

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

Naomi Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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

Frankie Bergstein, Grace and Frankie

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

Bobbi Wexler, Broad City

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

Maura and Shelly Pfefferman, Transparent

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

Marilyn Kessler, Difficult People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Offer to experience this with them.

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

3. Reinforce their decision not to watch the show.

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

4. Recognize that the show is complicated.

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

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

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

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The Terrific Jewish Life We Found in Rural Alabama

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

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

I am one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories We Tell: Tune Into Your New Favorite Jewish Podcast

There are few things I remember as well as the stories told to me by so many rabbis, cantors, educators, and teachers throughout my life. These stories about kings and queens, princes and princesses, merchants and buyers, angels and demons, young children and the very, very old – each of them characters with a purpose and a message – seemed like they were meant just for me.

But it turns out they weren’t just for me. These stories were always told with one goal in mind: to make those who were listening learn something new about their lives, and sometimes about their Jewish lives.

The stories were told everywhere, from the most formal settings to the most informal. They were told from bimot (pulpit) in synagogues and while sitting around the campfire during youth group retreats; they were the anchor of Shabbat song sessions at Jewish summer camp. They were dependent only on what lesson needed to be shared, and sometimes it was as though the stories themselves called out to be told, just as much as their storytellers felt they needed to be heard.

They were stories from our tradition, some Chassidic tales passed down through generations, others contemporary and secular in nature but with a twist that made them Jewish. The power of each of them was that they did what a good story should: They carried us into different worlds but simultaneously demanded that we encounter our own in a slightly different way.

This deep and rich tradition of storytelling – of passing down stories from one generation to the next – is a beautiful part of Judaism. To carry on this tradition, we at ReformJudaism.org are excited to launch Stories We Tell, a podcast that will share a new story every Thursday. Whether you listen while driving to work, preparing Shabbat dinner, or taking your kids to school, each episode will give you a new story to reflect upon and to discuss with the people in your life.

Each one, we hope, will transport you to that place where you are a king or a queen, a merchant or a buyer – perhaps a young child or someone who is very, very old. And each one will offer you the chance to think about the choices you make and how you make them.

I don’t remember when I went from just being a story-listener to a storyteller, but somewhere along the way, I realized that teaching through telling is one of the best ways to start a conversation. Today, my friends and family often give me a hard time because it is almost impossible for me to talk with someone, be it a new acquaintance or an old friend, without telling a story of some sort. I always laugh at their comments, but I know that, really, I tell those stories because I know they will be remembered. The rabbis, cantors, and teachers who told them to me taught me other lessons, and likely even taught me information they would have deemed more important to remember, but in the end, it was the stories that stuck. And it is the stories that changed the way I looked at the world.

Perhaps Stories We Tell will do the same for you, and perhaps you will become a storyteller, too. And, then someday, you will want to tell a story to someone who needs to learn something new, or the story itself will beg to be told – and you will have one ready to tell.

Listen to Stories We Tell on ReformJudaism.org/podcasts, or download it on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. Looking for more Jewish audio content? Check out ReformJudaism.org’s other podcasts, On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah and Unplugged with Alan Goodis.

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5 Ways to Keep Kids Occupied (and Maintain Your Sanity) Before the Seder

That Passover coincides with my sons’ school break is not a coincidence; the break also encompasses Easter, and, of course, teachers and families want the time off for observances. But during those unstructured days, the struggle can feel a bit like crossing the desert – particularly for parents with young children as they try to keep everyone occupied during holiday prep.

While I don’t normally host seder because our apartment won’t fit everyone, this year we will travel to Grandma’s house in Florida, and I know that if I don’t have a few tricks up my sleeve, my boys will be glued to a screen 24/7. If you’re in the same position, here are a few tips for keeping kids busy.

1. Help them understand the holiday (and use the iPad).

This is a “twofer” in our home: Kids get the screentime they love, but they get a Jewish education in the process - and have fun doing it. There are several pluralistic, educational videos about the holiday that everyone can enjoy, including my favorites, the Shaboom! and Shalom Sesame series, both available online. Pro tip: Use the discussion guides to make the lessons in the videos go even further.

2. Put them to work doing some cleaning.

This isn’t a trick – and if done right, it can even be a Jewish lesson. Hand children a broom or vacuum and teach them about the Passover tradition of searching for chametz (leavened bread products) before the holiday begins.

3. Involve kids in seder food preparation.

This seems obvious, but depending upon your kids’ personalities, their attention spans may not last through the first step of a recipe – so keep it simple! If you have a big bowl or food processor, use one of many charoset recipes for an easy, dump-it-all-in recipe that even small kids can manage.

Macaroons couldn’t be easier, and kids can do this almost entirely on their own: Combine one package coconut flakes, 1 can condensed milk, 2 tsp vanilla extract, 1 tsp almond extract. Shape macaroons with a spoon or scooper, then bake in oven for 10-15 minutes. Up the ante by mixing in chocolate chips or drizzling melted chocolate over the top.

Speaking of chocolate, you can also put kids to work making chocolate-covered matzah. Melt any color chocolate, drizzle over the top of the matzah, add sprinkles of any shape or color… Need I say more? It’s like an edible art project!

4. Let kids help with the seder table setup.

Kids of all ages can help by creating items to use at your seder:

  • Set them up to make matzah holders, matzah covers, placemats (draw scenes from the story or pick a plague), or even place cards for the seder table (write ‘em on good, old-fashioned paper or get creative with matzah and icing).
  • Ask kids to draw a seder plate, create one out of modeling clay or Play-Doh, or even assemble the plate itself.
  • Ask the Lego fans in your home to create any or all the scenes from the Passover story and use them as centerpieces.
  • Using scraps from pre-seder cooking, let kids use the matzah as a canvas and create scenes from the story. Display them… then eat them!

5. Ask older kids to create a playlist for the evening

Spotify, Jewish Rock Radio, iTunes, and other popular services offer up Jewish music, Israeli artists and holiday tunes. Looking for tunes for the seder itself? Here’s a pre-made list of songs for you to brush up on those tunes.

Naturally, Passover is a great time for lots of meaningful conversations about freedom, welcoming the stranger, oppression, and lots of other big topics. I know the time for these conversations will come sooner than I want them to – but while my boys are still young, I’ll look forward to the messy macaroons and handmade placemats. Those are memories I’ll always treasure.

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9 Easy Seder Activities You Haven't Thought of Yet

Passover offers us the chance to learn in multiple ways and to think about some of the most important Jewish values. The ideas of moving from slavery to freedom, of welcoming the stranger because we were once strangers ourselves, and of thinking about how to pass on the story of our past to new generations – all are inherent in the celebration of the festival.

But how to pass on these ideas is almost as important as the messages themselves. Fortunately, our Talmudic rabbis gave us a roadmap for how to best do that.

One of the most important elements these rabbis included in the Passover seder is the asking of the Four Questions. The questions themselves are important, but we are also instructed specifically as to who should do the asking. The youngest person takes on the responsibility, not only to learn a sweet tune but also to remind our seder guests what freedom is all about. By encouraging our children to ask questions, we teach them – and ourselves at the same time – that the difference between being a slave and being free is rooted in the ability to ask “why.”

This is the message that should permeate our seders: connecting, conversing, and asking all kinds of questions. Here are a few ways to try this out at your own seder:

  1. Set up an hourglass timer at one end of your seder table. Don't let more than five minutes pass without someone asking a question.
  2. Have each person sign his or her hagaddah. Each year, you can look back and see who has joined you in the past, offering an opportunity to recall funny stories and memories of past guests who can no longer be at your table. (If you’re not comfortable writing during the seder, ask people to sign them before the holiday festivities begin.)
  3. Make a haggadah with your family. Assign everyone a page or section before the seder; adults and teenagers can be responsible for the text and children for the drawings. Then, collect and collate each section and make enough copies for all your participants.
  4. Bring in props. Buy them online or at your local Judaica store, or make your own with your family before the seder. Be creative, and remember: Props don't necessarily have to just be the plagues. Turn your whole house into a Jewish/Egyptian home!
  5. Personalize your seder experience. Assign everyone a section of the haggadah to study before they arrive, and ask participants to bring readings or questions to the group – either factual or spiritual in nature – depending on which section of the haggadah they were assigned.
  6. Think about incorporating new traditions. Plenty of new seder ideas have cropped up over the last few years, like these modern additions to the seder plate. Regardless of whether or not you decide to incorporate them, learning about them can open the door for questions and conversation.
  7. Enliven your seder experience with musical instruments. Encourage people to bring rhythm instruments such as tambourines or egg shakers. Communicate in ways other than through speech!
  8. Have more than one version of the haggadah at your seder. While most haggadot have the same essential elements, they may phrase sections differently, have specific themes, or include additional discussion questions. Looking at the differences can help bring out more questions. As the seder leader, encourage people to explain what strikes them about the differences.
  9. Make Passover “question cookies” for dessert. Create them by tying together two pieces of chocolate-covered matzah with a colorful ribbon. In between the matzah, include a note – a silly joke, a Jewish fact, or a wish for the coming year. Pass them out to your participants, and don't forget to have everyone read theirs aloud!

The Four Questions are a lesson for our families and children that questioning and connecting are at the heart of freedom. How will you incorporate them into your Passover observance? Comment below and let us know.

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My Daughter's Growing Pains Hurt Me, Too

In the first biblical story, God creates the vast universe according to a specific pattern and order. On the first divine-sized day, God separates day from night and light from darkness. Then, God evaluates the handiwork proclaiming it “good.” On the second day, God separates the lower and higher waters to divide the seas from the heavens. On this day of creation, God neglects to declare it “good.” On the third day, though, after creating all the lovely and colorful flowers, fruits, and trees, God twice declares the work to be “good.”

It’s no surprise that ancient rabbis had an intellectual field day with God’s inconsistent use of the phrase “it was good” among the days of creation.

Rabbi Hanina, a 4th-century Talmudic sage, opined that God could not possibly declare the second day of creation “good” because on that day, dissension first reared its head when those waters were yanked apart. Centuries later, another generation of rabbis picked up the conversation. Known as Kabbalists, they asked why there was no dissension on the first day, when God separated light from darkness. Answering their own question, they noted that light and darkness are so distinct from one another that their untangling was a gentle and straightforward process, unlike the one needed to distinguish the lower and upper waters. Although nearly identical in nature, these waters also were separate entities, and the act of pulling them apart caused such pain and fighting that the lower waters cried. 

Indeed, from the moment our children are born, they begin to separate from us and establish their own identities. The process can be excruciatingly painful. When I nursed my babies, my body remained tethered to them. Hearing their cries triggered a complex hormonal response that flooded my ducts with milk. Even while working away from home, I could almost sense their hunger at various times, leading me to pump my milk to avoid becoming painfully engorged. Only after weaning my third child, did I feel that my last stage of pregnancy finally was complete.

Now, my 16-year-old daughter and I are experiencing another kind of weaning. She craves independence and she pushes me away. Adding to my pain, she has instituted a “gag order.” There are to be no discussions with anyone about her or any facet of her life. Long ago, I gave up posting about her on Facebook; now “Abby stories” are completely verboten.

The boundary between my daughter’s stories and mine, though, has always been a little blurry. Doesn’t our 32-hour labor story belong to both of us? And what about her gentle soul, the one we saw each time she watched, sobbing, as Mary Poppins flew off with the West Wind. Hadn’t I had a part in creating such a sensitive soul? As my child, wasn’t Abby’s story my story, too?

Descended from a story-telling dynasty, I spent my childhood hearing stories about my family’s past. My mom told us so many stories from her own childhood about walking in the snow in Cincinnati that I was sure southern Ohio was right next door to Alaska. On my dad’s side, I especially loved the stories of my ancestors as horse thieves along Romania’s moonless winding paths. With each telling and retelling, however, my mom reminded us that his family had been tailors in those Carpathian Mountains. Nonetheless, the stories of horse thievery lived on.

In time, I passed down tales from my own childhood and my children’s experiences, as well. But now, I am banned from sharing my daughter’s stories, forcing me to acknowledge that she and I are not the same. Like the upper water and the lower water, we comprise the same water and cells, but we are separate entities and, like the biblical waters, we must pull apart.

As when she was born, once again, she is pulling away from me. This time, there is no epidural to shield me from the pain. She is flying away with the West Wind, but now I am the one left sobbing. The old rabbis whisper reassuringly to me. They understand how much I ache from this separation. They understand, too, that this is the path toward new growth for my daughter – and maybe for me, too. Perhaps they understand most of all that when she bursts forth into the next phase of her life, it is I who will utter, “It is good. It is good.”

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It's My Responsibility to Tell My Family's Story of Survival

The plane landed in Tel Aviv with a thud, olive trees and soldiers lining the runway. With the 14-hour journey complete, I contemplated why we’d come to Israel in the first place: The body of my grandmother, who’d just passed away, traveled with us in the belly of the plane, ready to be transported to her final resting site in Jerusalem.

Inside the terminal, we were greeted by relatives I’d never met. My grandparents wanted to be buried in Israel rather than in random plots in New Jersey, where they’d lived their final years, because they wanted us to meet our relatives, descendants of aunts and uncles who had survived the Holocaust. It was a sad but special reunion.

At my grandmother’s gravesite atop a mountainside outside of Jerusalem, we exchanged prayers, stories, and tears, and we took turns shoveling dirt over the grave. My grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, often said that having children and grandchildren was the greatest revenge against Hitler, and hearing their stories taught me just how precious it was for me to be alive. They managed to survive, and it’s my obligation to tell their story.

My grandma, Ilse, was born in Germany, where she had a happy childhood and met the love her life, Max, at age 17. When World War II struck, my grandparents hid in Holland with a family of righteous gentiles, Nick and Aag Schouten. My grandmother, who dyed her hair red and wore a cross, used false papers to change her name to Tina Smith and pretended to be a German maid. Considered a hero in the Dutch Underground, she found places for Jewish people to hide and helped smuggle food and medical supplies.

My grandfather, Max, couldn’t pass with false papers. Instead, he hid in between the ceiling and attic, covering himself in soot from the fireplace to mask his scent when Nazi dogs came around trying to sniff out hidden Jews.

One day, a Nazi soldier came to the house and asked if there were any Jews around. My grandmother ran around the house throwing open every door, shouting, “There are no Jews here!” When the solider finished his inspection, he stuck out his hand, expecting “Tina Smith” to shake it, but she withdrew in horror – after all, these were the Nazis who had murdered her parents. My grandfather, listening from his hiding place, thought it was all over – but my grandmother recovered quickly, apologizing for her modest behavior and claiming she’d grown up in a nunnery. The soldier smiled, saluted Hitler, and left the house. It was just one of many narrow escapes.

It seems that my grandparents, who were together for 75 years, couldn’t part from one other: Just eight days after we arrived in Israel, we learned that Grandpa Max had passed away, too. After his funeral, we created a gravestone that connected their plots, inscribed with a quote from Isaiah 43:2: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”

While visiting Jerusalem, I realized just how important Israel was to my grandparents. This place was free from the hatred and reign of the Nazis, becoming a safe haven for Jews after the war. When other countries turned their backs, Israel accepted them – and as I explored the country, it began to mean something more to me, too.

This wasn't the violent, chaotic Israel I saw on the news at home; this was the City of Peace. All around us in the Old City of Jerusalem, still important to three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), people spoke in their native tongues. In the shuk (marketplace), I took in the smells, sounds, and sights of different cultures, evidence of many faiths cooperating in such a small space. They have to share their holy sites and live in peace and harmony! Where was this tolerance during the Holocaust?

My grandparents have been gone for three years, but their memory lives on. To honor them and all those who died in the Holocaust, my family has served as docents for Anne Frank exhibits. As part of my bat mitzvah project, I educated children about tolerance, both yesterday and today, telling the story of the Frank family and the heroic efforts of those who tried to save them.

Hitler rose to power in part by blaming Germany’s problems on the Jews. The people rallied behind him, and he was elected by a majority. Could it happen again? We see the same seeds of hatred resurfacing today, if in a subtler way.

But we can learn from the Holocaust, confronting hateful and bigoted ideas before they get out of hand. Judaism teaches us to do acts of tikkun olam, repair of our world, and with that comes remembering the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust. It’s our responsibility to make sure today’s world is a safe place for everyone – all religions, ethnicities, and genders.

Anne Frank once said, “I don't think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains.” Our ancestors faced injustice, just as we face it today – but it’s never too late to improve our understanding of the past and work to brighten the future.

Sydney Rothschild is a ninth grade student and an all-season athlete who plays trumpet in the marching band. She takes part in many teen community service opportunities at Temple Sinai of Roslyn in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., and in her community.

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11 Things to Know About a M'gillah Reading

Purim, a Jewish holiday in late winter, celebrates Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai and how they saved the Jews of Persia from an extermination plot by Haman, the king’s vizier. Central to the observance is a public reading – usually in the synagogue – of the Book of Esther (M’gillat Esther, the M’gillah), which tells the story of the holiday.

You’ve never been to a M’gillah reading? Be forewarned; it’s not the High Holidays.

Before you set off for the synagogue, here are 11 things to know about the once-a-year antics you’re about to see and hear.

  1. Typically, the M’gillah reading is a rowdy affair, punctuated by noisy booing and hissing when Haman's (Boo!!! Hisssssssss!!!) name is read aloud, and thunderous cheers (Yay!!!  Whoo-hoo!!) when Mordechai and Esther’s names are recited. (As a side note, in some communities, there is an ongoing debate around booing Haman because, although he certainly was an enemy of the Jews, encouraging kids to boo someone is not necessarily a lesson we want to teach them.)
  2. Purim celebrations are intended to be fun, irreverent, and so raucous that eventually revelers cannot easily distinguish between “Haman” and “Mordecai” when they are read aloud.
  3. Children (and some adults, including the rabbi and the cantor) will dress in costume for the occasion. Queen Esther, Mordechai, and Haman are popular costume choices, but don’t be surprised if you see Batman, Wonder Woman, Bob the Minion, or Minnie Mouse in the crowd, too. In fact, on Purim, don’t be surprised by anything you see or hear!
  4. The Book of Esther customarily is read as part of a Purim worship service and it is a mitzvah (commandment) to hear all 10 chapters in their entirety. In some communities, however, only a portion of each chapter is read during the service, usually so it stays within a 60- to 90-minute timeframe.
  5. Other communities offer an adults-only M’gillah reading, intentionally drawing attention to the bawdy aspects of the M’gillah story generally “overlooked” in family-friendly celebrations. At such events, some imbibing may hasten participants confusing Haman and Mordechai.
  6. With only 10 chapters, the Scroll of Esther is much shorter in length than a Torah scroll. Therefore, unlike a Torah, it is rolled on just one roller.
  7. The M’gillah reading offers an outstanding experiential learning opportunity because the congregation not only listens to the words, but also actively engages with the story – an integral part of the celebration.
  8. Amidst all the merriment, the story contains a serious message we need to communicate to children and adults: It’s important that each of us stands up for ourselves and that we take our Judaism seriously – individually and as a community.
  9. M’gillat Esther also offers a teaching moment about our responsibility to care for everyone in our community. To do so, we send gifts to the poor (mattanot le-evyonim), ensuring they enjoy a festive Purim meal. We also send baskets of goodies (mishloach manot) to friends and family to enjoy on Purim.
  10. Don’t forget to bring a noisemaker or grogger with you so you can do your part to drown out the name of Haman when it is read. In some communities, it’s customary to use boxes of macaroni or pasta as noisemakers and then donate them to a food bank, as a demonstration of mattanot le-evyonim.
  11. After the service and M’gillah reading, make sure you get some hamantaschen, the three-cornered fruit- or poppy-filled cookies that are a traditional nosh on Purim. There are various explanations surrounding the cookie’s history and distinctive shape, but all you really need to do is enjoy them!

Happy Purim! Chag Purim Sameach!

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